“Maybe the wife should be there for the act. It would be less of a violation.”— Commander Pryce suggests "intramarital" intercourse to adhere to interdiction of adultery.
The Ceremony is a highly ritualized sexual act that high-ranking men (such as Commanders or Angels), their Wives and Handmaids undergo to conceive children. Given that Handmaids have little to no choice in taking part, it is a form of ritualized rape.
Prior to the Ceremony, the Handmaid is required to bathe; Offred derisively describes this as being "washed and brushed like a prize pig." Afterwards, the household gathers together for a reading of the Bible and prayer, led by the patriarch of the house. During the Ceremony itself, everyone remains mostly clothed. It is designed to be as clinical and non-sensual as possible, as the purpose of the Ceremony is not sexual pleasure or intimacy, but the conceiving of children. The Wife and Handmaid must lie on their backs on the edge of a bed, with the Handmaid lying between the Wife's legs, her head against her abdomen, and her arms raised above her head to hold hands with the Wife whilst the man involved has intercourse with the Handmaid. This is to symbolize that they are "of one flesh" and alluding to the Bibical story of Rachel, Jacob and their handmaid Billah, who bore children for the barren Rachel "upon [Rachel's] knees". The man is not permitted to touch the Handmaid in any other way; Offred mentions that when Commander Fred tries to touch her face, it is considered improper.
My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for.
Afterwards, the Handmaid is meant to rest on the bed, with her feet propped up on a pillow to "increase the chances" of conceiving, whilst the Wife uses it as a time to reflect and pray in silence (although in the novel, as soon as the Commander has left, the humiliated and frustrated Serena Joy instead orders Offred to "Get up and get out"). The Ceremony is intended to be the only time that the man of the household may have sexual contact with a Handmaid, although some men, such as Commander Waterford, break this rule. The Ceremony is also the only sexual contact Handmaids are permitted as well; sexual relations at any other time, or with anyone other than the man they are assigned to, is considered 'fornication' and is sinful.
- It is unknown if lower-ranking men and their wives are also required to observe sexual relations as strictly or have some kind of ritual they must adhere to.
- It is unclear how the correct method of the Ceremony is enforced, as the only participants are the patriarch of the household, his Wife and their Handmaid. Therefore, it stands to reason that, should they be so inclined, they could potentially flout the regulations imposed by the Ceremony without anyone's knowledge, though, like many practices in the Republic of Gilead, it is possible that fear of God and damnation serves to ensure self-policing in regards to the Ceremony.