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The Truth About ‘Lesbian Bed Death': It’s Complicated

two women embracing

In 1982, sociologists Pepper Schwartz and Philip Blumstein published American Couples: Money, Work, Sex, the first major study of its kind to compare gay male, lesbian, and heterosexual couples on basic issues such as sex, communication, and money. Among many other findings, their research showed that lesbian couples had less frequent sex than anyone else. And thus was born the trope of “lesbian bed death.” A majority of comparative studies in the past 30 years have replicated these results, although a few have found no differences between lesbian and heterosexual couples.

Over the decades, though, those of us who first publicized the American Couples findings have come to doubt them. More specifically, we have questioned whether “sexual frequency” is the most valuable measure of the sexual health of a relationship, whether our views and definitions of sex may be inherently heterocentric, even phallocentric. However, until recently we had nothing but our theories—and the incontrovertible data showing that female couples have less sex. The stereotype of “lesbian sex” became … cuddling, even the stereotypes that lesbians have of themselves. Never mind that the frontiers of BDSM, polyamory, and erotic gender bending were explored by lesbian and bisexual women long before most heterosexual women had a clue. Let’s forget the gay and bisexual female sex radicals, from Virginia Masters to Betty Dodson to Tristan Taormino. Lesbian sex, when not thought of as entertainment for men, has come to be seen as tepid and a little bit boring.

But now, finally, someone has done the research that explores the questions raised by feminist sexologists. At the annual conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex (SSSS), which I attended for the first time in many years, I discovered that an abundance of the smartest young researchers in sexology are women, many of them queer women. One of them, Dr. Karen Blair, presented research that tested several measures of “sexual well-being,” not just frequency. She compared more than 800 men and women in relationships, about equal numbers of lesbians, gay men, heterosexual men, and heterosexual women, and asked questions about sexual frequency, duration of each sexual encounter, types of sexual acts, and orgasms.

Sure enough, as measured by frequency lesbians fell behind the others. Only about 15% of the lesbians had sex more than twice a week, compared to 50% or more of the others, and about 40% said there were weeks when they had no sex at all, compared to less than 20% of the rest of the sample. But if you looked at how long each sexual encounter lasted, women in same-sex relationships were champs. Gay men and especially male and female heterosexuals reported typical sexual encounters of a half hour or less, often much less. Lesbians, on the other hand, described sexual sessions lasting upward of 30 minutes, and nearly 10% reported encounters of two hours or more. This is our first hint that the measure of “sexual frequency” is inadequate. Perhaps lesbians have lower frequency because if each sexual encounter involves extended periods of sensual and sexual activity, it is harder to find time for sex. And if sex is that intense, maybe you don’t need or desire it as frequently. Maybe some of the other needs that genital sex fills—such as the need for intimacy and closeness—CAN be fulfilled by cuddling.

Blair’s other results are also food for thought. Not surprisingly, the most frequent sexual activity engaged in by heterosexual men and women was penile-vaginal intercourse, with the most common among gay men and lesbians being giving and receiving oral sex. More surprising was the finding that heterosexual women were most likely to say they did not always have an orgasm during partner sex—and lesbians, of all four groups, most frequently reported not only orgasms but multiple orgasms most frequently. Perhaps lesbians have sex less frequently because—due to those extended sessions and an abundance of oral sex—they tend to not only climax, but climax repeatedly on a regular basis. Looked at from this perspective, the “lesbian bed death” trope is clearly inappropriate and grossly misleading.

All participants in Blair’s study reported similar levels of sexual satisfaction, regardless of their orientation, and other comparison studies have shown a similar result. This is an interesting finding, considering that heterosexual women report fewer orgasms than lesbians, and that a common complaint of heterosexual women is that their partners do not spend enough time on foreplay. Do heterosexual women trade consistent orgasm for frequency? Do they care? The neuroscientist Sari van Anders, who rocked a plenary at SSSS with her research on hormones and neurotransmitters, provided a clue to the last question. Van Anders included both lesbians and heterosexual women in her research on the relationship of hormones to sexual behavior, and she found that heterosexual women did not expect orgasm during sex, while lesbians took having an orgasm in partnered sex for granted. Perhaps our expectations are shaped by our experiences, and “satisfaction” may have more to do with what we think is realistic than what is ideal.

So what does this mean about “lesbian bed death”? Sexual frequency declines in all long-term relationships, just a bit more drastically for women with women. Is frequency the only measure we should be looking at? Blair’s research suggests not. For lesbians, it seems just as satisfying to have fewer sexual encounters, to spend more time on each one, and to know that both partners will have at least one orgasm when they do choose to have sex. For many women, exchanging quantity for quality may seem an exchange worth making. What’s so bad about that?

To go a little deeper, if we throw out ‘frequency’ as the sole or even most important measure of sexual health, we see differences in sexual style that vary by sexual orientation but also by gender, and contrasting these dimensions gives us new insights. Lesbian sexuality could be thought of as what women do when they construct sexual scripts without male influence, while the sexual styles of women who have sex with men reflect how sex is constructed when there is a need to balance both male and female sexual styles. Lesbians construct sex as less frequent but more prolonged, intense, and orgasmic. Heterosexual women are content with fewer orgasms and more frequent genital encounters. Many heterosexual women dream of what in heterosexual terms is called “foreplay” but for lesbians is a routine part of sex—a lot of touching and oral genital contact. Do lesbians dream of quickies and sexual encounters where you go straight for the crotch?

There is tremendous variety, of course, in women’s sexual preferences, and the stereotypes I’ve created based on Blair’s study are grossly reductionistic. But there is something to be looked at here, something involving gender, the purposes served by genital sexual contact, clues that will help us learn more about human sexuality in gender.

But we will only learn it when we stop using terms such as “lesbian bed death” and start to look at all sexual styles as equal but different, instead of privileging certain types of sex over others. Sex is not a competition; it’s a rich and diverse activity whose mystery we have only begun to comprehend.

© Copyright 2013 by www.GoodTherapy.org Sherman Oaks Bureau - All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Gloria December 10th, 2013 at 3:29 PM #1

    So maybe this isn’t as important to lesbian couples as it is to others? Who cares? If someone is happy and content in their relationship do I really care how much they have sex? And do they care how much I do?

  • rudi December 11th, 2013 at 3:43 AM #2

    I have thought a lot about this, and mainly because I am friends with several lesbian couples. What I mostly see among this group of friends is a level of comfort that does not exist among my heterosexual friends. But I think that for many of them this comfort does start to translate into the relationship becoming less sexual than it may have once been… but that doesn’t mean that the women are not happy with this. I don’t know if they are or not. But the long and short is that we don’t know what makes anyone’s relationship tick, and what goes on behind closed doors is for the couple to determine, not us. If this makes them happy, then it does and I applaud anyone staying together these days and defying the odds.

  • Andrew c December 12th, 2013 at 3:41 AM #3

    Guess that kind of shoots down what straight men have always thought about lesbians!!

  • paul December 13th, 2013 at 3:47 AM #4

    Is this really only something that happens in women/women relationships? No. Anytime a couple becomes comfortable with each other I think that it is natural that sex dies away a little bit. Right?

  • margaret nichol, ph.d. December 13th, 2013 at 9:12 AM #5

    Paul – yes, this is something that happens in all couples, but the data has pretty consistently shown that frequency declines more for lesbian couples. But as others have commented – if they don’t care, why should we?

  • Meg December 14th, 2013 at 6:14 AM #6

    I have to wonder who is doing the reserach, men or women, and if it is men then are they making a bigger deal out of this than the couples actually are? I don’t know, I just know that there are times when I want to have sex with my husband not because I want anything in return but just because I could be missing that feeling of intimacy that having sex brings us. It isn’t always about the end result, it is that closeness that having sex with each other brings and I think that couples miss out on a whole lot when they choose not to make that part of their relationship a priority.

  • Erika Bischoff January 28th, 2014 at 6:10 AM #7

    Maybe sex isnt that much of an issue to a lesbian couple as it is to a heterosexual. Sex is about being close to one person so how many times you have sex a week really shouldn’ be an issue.

  • Anon May 10th, 2014 at 6:11 PM #8

    Why is this so heavily deffended. It might be a real issue. While some may think intimacy is the only thing required. We come preprogrammed to desire sex (with insertion). Maybe a new test could be run by a lesbian and a straight person, both inventing the questions and interpreting the results.

  • Ree August 7th, 2014 at 12:18 PM #9

    Its makes sense that two women would have less sex….I wouldn’t be surprised if two men have the most sex… if it of was up to women in a hetero relationship they wouldn’t have that much sex…but men will beg!

  • Alan August 31st, 2014 at 12:14 PM #10

    On a personal level, no, I don’t care, nor should I; it’s none of my business. On a general, scientific level, it’s interesting like any other aspect of behaviour. It’s a pity to confuse the two.

  • shelby September 18th, 2014 at 8:46 AM #11

    My wife and I have found from lesbian groups on Facebook that lesbian death bed is very common. I’m not just talking about older couples who have been together for years but also younger couples. We have seen a lot where one person will want intimacy and the other person won’t.

    My wife and I really feel like the odd couple because we have such a loving and intimate relationship. We connect in every level.

  • boss September 22nd, 2014 at 1:13 PM #12

    Man I love my girl.

  • Karen Blair September 22nd, 2014 at 5:03 PM #13

    What a great summary of the topic!! Thanks for including my research from SSSS! Some of the data from that talk have now been published and you can find the article here: academia.edu/2377768/_The_Tortoise_and_the_Hare_Sexual_Orientation_and_Gender_Differences_in_the_Duration_of_Sexual_Activity_within_Same-Sex_and_Mixed-Sex_Relationships

    I’m in the process of working on the paper that compares orgasms among the same groups ;-)

  • margie nichols, ph.d. September 24th, 2014 at 5:21 PM #14

    Thanks, Karen! I downloaded, printed, read, and have distributed to colleagues that article…..i got an email about it when it was first online. love your work, so glad you are doing it. can’t wait to see your new paper.

  • Asia November 18th, 2014 at 12:30 PM #15

    I am a lesbian woman and I am in a relationship. She and I started out having sex every day and it was awesome! I mean we both experienced multiple orgasms and we usually had sex for several hours at a time. Even when one of us was unable to have sex (due to menstrual cycles or for other reasons) we equally took pleasure in satisfying the other partner who was able to have sex. Satisfying eachother was equal to experiencing an orgasm ourself. Now that our relationship has become more seasoned, we have sex maybe every other day. We still make love for several hours at a time and we still experience multiple orgasms. I feel as though the sex has decreased simple because our love for eachother has increased. We appreciate quality time with eachother, sex just comes along with it. Non the less,it has not had a negative impact on our relationship. I think we have just matured and we have fullfilled our intamate needs through our closeness, be it through deep convesations, quality time, or cuddling.

  • Ray November 23rd, 2014 at 11:41 AM #16

    Hello. I’ve been exclusively lesbian for 30 years and completely concur with the author’s assessments in this article. Particularly when I was in my 20s and early 30s, my & my partners’ preference was for very long, intense sessions lasting many hours. That’s unsustainable night after night, particularly when you’re holding down a busy job. Of course the sessions have to become shorter and/or less frequent, although by shorter, I can’t remember many sessions that’ve lasted less than an hour, except under stressful circumstances or with women whose relationships were primarily with men and preferred, or had been conditioned to prefer, short relatively frantic sessions. I have to say that those short, busy but mostly unsatisfying sessions didn’t make me want to have more of them. Quite the contrary. I’d take one good, long session a month over 30 short, fast sessions any day, and I wonder whether the compromises straight women seem to make work for them at all or whether their interest in pleasing the man they’re with means many never truly learn to enjoy sex for its own sake at all.

  • Ray November 23rd, 2014 at 11:43 AM #17

    Ps: Thank you, Margaret Nichols, for writing such a thoughtful piece. It’s really good to read misogynistic old presumptions debunked like this.

  • faye December 12th, 2014 at 2:50 PM #18

    What if one is a lesbian, whose lesbian partner acts like a typical heterosexual male? What then? Then i suppose Yes bed death exists and there is a loss of cuddling and loving behavior. In at least my case. I know it’s not typical; compared to exes.

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