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.
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