Around the world, about 50 million couples get married every year. More than 3/4 of those wedding couples contain at least one virgin; at least half of them have two.

I saw one of those couples today in therapy. Ms. A and Mr. B have been married twenty years; when they wed she was a virgin, he had had some listless intercourse a few times with someone else. Their wedding night was an unconsummated mess, resulting in tears and confusion. Several days later, on their honeymoon, they tried again—“and we failed again,” Mr. B recalled. Her vagina didn’t get wet enough, he couldn’t get his penis in, and eventually he lost his erection. They each took turns blaming themselves; the next morning they took turns blaming each other.

For years, sex was an infrequent, discouraging hassle. Now they can’t remember the last time they were sexual together.

In session, they revealed a variety of reasons besides the wedding night disaster. Years ago she refused to let his sister stay in their home during semester break; he was distant and cold during her subsequent miscarriage; she was bitter rather than supportive when he was laid off from his job; eventually, his new job required travelling to Hong Kong, and he started to get erotic massages there. When she found out she was crushed, and brought them to my office.

But no matter what we talked about, it seemed we periodically returned to their unhappy wedding night. “I didn’t know what to do,” Ms. A recalled. “I expected him to lead, to guide, to explain. When he couldn’t, I felt abandoned.” “Yes, replied Mr. B, “all the pressure was on me, and when things went wrong, you made it clear it was my problem to figure out. And I couldn’t.” Neither of them has forgiven the other. I don’t think they’ve forgiven themselves, either.

It’s too easy to say they got off to a bad start and never recovered, although it’s true. Their character styles and life goals didn't match very well, and their sexual visions were mismatched, too. She imagined a gentle, kind, knowledgeable but wholesome man; he imagined a sexy, enthusiastic, curious but wholesome woman. What their bedroom needed was an extra pair of gentle hands—and wise eyes, a confident smile, and an extra heart—but of course that could never happen.

I won’t say their marriage was doomed by virginity or sexual inexperience. But it certainly wasn’t helped. Her virginity provided no reassurance for him, no spiritual haven for her. His inexperience made the wedding night nerveracking rather than “special.”

People do NOT need to be sexually experienced before marriage to enjoy sex after it. But “love” and “commitment” generally aren’t enough to ensure a happily-ever-after. People who don’t have intercourse need sex education as much as those who do. Everyone needs words for their body parts; information to combat common myths (masturbation is dangerous, men don’t like to hug, etc.); good decision-making skills; and a sense of empowerment about their sexuality.

When people have good information, feel comfortable with their bodies, can communicate with a partner, and believe that sex is lovely, their virginity is not an obstacle on the wedding night. But too often virgin-until-marriage also means enforced ignorance, unfamiliarity with the other gender, discomfort with one’s body, and a pile of taboos so high that people can barely see each other in bed.

I feel bad for Ms. A and Mr. B, who didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, they followed all the social rules with which they were raised—and paid the common price.

To change this centuries-old problem I propose that all cultures which emphasize pre-marital virginity redefine the wedding night---as the start of a couple’s sexual life together. That means the first night should primarily involve looking; the second, talking; the third, touching; the fourth, kissing; etc.. If it took God a week to create the world out of nothing, couples need at least that much time to create a sexual connection out of ignorance and inexperience.

You’ll also remember that God said “Let there be light.” So to enable couples to see each other’s naked bodies on the wedding night, let’s start a new tradition. How about making it the maternal aunt’s honor to give the new couple a new bedroom lamp?

About the Author

Marty Klein, PhD

Marty Klein, Ph.D., is a certified sex therapist and a licensed psychotherapist. He has written five books and 200 articles about sex. His TV appearances include 20/20 and Nightline.

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