Sexual Frequency Among Lesbians Copy  Copy

Sexual Frequency Among Lesbians Copy Copy

Lesbian Bed Death Meaning and History

Is bed death really a thing for lesbian couples?

Lesbian Bed Death Meaning and Roots

In 1983, Pepper Schwartz and Phillip Blumstein published research that identified lesbian couples as the least sexual couple pairing. This research led to more research which further confirmed that not only were lesbians having less sex than other couples, but they were also experiencing a more rapid and dramatic drop in frequency as their relationships continued (Loulan 1984). Soon, these statistics were broadcast in the media and just like that, a vision of lesbians as non-sexual started to emerge in our culture and it has stuck in our collective conscience since then. During this time, a powerfully descriptive and derogatory three-letter phrase emerged to describe the lower sexual frequency and rapid decline of sexual frequency among lesbian couples. The phrase used to describe this phenomenon is lesbian bed death (LBD).

Who coined the phrase lesbian bed death?

Once the phrase, Lesbian bed death, grabbed the attention of the researchers and media, comedians jumped in the mix too. When I set out to research the history of this phrase, I didn’t expect to find multiple people credited for coming up with it, and it seems no one who was crediting these various people did the work of verifying their source. The three people most commonly cited for coining the phrase are the author of the book Lesbian Sex Joann Loulan; lesbian comedian Kate Clinton; and researcher and co-author of the book American Couples, Pepper Schwartz. 

Naturally, I reached out to all three credited sources. First, I contacted Dr. Pepper Schwartz, co-author of American Couples. American Couples is a book written in 1983 that summarizes research she and her co-author Phillip Blumstein conducted with 12,000 couples, including four couple pairings: married, co-habitating (heterosexuals), gay males and lesbian couples. In this book, lesbians were identified as the couple pairing with the lowest rates of sexual frequency. Her research is often credited as the source from which this phrase evolved. Pepper Schwartz responded to my inquiry about this by  saying, “It is attributed to me—people I know say I said it—but I never wrote it. Sadly, I have no memory about it—so I can’t deny or confirm!”  Unsatisfied, I moved on to the next most commonly  -quoted source, Joann Loulan.

Joann Loulan, Author of Lesbian Sex

I reached out to Joann Loulan, author of Lesbian Sex (which was published in 1984, and used copies are still available on amazon).  Lesbian Sex was the first most comprehensive book written by a lesbian, and for lesbians, on the topic of lesbian sex. Frankly, few books have been written since. Loulan shared with me, “I did not coin the phrase Lesbian Bed Death.” She admitted, “I used it frequently, but of course my life was (and is) trying to make that change within the lesbian community and make sex sexy again.” Strike two. No confirmation that this term was developed by her. 

Kate Clinton, Lesbian Comedian

Finally, this researcher contacted Kate Clinton, who also denied coining the term. Always the comedian, she shared a phrase that she used in her comedy, and she expressed much pride in it. Rather than a same-sex relationship, Clinton jokes that lesbians have a “some sex relationship.” Clinton suggested contacting Sue Hyde, the Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Conference. Clinton recalled that Hyde’s partner, Jade McGleughlin, may have been responsible for the phrase lesbian bed death (LBD).

Sue Hyde

In an email response to this researcher’s inquiry, Sue Hyde wrote, “Jade McGleughlin coined the phrase ‘lesbian bed death’ in about 1985 or so. She will need to relate to you the particulars of how her brilliant mind compressed into a three-word unforgettable phrase the entire phenomenon of decreasing lesbian sex activity in long term couples.” She stated, “I believe she used the term in a paper she wrote while at Smith School of Social Work, where she was proceeding towards her LICSW” (Hyde 2011).

Jade McGleughlin

In a phone conversation, Jade McGleughlin stated that she did not know exactly how LBD came into being, but she thought that it “coalesced spontaneously among a group of lesbians for whom it captured an experience particular to that moment.” McGleughlin said that she and the other lesbians in her community, whom she described as sex-positive feminist queers, “wanted the sexiness of talking about sex and to have butch-femme power be translated into hot sex” (McGleughlin 2012). McGleughlin reported that the term does not have concrete, traceable roots. Rather, it is something best credited to a group of women at a specific point in history. While she denied credit for coining the phrase, McGleughlin identified herself as the messenger.

She thought she popularized the phrase during the 1987 March on Washington, where she gave a speech during the Sex and Politics Forum, and she also wrote about LBD in her master’s thesis around the same time. Confirming this was Sue Moir, another lesbian whose name surfaced during the search for the roots of lesbian bed death. Moir was a friend of McGleughlin’s, and also a part of the group of women discussing this topic. Moir explained to this researcher that she heard this phrase lesbian bed death “at a dyke gabfest in Newton,” and that McGleughlin got it from her. What Moir reported is consistent with what McGleughlin recalled. McGleughlin does not take ownership for creating the phrase, and she speculated that the phrase surfaced within lesbian group discussions. Thus, two separate people, neither of whom claims credit for the phrase, corroborate that the idea of LBD evolved through lesbian group conversations.

Sue Moir

Moir also stated that she was present when McGleughlin first used the phrase publicly, saying, “I can tell you it was the first time that the audience had heard it” (Moir 2011). McGleughlin stated there was a synergistic effect between the talk of sex within a community of feminist women, and the positive influence this talk had on the sex lives of lesbians engaged in these conversations. McGleughlin’s perception was that LBD included more than the diminishing sex in a lesbian’s personal relationship at the time. She felt it also captured the larger loss of a sexual community where women had grown accustomed to having a public space for sexual discussions and the excitement of the sexually charged women’s movement.

Lesbian bed death was about more than sex. McGleughlin recalled that at the tail end of the sex wars, the whole experience “seemed to collapse into this phrase—kind of like a screen memory.” There was a real phenomenon of waning sex within lesbian relationships, and lesbians further lost connection to the sexual community once the sex wars ended. McGleughlin stated a few times, “sex couldn’t keep pace with rhetoric—but the rhetoric was dying and rhetoric in part produced sex.” This was something of a dialectic, she said, “The theory and the practice were held in tension and constructing and deconstructing each other” (McGleughlin 2012).

Jade McGleughlin stated that LBD “captured a historical moment” during the waning of the sex wars. By giving a name to this moment, she sparked a notion that eventually spread across the United States like wildfire. The message traveled far and wide and it stuck.

The timing of McGleughlin’s speech also coincided with the lesbian sexuality research (Schwartz and Blumstein 1983, Loulan 1984, 1987) at the time, which became an accelerant for the spread of the LBD message. Ultimately, Lesbian Bed Death took on a new and unintended meaning that gave shape to lesbian sexuality as inferior, and in some way doomed. McGleughlin expressed regret about the impact of this phrase. In her opinion, the phrase collapsed the complexity of lesbian sexuality, and what might otherwise have been a historical phenomenon became a “condensation” and “condemnation” of lesbian sexuality (McGleughlin 2012).

Pepper Schwartz, Co-Author of American Couples

When asked if she coined the phrase, she replied, “It is attributed to me—people I know say I said it—but I never wrote it. Sadly, I have no memory about it—so I can’t deny or confirm!”

Kate Clinton, Lesbian Comedian

Always the comedian, she denied that she is the one who came up with the term lesbian bed death. Howver, she quickly added that she did joke in her shows that lesbians aren’t in a same-sex relationships, they are in a “some sex relationship” Clinton did lead me to Sue Hyde, the Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Conference. Clinton recalled that Hyde’s partner, Jade McGleughlin, may have been responsible for the phrase lesbian bed death (LBD).

Joann Loulan, author of Lesbian Sex

Loulan shared with me, “I did not coin the phrase Lesbian Bed Death.” She admitted, “I used it frequently, but of course my life was (and is) trying to make that change within the lesbian community and make sex sexy again.”

How did the Narrative of Lesbian Bed Death Impact Lesbian Sexuality?

The search for understanding about how Lesbian Bed Death influenced lesbian sexuality over the last three produces more questions than answers. There is great curiosity about how the topic of lesbian sex, and the phrase lesbian bed death, was carried from the east coast to the west coast so swiftly and effectively during an era when the internet was not available to spread information at viral rates. Though it is interesting to uncover the roots of this phrase, the ultimate goal of this research is to gain a better understanding of how this phrase assumed enough power in our culture to influence the perceptions of lesbians as sexually inferior. How did this message spread so quickly, and then remain so active in the cultural consciousness?

The label of Lesbian Bed Death devalues lesbian relationships by suggesting that lesbians are inadequate, or worse yet, sexually broken. When the measurement is frequency, lesbians lose the race against heterosexual or gay pairings when it comes to sex.

 

 

Who benefits if lesbian sex is viewed as inadequate, or inferior to the sex had by heterosexuals?

One theory is that lesbians pose a threat to social order. Historically, men have held the power in our culture, and women have been raised to depend on them, primarily financially, for survival. This pattern has broken down over the years, thanks to the women’s liberation movement and the increase of women in the workforce. However, women still struggle to find equal footing with men in most areas of life. In South Africa, raping a lesbian can make a man a township hero. “Attackers boast publicly of their crimes and declare to their victims: ‘We’ll show you-you’re a woman,’ the report said. Such attacks are often referred to as ‘corrective rapes’ in South Africa” (Guardian 2011, 1). A woman without a man in South Africa is not considered a woman at all. As archaic as this perspective seems in 21st century America, it is not unreasonable to think that we are a culture that is not yet finished moving slowly out of one view (women are defined by men) and into a new perspective (women are defined by themselves). As we have learned from many other oppressed groups, such as Blacks in America, cultural change is slow, regardless of what is true and right.

Another curiosity that surfaced during this research is about the momentum required to get the message of LBD off the ground. Groups of women were reportedly having regular chats about sex, which served to enhance their own sex lives, and simultaneously fulfilled an important need for a sense of belonging. These participants of these chats percolated the unifying concept of lesbian bed death. From these chats what rose to the surface was the message of lesbian bed death. If McGleughlin’s perception of this phrase is true, it expresses a dual message about the loss of sex and loss of community. In that case, the message itself has somehow changed over time, losing the emphasis once placed on the “death” of the community of lesbians who talk about sex.

An alternate theory about the spread of this message is the possibility that it was simply true, and lesbians themselves were seeking personal validation for their own experience. It is possible that the continued discussions, which also kept LBD alive and spreading, provided an outlet for lesbians to validate their experience. Although there has not been much research about lesbian sexuality over the last three decades, the existing research consistently reported low rates of sexual activity for lesbians, with few exceptions (Alicia Mathews et al 2003, Lelita Peplau et al 1997). Research has also consistently shown a quick decline in frequency over the course of lesbian relationships. The reality seems to be that lesbians had, and still have, less sex. This researcher keeps returning to one question. Who cared, and why was this a problem?

 

Is lower sexual frequency a problem for lesbians?

Coming out in the 70s and 80s was avant-garde behavior. Lesbians were not previously visible to the general public. The best way to establish a sense of belonging is to identify the ways in which you are similar to those with whom you wish to join. If research revealed that lesbians are sexually inadequate during the same time that lesbians were seeking approval for their identity, it seems possible that lesbians themselves would have difficulty accepting this information.

Instead of embracing what is, advocates of lesbians sought, and seem to still be seeking, to disprove the amount of sexual activity that occurs between women, as if to say, “We are like you.” Presumably, the assumption is that being like heterosexuals will allow lesbians to be seen as “normal.” This researcher believes that the greatest power is sourced from the truth. It is not important how much sex lesbians are having, or how often lesbians are having sex. What is important is whether or not lesbians are satisfied with their intimate relationships and whether or not they feel empowered to create these relationships according to their own truth, and not a social standard randomly transferred from other couple pairings.

Gay men are reportedly the most sexual of all pairings. If the frequency or amount of sex determines health, then why are gay men not considered the healthiest of all couples? What would have happened if Schwartz and Blumstein discovered that heterosexuals were having the least amount of sex and that their sexual activity declined more rapidly than the other couple pairs? It is likely that this paper would be evaluating the concern with sexually overactive lesbians, even if their sexual behaviors were exactly as they are now.

Another question that evolved from this research is; How far did the phrase lesbian bed death travel? This researcher decided to briefly explore perceptions of lesbian sexuality in other countries. A cursory look for information about sexual frequency among lesbians in other countries did not reveal much. There was one report on lesbians in The Netherlands/Holland by Karin Van Rosmalen-Nooijens, et al which was conducted in 2008. This study indicated that seventy-six percent of lesbians of all ages experienced a decline in sexual activity.  It appears that the phrase lesbian bed death did not spread far beyond the borders of the United States, but perhaps the phenomena of lower sexual frequency is a shared experience regardless of the country in question.

What does appear consistent is that how lesbians are viewed within a culture is rooted in how women are viewed within that culture. The attitude towards lesbian behavior is directly affected by the role a woman is expected to play in her culture. For example, in Asia, a woman’s role is primarily concerned with reproduction. The concept of sexual orientation is irrelevant because sex for women is not about sex, it is about having babies. In Asia, any sexual behavior that doesn’t have the goal of procreation is considered an aberration. Thus, homosexuality is not acceptable behavior because it is by its very nature about pleasure.

Lesbian bed death stereotyped the sex lives of lesbians as defective, inadequate, and inferior to others. This label added another layer of oppression very similarly to the way “sexual inverts” did in the early 20th century. It is useful to consider the history of the term sexual invert, and the influence this term had on cultural perceptions of lesbians. From the mid-1920s to the mid-1970s, lesbians were considered “sick,” “disturbed,” and “deviant.” It took a half-century to transcend the damaging perceptions of lesbians as mentally ill.

History, it is said, often repeats itself. Given this, it is possible, or even likely, that lesbian bed death, much like sexual inversion, will cycle out of the collective consciousness and be replaced by a new, improved perception of lesbians. If lesbian bed death is a concept that evolved in the mid-1980s, history would indicate that by the year 2030, LBD should be nearly erased from the collective consciousness. This does not, of course, mean that lesbians will be having more sex, but the absence of the label will clarify cultural perceptions about lesbian sexuality, and how those perceptions play out in the sex lives of lesbians.

What makes the most sense to this researcher when assessing the history and influence of the phrase lesbian bed death, is that there was a melting pot of motivations, which led to a conversion of agendas that served multiple purposes simultaneously. Whether it was used as a form of oppression, a way to keep women in their place in society, or whether it was simply because it is true and lesbians needed validation for their truth, the side-effects of this phrase on the sex lives of lesbians have proved unhelpful.

This researcher has concluded that lesbian bed death is a disparaging phrase used to criticize the sexual realities of lesbians in comparison to heterosexuals. It is not the behavior of lesbians that is the problem, it is the grossly inaccurate and irresponsible categorization of these behaviors as inadequate or dysfunctional that is the problem. Debating lesbian bed death validates its merit. This researcher’s conclusion is that lesbians have a bed (a sex life) and it is different than other couple pairs. That difference does not make it dead, it simply makes it different.

To defend lesbian bed death suggests that there is something legitimate to argue against. This researcher does not believe in the legitimacy of LBD. It is a misunderstood concept that filled a void of understanding during a time that lesbians were stepping out and exploring the uncharted territory of a visible life among the heterosexual population. The mistake, it seems, was to agree that a lesbian relationship should mirror that of a heterosexual relationship in order to be successful.

As it turns out, in the limited research conducted about the difference between gay and heterosexual relationships, authors such as John Gottman have concluded that gays and lesbians are more inclined to fight fairly, are not as belligerent with one another as heterosexuals are, and are less domineering and not as fearful with each other. He also discovered that lesbians and gay men make better use of humor when they argue than do their heterosexual counterparts (John Gottman, et al 2003). Is frequent sex more important to a relationship than fair fighting and being kind?

Sexual Frequency of Lesbians

What is the current sexual frequency of lesbians? Question number eight in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey asked, “In the last six months, how many times have you had sex (intimate contact intended to create sexual pleasure) with your partner?” Respondents were prompted to fill in the number of times they had sex in the last six months. Four separate categories of frequency were created to quantify the amount of sex that lesbians were having. Women who reported having sex zero to nine times were placed in the category labeled “once monthly or less.” Women who reported having sex between ten and twenty-one times in the last six months were assigned to the category of “two to three times per month.” Women who reported having sex twenty-two to eighty-three times in the last six months were categorized as having sex “one to three times a week.” The final category of “four or more times per week” included women who reported eighty-four or more episodes of sexual activity in the last six months.

The reported sexual frequencies were then rounded to the nearest category. For example, if a woman reported she had sex nine times in the last six months she would be assigned to the category of “once monthly or less.” Nine times in the last six months is obviously more than once monthly, however, it is closer to this category than it is to the next category of “two to three times a month,” and thus the best fit.

Question eight was completed by 416 women. Twelve percent (50 lesbians) of the sample reported having no sex in the last six months. Thirty-seven percent (154 lesbians) of the sample reported having sex once monthly or less. Combined, these groups represent almost half of the sample population, suggesting that the majority of lesbians are having sex once monthly or less. Twenty percent of lesbians reported having sex two to three times a month. Twenty-seven percent of lesbians reported having sex one to three times weekly. Only five percent reported having sex five or more times weekly.

Few studies have been conducted on the sexual frequency of lesbians. One of the most recent studies was published in 2003 by Matthews, Tartaro, and Hughes. In a comparative study of lesbian and heterosexual women in committed relationships, Alicia Matthews, et al found that sixty-nine percent of lesbians and seventy-six percent of heterosexual women reported having sex at least once weekly. These findings are significantly higher than those of this study. Only thirty-four percent of the women in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample reported having sex at least weekly, as seen in figure seven. It is important to note, however, that the sample size for the Alicia Matthews, et al. study was based on thirty-six lesbians. The small sample size raises questions about the validity of these findings, and the authors acknowledge that the small sample limits their ability to make any generalizations about lesbian sexuality.

Another study was done in 1997 by Letitia Peplau, et al also revealed higher rates of sexual frequency among lesbians. This particular study focused on the sexual behaviors of 398 Black lesbians (Letitia Peplau, et al 1997). The findings showed that eleven percent of Black lesbians reported having sex more than three times a week. This is slightly higher than the eight-percent in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study. Forty-seven percent of lesbians in Letitia Peplau, et al’s study reported having sex one to three times per week, which is significantly higher than the twenty-nine percent in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Forty-one percent of the Black lesbians reported having sex less than once a week, which is significantly lower than the sixty-five percent in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey.

Letitia Peplau, et al acknowledge that the sample is non-representative; however, it does offer insight to the variability of lesbian sexuality. What accounts for the higher rate of sexual frequency among Black women? This is valuable information, given that most of the studies conducted on lesbian sexuality are based on the histories of Caucasian women, including the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample. While this question is outside the scope of this paper, it is none-the-less a valuable question to note.

The most commonly cited source about lesbian sexual frequency is still Schwartz and Blumstein (1983). The frequency of lesbian sex is presented in the context of length of relationship and the rating of one’s quality of sex life. For the American Couples study, it appears these statistics were based on a total of 768 lesbians. Of these lesbians, 195 reports having sex once a month or less, which equals twenty-five percent of the sample. This is significantly lower than the findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey which suggest that forty-eight percent of all lesbians in the sample (44% of lesbian couples) are having sex once monthly or less.

The same calculation process reveals that twenty-seven percent of the American Couples sample have “sex between once a month and once a week” This compares to sixty-eight percent of the women in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample who have sex between once a month and once a week. The third category offered is “sex between one and three times a week.” This includes 274 lesbians or thirty-six percent of the American Couple’s sample. This finding does not differ much from the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, which indicated that twenty-nine percent of lesbians are having sex one to three times per week. The final category of frequency, “Sex three times a week or more,” comprised nineteen percent of the sample. The Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey reported eight percent of women at this level of sexual frequency, which is less than half of the findings by Schwartz and Blumstein (Schwartz and Blumstein 1983, 27).

Loulan’s 1987 study revealed remarkably similar findings to the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Twelve percent of women in both samples report having no sex. Loulan categorized sexual frequency as “once or fewer times” (presumably per month) and “two to five times a month,” which compare closely to the fifty-three percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey who reported having sex up to one or two times per month (Figure 7). Twenty percent of lesbians reported having sex six to ten times a month in Loulan’s survey, compared to twenty-six percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study who reported having sex one to two times weekly. Those reporting sexual activity three or more times a week in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey comprise eight percent of the sample, and for Loulan’s study, fourteen percent reported having sex “eleven or more times in a month.” The similarity in these findings is striking.

Figure 6.  General Overview of Lesbian Sexual Frequency

Figure 7.  Detailed Lesbian Sexual Frequency

Women aged twenty-one to thirty are the most sexually active of the lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study, with forty-eight percent having sex once weekly or more (Table 9). A noticeable drop in sexual frequency does not begin until after age fifty. At fifty-one, there is a ten percent drop in weekly sexual frequency. Thirty-one percent of forty-one to fifty-year-olds report having weekly sex. This drops to twenty-one percent at age fifty-one and to fourteen percent at age sixty-one. According to the National Institute on Aging, the average age of menopause is fifty-one, which seems to be the strongest explanation for this drop. One of the common side effects reported about menopause is a decrease in libido. The Frequency vs. Satisfaction findings is also similar to the findings of Loulan (1987), where she reports a general decline in sexual frequency as women age, with the most notable drop in frequency occurring between the age group forty to forty-nine, and fifty to fifty-nine.

Table 9.  Sexual Frequency Based on Age of Lesbians

Age

Four or More
Times Per Week

One to Three
Times Per Week

Two to Three
Times Per Month

Once Monthly
or Less

Once weekly or more

< 21 Years (n=6)

17%

17%

33%

33%

34%

21-30 Years (n=50)

10%

38%

18%

34%

48%

31-40 Years (n=127)

6%

28%

20%

47%

34%

41-50 Years (n=169)

4%

27%

24%

44%

31%

51-60 Years (n=72)

6%

15%

17%

63%

21%

60 + Years (n=15)

7%

7%

13%

73%

14%

 

Percentages reflect sexual frequencies per age group

n=lesbians per age

To explore the desire for sex as thoroughly as possible, the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey inquired with participants about the frequency of non-partner sex in the last six months. Question ten asks, “In the last six months, how many times did you have sex with someone other than your partner?” Of the 498 respondents, only forty-two (12%) reported having non-partner sex. The most non-partner sex occurs with couples who have been partnered between six and ten years, followed by women who are newly partnered for up to six months (21%).

Of the forty-two women who report non-partner sex, thirty-nine responded to the question about whether or not their relationship is open or closed to outside sex. Of these thirty-nine who reported having sex outside their relationship in the last six months, thirteen are not currently partnered. This might suggest that thirteen (3%) of women pursued another relationship or at least sex, and it may or may not have been the cause of their relationship break-up. Eight (2%) of the women who had non-partner sex report that they have agreements with their partner to engage in sex outside the relationship. Eighteen of the women (4%) reported no such agreement, so were likely engaged in acts of infidelity.

The incidence of non-partner sex with or without partner approval is nominal. These findings are lower than the incidence of non-partner sex found in 1983 by Schwartz and Blumstein. Ten percent of their sample of lesbians reported infidelity, compared to four percent of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample. Of those with an agreement about non-partner sex, twenty-five percent engaged in sex outside of their relationship.

There are two possibilities that may account for this decline in non-partner sex. One, the onset of AIDS occurred around the time Schwartz and Blumstein reported their findings, which would place participants of their survey at the tail end of the sexual liberation movement where sex was viewed less restrictively in our culture. This era put a damper on the sex lives of all couple pairs.

Another possibility is that during the 70s and 80s, lesbians were less visible than they are in today’s culture. With this visibility comes an increased level of validation and possibly accountability. A client who was in her prime dating years during the years of Schwartz and Blumstein’s study explained to this researcher that she had been unfaithful in every relationship from around age twenty to age forty. She stated that now that she is approaching sixty years old, she has come to see that she never valued her relationships, that she did not see lesbian relationships as important as heterosexual relationships. She shared that she had trouble conceiving that they would last in the same way that married couples believed their relationships would last. She explained that she feels differently now, that she has come to see her relationship as something that has meaning, and she experienced this only after coming out and having others (particularly heterosexuals) know about her relationship.

Once lesbians became more visible, it is possible they began to take their own relationships more seriously, which may have contributed to the decline in non-partner sex among those without agreements.

Figure 8.  Instances of Sex Outside the Relationship Among Lesbians

In summary, research largely supports the fact that lesbians are less sexual than other couple pairings. However, there is no evidence to support the belief that this translates into a deficiency, or that a lower frequency is in any way unhealthy. The assumption that heterosexuals are the healthy standard by which lesbians must be compared is a paradigm this researcher rejects. Some lesbians have a lot of sex. Some lesbians have none. Lesbians of all ages are sexual, and most are disinclined to stray sexually from their primary relationship. Lesbian sex does appear to continue at a rate similar to that found in 1987 by Loulan, though fewer lesbians appear to engage in non-partner sex than in previous years. Chapter Seven will shift attention to what is important to lesbians when it comes to their intimate relationships

How did the Narrative of Lesbian Bed Death Impact Lesbian Sexuality?

The search for understanding about how Lesbian Bed Death influenced lesbian sexuality over the last three produces more questions than answers. There is great curiosity about how the topic of lesbian sex, and the phrase lesbian bed death, was carried from the east coast to the west coast so swiftly and effectively during an era when the internet was not available to spread information at viral rates. Though it is interesting to uncover the roots of this phrase, the ultimate goal of this research is to gain a better understanding of how this phrase assumed enough power in our culture to influence the perceptions of lesbians as sexually inferior. How did this message spread so quickly, and then remain so active in the cultural consciousness?

The label of Lesbian Bed Death devalues lesbian relationships by suggesting that lesbians are inadequate, or worse yet, sexually broken. When the measurement is frequency, lesbians lose the race against heterosexual or gay pairings when it comes to sex.

 

 

Who benefits if lesbian sex is viewed as inadequate, or inferior to the sex had by heterosexuals?

One theory is that lesbians pose a threat to social order. Historically, men have held the power in our culture, and women have been raised to depend on them, primarily financially, for survival. This pattern has broken down over the years, thanks to the women’s liberation movement and the increase of women in the workforce. However, women still struggle to find equal footing with men in most areas of life. In South Africa, raping a lesbian can make a man a township hero. “Attackers boast publicly of their crimes and declare to their victims: ‘We’ll show you-you’re a woman,’ the report said. Such attacks are often referred to as ‘corrective rapes’ in South Africa” (Guardian 2011, 1). A woman without a man in South Africa is not considered a woman at all. As archaic as this perspective seems in 21st century America, it is not unreasonable to think that we are a culture that is not yet finished moving slowly out of one view (women are defined by men) and into a new perspective (women are defined by themselves). As we have learned from many other oppressed groups, such as Blacks in America, cultural change is slow, regardless of what is true and right.

Another curiosity that surfaced during this research is about the momentum required to get the message of LBD off the ground. Groups of women were reportedly having regular chats about sex, which served to enhance their own sex lives, and simultaneously fulfilled an important need for a sense of belonging. These participants of these chats percolated the unifying concept of lesbian bed death. From these chats what rose to the surface was the message of lesbian bed death. If McGleughlin’s perception of this phrase is true, it expresses a dual message about the loss of sex and loss of community. In that case, the message itself has somehow changed over time, losing the emphasis once placed on the “death” of the community of lesbians who talk about sex.

An alternate theory about the spread of this message is the possibility that it was simply true, and lesbians themselves were seeking personal validation for their own experience. It is possible that the continued discussions, which also kept LBD alive and spreading, provided an outlet for lesbians to validate their experience. Although there has not been much research about lesbian sexuality over the last three decades, the existing research consistently reported low rates of sexual activity for lesbians, with few exceptions (Alicia Mathews et al 2003, Lelita Peplau et al 1997). Research has also consistently shown a quick decline in frequency over the course of lesbian relationships. The reality seems to be that lesbians had, and still have, less sex. This researcher keeps returning to one question. Who cared, and why was this a problem?

 

Is lower sexual frequency a problem for lesbians?

Coming out in the 70s and 80s was avant-garde behavior. Lesbians were not previously visible to the general public. The best way to establish a sense of belonging is to identify the ways in which you are similar to those with whom you wish to join. If research revealed that lesbians are sexually inadequate during the same time that lesbians were seeking approval for their identity, it seems possible that lesbians themselves would have difficulty accepting this information.

Instead of embracing what is, advocates of lesbians sought, and seem to still be seeking, to disprove the amount of sexual activity that occurs between women, as if to say, “We are like you.” Presumably, the assumption is that being like heterosexuals will allow lesbians to be seen as “normal.” This researcher believes that the greatest power is sourced from the truth. It is not important how much sex lesbians are having, or how often lesbians are having sex. What is important is whether or not lesbians are satisfied with their intimate relationships and whether or not they feel empowered to create these relationships according to their own truth, and not a social standard randomly transferred from other couple pairings.

Gay men are reportedly the most sexual of all pairings. If the frequency or amount of sex determines health, then why are gay men not considered the healthiest of all couples? What would have happened if Schwartz and Blumstein discovered that heterosexuals were having the least amount of sex and that their sexual activity declined more rapidly than the other couple pairs? It is likely that this paper would be evaluating the concern with sexually overactive lesbians, even if their sexual behaviors were exactly as they are now.

Another question that evolved from this research is; How far did the phrase lesbian bed death travel? This researcher decided to briefly explore perceptions of lesbian sexuality in other countries. A cursory look for information about sexual frequency among lesbians in other countries did not reveal much. There was one report on lesbians in The Netherlands/Holland by Karin Van Rosmalen-Nooijens, et al which was conducted in 2008. This study indicated that seventy-six percent of lesbians of all ages experienced a decline in sexual activity.  It appears that the phrase lesbian bed death did not spread far beyond the borders of the United States, but perhaps the phenomena of lower sexual frequency is a shared experience regardless of the country in question.

What does appear consistent is that how lesbians are viewed within a culture is rooted in how women are viewed within that culture. The attitude towards lesbian behavior is directly affected by the role a woman is expected to play in her culture. For example, in Asia, a woman’s role is primarily concerned with reproduction. The concept of sexual orientation is irrelevant because sex for women is not about sex, it is about having babies. In Asia, any sexual behavior that doesn’t have the goal of procreation is considered an aberration. Thus, homosexuality is not acceptable behavior because it is by its very nature about pleasure.

Lesbian bed death stereotyped the sex lives of lesbians as defective, inadequate, and inferior to others. This label added another layer of oppression very similarly to the way “sexual inverts” did in the early 20th century. It is useful to consider the history of the term sexual invert, and the influence this term had on cultural perceptions of lesbians. From the mid-1920s to the mid-1970s, lesbians were considered “sick,” “disturbed,” and “deviant.” It took a half-century to transcend the damaging perceptions of lesbians as mentally ill.

History, it is said, often repeats itself. Given this, it is possible, or even likely, that lesbian bed death, much like sexual inversion, will cycle out of the collective consciousness and be replaced by a new, improved perception of lesbians. If lesbian bed death is a concept that evolved in the mid-1980s, history would indicate that by the year 2030, LBD should be nearly erased from the collective consciousness. This does not, of course, mean that lesbians will be having more sex, but the absence of the label will clarify cultural perceptions about lesbian sexuality, and how those perceptions play out in the sex lives of lesbians.

What makes the most sense to this researcher when assessing the history and influence of the phrase lesbian bed death, is that there was a melting pot of motivations, which led to a conversion of agendas that served multiple purposes simultaneously. Whether it was used as a form of oppression, a way to keep women in their place in society, or whether it was simply because it is true and lesbians needed validation for their truth, the side-effects of this phrase on the sex lives of lesbians have proved unhelpful.

This researcher has concluded that lesbian bed death is a disparaging phrase used to criticize the sexual realities of lesbians in comparison to heterosexuals. It is not the behavior of lesbians that is the problem, it is the grossly inaccurate and irresponsible categorization of these behaviors as inadequate or dysfunctional that is the problem. Debating lesbian bed death validates its merit. This researcher’s conclusion is that lesbians have a bed (a sex life) and it is different than other couple pairs. That difference does not make it dead, it simply makes it different.

To defend lesbian bed death suggests that there is something legitimate to argue against. This researcher does not believe in the legitimacy of LBD. It is a misunderstood concept that filled a void of understanding during a time that lesbians were stepping out and exploring the uncharted territory of a visible life among the heterosexual population. The mistake, it seems, was to agree that a lesbian relationship should mirror that of a heterosexual relationship in order to be successful.

As it turns out, in the limited research conducted about the difference between gay and heterosexual relationships, authors such as John Gottman have concluded that gays and lesbians are more inclined to fight fairly, are not as belligerent with one another as heterosexuals are, and are less domineering and not as fearful with each other. He also discovered that lesbians and gay men make better use of humor when they argue than do their heterosexual counterparts (John Gottman, et al 2003). Is frequent sex more important to a relationship than fair fighting and being kind?

Sexual Frequency of Lesbians

What is the current sexual frequency of lesbians? Question number eight in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey asked, “In the last six months, how many times have you had sex (intimate contact intended to create sexual pleasure) with your partner?” Respondents were prompted to fill in the number of times they had sex in the last six months. Four separate categories of frequency were created to quantify the amount of sex that lesbians were having. Women who reported having sex zero to nine times were placed in the category labeled “once monthly or less.” Women who reported having sex between ten and twenty-one times in the last six months were assigned to the category of “two to three times per month.” Women who reported having sex twenty-two to eighty-three times in the last six months were categorized as having sex “one to three times a week.” The final category of “four or more times per week” included women who reported eighty-four or more episodes of sexual activity in the last six months.

The reported sexual frequencies were then rounded to the nearest category. For example, if a woman reported she had sex nine times in the last six months she would be assigned to the category of “once monthly or less.” Nine times in the last six months is obviously more than once monthly, however, it is closer to this category than it is to the next category of “two to three times a month,” and thus the best fit.

Question eight was completed by 416 women. Twelve percent (50 lesbians) of the sample reported having no sex in the last six months. Thirty-seven percent (154 lesbians) of the sample reported having sex once monthly or less. Combined, these groups represent almost half of the sample population, suggesting that the majority of lesbians are having sex once monthly or less. Twenty percent of lesbians reported having sex two to three times a month. Twenty-seven percent of lesbians reported having sex one to three times weekly. Only five percent reported having sex five or more times weekly.

Few studies have been conducted on the sexual frequency of lesbians. One of the most recent studies was published in 2003 by Matthews, Tartaro, and Hughes. In a comparative study of lesbian and heterosexual women in committed relationships, Alicia Matthews, et al found that sixty-nine percent of lesbians and seventy-six percent of heterosexual women reported having sex at least once weekly. These findings are significantly higher than those of this study. Only thirty-four percent of the women in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample reported having sex at least weekly, as seen in figure seven. It is important to note, however, that the sample size for the Alicia Matthews, et al. study was based on thirty-six lesbians. The small sample size raises questions about the validity of these findings, and the authors acknowledge that the small sample limits their ability to make any generalizations about lesbian sexuality.

Another study was done in 1997 by Letitia Peplau, et al also revealed higher rates of sexual frequency among lesbians. This particular study focused on the sexual behaviors of 398 Black lesbians (Letitia Peplau, et al 1997). The findings showed that eleven percent of Black lesbians reported having sex more than three times a week. This is slightly higher than the eight-percent in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study. Forty-seven percent of lesbians in Letitia Peplau, et al’s study reported having sex one to three times per week, which is significantly higher than the twenty-nine percent in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Forty-one percent of the Black lesbians reported having sex less than once a week, which is significantly lower than the sixty-five percent in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey.

Letitia Peplau, et al acknowledge that the sample is non-representative; however, it does offer insight to the variability of lesbian sexuality. What accounts for the higher rate of sexual frequency among Black women? This is valuable information, given that most of the studies conducted on lesbian sexuality are based on the histories of Caucasian women, including the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample. While this question is outside the scope of this paper, it is none-the-less a valuable question to note.

The most commonly cited source about lesbian sexual frequency is still Schwartz and Blumstein (1983). The frequency of lesbian sex is presented in the context of length of relationship and the rating of one’s quality of sex life. For the American Couples study, it appears these statistics were based on a total of 768 lesbians. Of these lesbians, 195 reports having sex once a month or less, which equals twenty-five percent of the sample. This is significantly lower than the findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey which suggest that forty-eight percent of all lesbians in the sample (44% of lesbian couples) are having sex once monthly or less.

The same calculation process reveals that twenty-seven percent of the American Couples sample have “sex between once a month and once a week” This compares to sixty-eight percent of the women in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample who have sex between once a month and once a week. The third category offered is “sex between one and three times a week.” This includes 274 lesbians or thirty-six percent of the American Couple’s sample. This finding does not differ much from the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, which indicated that twenty-nine percent of lesbians are having sex one to three times per week. The final category of frequency, “Sex three times a week or more,” comprised nineteen percent of the sample. The Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey reported eight percent of women at this level of sexual frequency, which is less than half of the findings by Schwartz and Blumstein (Schwartz and Blumstein 1983, 27).

Loulan’s 1987 study revealed remarkably similar findings to the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Twelve percent of women in both samples report having no sex. Loulan categorized sexual frequency as “once or fewer times” (presumably per month) and “two to five times a month,” which compare closely to the fifty-three percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey who reported having sex up to one or two times per month (Figure 7). Twenty percent of lesbians reported having sex six to ten times a month in Loulan’s survey, compared to twenty-six percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study who reported having sex one to two times weekly. Those reporting sexual activity three or more times a week in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey comprise eight percent of the sample, and for Loulan’s study, fourteen percent reported having sex “eleven or more times in a month.” The similarity in these findings is striking.

General Overview of Lesbian Sexual Frequency

Detailed Lesbian Sexual Frequency

Women aged twenty-one to thirty are the most sexually active of the lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study, with forty-eight percent having sex once weekly or more (Table 9). A noticeable drop in sexual frequency does not begin until after age fifty. At fifty-one, there is a ten percent drop in weekly sexual frequency. Thirty-one percent of forty-one to fifty-year-olds report having weekly sex. This drops to twenty-one percent at age fifty-one and to fourteen percent at age sixty-one. According to the National Institute on Aging, the average age of menopause is fifty-one, which seems to be the strongest explanation for this drop. One of the common side effects reported about menopause is a decrease in libido. The Frequency vs. Satisfaction findings is also similar to the findings of Loulan (1987), where she reports a general decline in sexual frequency as women age, with the most notable drop in frequency occurring between the age group forty to forty-nine, and fifty to fifty-nine.

Sexual Frequency Based on Age of Lesbians

Age

Four or More
Times Per Week

One to Three
Times Per Week

Two to Three
Times Per Month

Once Monthly
or Less

Once weekly or more

< 21 Years (n=6)

17%

17%

33%

33%

34%

21-30 Years (n=50)

10%

38%

18%

34%

48%

31-40 Years (n=127)

6%

28%

20%

47%

34%

41-50 Years (n=169)

4%

27%

24%

44%

31%

51-60 Years (n=72)

6%

15%

17%

63%

21%

60 + Years (n=15)

7%

7%

13%

73%

14%

 

Percentages reflect sexual frequencies per age group

n=lesbians per age

To explore the desire for sex as thoroughly as possible, the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey inquired with participants about the frequency of non-partner sex in the last six months. Question ten asks, “In the last six months, how many times did you have sex with someone other than your partner?” Of the 498 respondents, only forty-two (12%) reported having non-partner sex. The most non-partner sex occurs with couples who have been partnered between six and ten years, followed by women who are newly partnered for up to six months (21%).

Of the forty-two women who report non-partner sex, thirty-nine responded to the question about whether or not their relationship is open or closed to outside sex. Of these thirty-nine who reported having sex outside their relationship in the last six months, thirteen are not currently partnered. This might suggest that thirteen (3%) of women pursued another relationship or at least sex, and it may or may not have been the cause of their relationship break-up. Eight (2%) of the women who had non-partner sex report that they have agreements with their partner to engage in sex outside the relationship. Eighteen of the women (4%) reported no such agreement, so were likely engaged in acts of infidelity.

The incidence of non-partner sex with or without partner approval is nominal. These findings are lower than the incidence of non-partner sex found in 1983 by Schwartz and Blumstein. Ten percent of their sample of lesbians reported infidelity, compared to four percent of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample. Of those with an agreement about non-partner sex, twenty-five percent engaged in sex outside of their relationship.

There are two possibilities that may account for this decline in non-partner sex. One, the onset of AIDS occurred around the time Schwartz and Blumstein reported their findings, which would place participants of their survey at the tail end of the sexual liberation movement where sex was viewed less restrictively in our culture. This era put a damper on the sex lives of all couple pairs.

Another possibility is that during the 70s and 80s, lesbians were less visible than they are in today’s culture. With this visibility comes an increased level of validation and possibly accountability. A client who was in her prime dating years during the years of Schwartz and Blumstein’s study explained to this researcher that she had been unfaithful in every relationship from around age twenty to age forty. She stated that now that she is approaching sixty years old, she has come to see that she never valued her relationships, that she did not see lesbian relationships as important as heterosexual relationships. She shared that she had trouble conceiving that they would last in the same way that married couples believed their relationships would last. She explained that she feels differently now, that she has come to see her relationship as something that has meaning, and she experienced this only after coming out and having others (particularly heterosexuals) know about her relationship.

Once lesbians became more visible, it is possible they began to take their own relationships more seriously, which may have contributed to the decline in non-partner sex among those without agreements.

Instances of Sex Outside the Relationship Among Lesbians

In summary, research largely supports the fact that lesbians are less sexual than other couple pairings. However, there is no evidence to support the belief that this translates into a deficiency, or that a lower frequency is in any way unhealthy. The assumption that heterosexuals are the healthy standard by which lesbians must be compared is a paradigm this researcher rejects. Some lesbians have a lot of sex. Some lesbians have none. Lesbians of all ages are sexual, and most are disinclined to stray sexually from their primary relationship. Lesbian sex does appear to continue at a rate similar to that found in 1987 by Loulan, though fewer lesbians appear to engage in non-partner sex than in previous years. Chapter Seven will shift attention to what is important to lesbians when it comes to their intimate relationships.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michele O’Mara, LCSW, Ph.D. is an expert lesbian relationship coach and psychotherapist with a comfortable obsession with all things related to love and relationships between women. She is particularly fascinated by lesbian couples in blended families, issues of infidelity, lesbian sexuality, and recovery from lesbian breakups. She is the author of Just Ask: 1,000 Questions to Grow Your Relationship, which is available in paperback or Kindle on Amazon, as well as an app on Itunes /Google play. As a side-hobby, she operates a quirky site called “AskLesbians.com” where she randomly polls lesbians to satisfy the quirkiest of curiosities. Lastly, she and her wife Kristen host Lesbian Couples Retreats in various destinations, and you can learn more about those at lesbiancouples.co.

This article is an adaption of Chapter Six of a dissertation written by Michele O’Mara, PhD. Tap here t read the entire dissertation in a pdf format.

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Lesbian Bed Death Meaning and History

Is bed death really a thing for lesbian couples?

Lesbian Bed Death Meaning and Roots

In 1983, Pepper Schwartz and Phillip Blumstein published research that identified lesbian couples as the least sexual couple pairing. This research led to more research which further confirmed that not only were lesbians having less sex than other couples, but they were also experiencing a more rapid and dramatic drop in frequency as their relationships continued (Loulan 1984). Soon, these statistics were broadcast in the media and just like that, a vision of lesbians as non-sexual started to emerge in our culture and it has stuck in our collective conscience since then. During this time, a powerfully descriptive and derogatory three-letter phrase emerged to describe the lower sexual frequency and rapid decline of sexual frequency among lesbian couples. The phrase used to describe this phenomenon is lesbian bed death (LBD).

Who coined the phrase lesbian bed death?

Once the phrase, Lesbian bed death, grabbed the attention of the researchers and media, comedians jumped in the mix too. When I set out to research the history of this phrase, I didn’t expect to find multiple people credited for coming up with it, and it seems no one who was crediting these various people did the work of verifying their source. The three people most commonly cited for coining the phrase are the author of the book Lesbian Sex Joann Loulan; lesbian comedian Kate Clinton; and researcher and co-author of the book American Couples, Pepper Schwartz. 

Naturally, I reached out to all three credited sources. First, I contacted Dr. Pepper Schwartz, co-author of American Couples. American Couples is a book written in 1983 that summarizes research she and her co-author Phillip Blumstein conducted with 12,000 couples, including four couple pairings: married, co-habitating (heterosexuals), gay males and lesbian couples. In this book, lesbians were identified as the couple pairing with the lowest rates of sexual frequency. Her research is often credited as the source from which this phrase evolved. Pepper Schwartz responded to my inquiry about this by  saying, “It is attributed to me—people I know say I said it—but I never wrote it. Sadly, I have no memory about it—so I can’t deny or confirm!”  Unsatisfied, I moved on to the next most commonly  -quoted source, Joann Loulan.

Joann Loulan, Author of Lesbian Sex

I reached out to Joann Loulan, author of Lesbian Sex (which was published in 1984, and used copies are still available on amazon).  Lesbian Sex was the first most comprehensive book written by a lesbian, and for lesbians, on the topic of lesbian sex. Frankly, few books have been written since. Loulan shared with me, “I did not coin the phrase Lesbian Bed Death.” She admitted, “I used it frequently, but of course my life was (and is) trying to make that change within the lesbian community and make sex sexy again.” Strike two. No confirmation that this term was developed by her. 

Kate Clinton, Lesbian Comedian

Finally, this researcher contacted Kate Clinton, who also denied coining the term. Always the comedian, she shared a phrase that she used in her comedy, and she expressed much pride in it. Rather than a same-sex relationship, Clinton jokes that lesbians have a “some sex relationship.” Clinton suggested contacting Sue Hyde, the Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Conference. Clinton recalled that Hyde’s partner, Jade McGleughlin, may have been responsible for the phrase lesbian bed death (LBD).

Sue Hyde

In an email response to this researcher’s inquiry, Sue Hyde wrote, “Jade McGleughlin coined the phrase ‘lesbian bed death’ in about 1985 or so. She will need to relate to you the particulars of how her brilliant mind compressed into a three-word unforgettable phrase the entire phenomenon of decreasing lesbian sex activity in long term couples.” She stated, “I believe she used the term in a paper she wrote while at Smith School of Social Work, where she was proceeding towards her LICSW” (Hyde 2011).

Jade McGleughlin

In a phone conversation, Jade McGleughlin stated that she did not know exactly how LBD came into being, but she thought that it “coalesced spontaneously among a group of lesbians for whom it captured an experience particular to that moment.” McGleughlin said that she and the other lesbians in her community, whom she described as sex-positive feminist queers, “wanted the sexiness of talking about sex and to have butch-femme power be translated into hot sex” (McGleughlin 2012). McGleughlin reported that the term does not have concrete, traceable roots. Rather, it is something best credited to a group of women at a specific point in history. While she denied credit for coining the phrase, McGleughlin identified herself as the messenger.

She thought she popularized the phrase during the 1987 March on Washington, where she gave a speech during the Sex and Politics Forum, and she also wrote about LBD in her master’s thesis around the same time. Confirming this was Sue Moir, another lesbian whose name surfaced during the search for the roots of lesbian bed death. Moir was a friend of McGleughlin’s, and also a part of the group of women discussing this topic. Moir explained to this researcher that she heard this phrase lesbian bed death “at a dyke gabfest in Newton,” and that McGleughlin got it from her. What Moir reported is consistent with what McGleughlin recalled. McGleughlin does not take ownership for creating the phrase, and she speculated that the phrase surfaced within lesbian group discussions. Thus, two separate people, neither of whom claims credit for the phrase, corroborate that the idea of LBD evolved through lesbian group conversations.

Sue Moir

Moir also stated that she was present when McGleughlin first used the phrase publicly, saying, “I can tell you it was the first time that the audience had heard it” (Moir 2011). McGleughlin stated there was a synergistic effect between the talk of sex within a community of feminist women, and the positive influence this talk had on the sex lives of lesbians engaged in these conversations. McGleughlin’s perception was that LBD included more than the diminishing sex in a lesbian’s personal relationship at the time. She felt it also captured the larger loss of a sexual community where women had grown accustomed to having a public space for sexual discussions and the excitement of the sexually charged women’s movement.

Lesbian bed death was about more than sex. McGleughlin recalled that at the tail end of the sex wars, the whole experience “seemed to collapse into this phrase—kind of like a screen memory.” There was a real phenomenon of waning sex within lesbian relationships, and lesbians further lost connection to the sexual community once the sex wars ended. McGleughlin stated a few times, “sex couldn’t keep pace with rhetoric—but the rhetoric was dying and rhetoric in part produced sex.” This was something of a dialectic, she said, “The theory and the practice were held in tension and constructing and deconstructing each other” (McGleughlin 2012).

Jade McGleughlin stated that LBD “captured a historical moment” during the waning of the sex wars. By giving a name to this moment, she sparked a notion that eventually spread across the United States like wildfire. The message traveled far and wide and it stuck.

The timing of McGleughlin’s speech also coincided with the lesbian sexuality research (Schwartz and Blumstein 1983, Loulan 1984, 1987) at the time, which became an accelerant for the spread of the LBD message. Ultimately, Lesbian Bed Death took on a new and unintended meaning that gave shape to lesbian sexuality as inferior, and in some way doomed. McGleughlin expressed regret about the impact of this phrase. In her opinion, the phrase collapsed the complexity of lesbian sexuality, and what might otherwise have been a historical phenomenon became a “condensation” and “condemnation” of lesbian sexuality (McGleughlin 2012).

Pepper Schwartz, Co-Author of American Couples

When asked if she coined the phrase, she replied, “It is attributed to me—people I know say I said it—but I never wrote it. Sadly, I have no memory about it—so I can’t deny or confirm!”

Kate Clinton, Lesbian Comedian

Always the comedian, she denied that she is the one who came up with the term lesbian bed death. Howver, she quickly added that she did joke in her shows that lesbians aren’t in a same-sex relationships, they are in a “some sex relationship” Clinton did lead me to Sue Hyde, the Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Conference. Clinton recalled that Hyde’s partner, Jade McGleughlin, may have been responsible for the phrase lesbian bed death (LBD).

Joann Loulan, author of Lesbian Sex

Loulan shared with me, “I did not coin the phrase Lesbian Bed Death.” She admitted, “I used it frequently, but of course my life was (and is) trying to make that change within the lesbian community and make sex sexy again.”

How did the Narrative of Lesbian Bed Death Impact Lesbian Sexuality?

The search for understanding about how Lesbian Bed Death influenced lesbian sexuality over the last three produces more questions than answers. There is great curiosity about how the topic of lesbian sex, and the phrase lesbian bed death, was carried from the east coast to the west coast so swiftly and effectively during an era when the internet was not available to spread information at viral rates. Though it is interesting to uncover the roots of this phrase, the ultimate goal of this research is to gain a better understanding of how this phrase assumed enough power in our culture to influence the perceptions of lesbians as sexually inferior. How did this message spread so quickly, and then remain so active in the cultural consciousness?

The label of Lesbian Bed Death devalues lesbian relationships by suggesting that lesbians are inadequate, or worse yet, sexually broken. When the measurement is frequency, lesbians lose the race against heterosexual or gay pairings when it comes to sex.

 

 

Who benefits if lesbian sex is viewed as inadequate, or inferior to the sex had by heterosexuals?

One theory is that lesbians pose a threat to social order. Historically, men have held the power in our culture, and women have been raised to depend on them, primarily financially, for survival. This pattern has broken down over the years, thanks to the women’s liberation movement and the increase of women in the workforce. However, women still struggle to find equal footing with men in most areas of life. In South Africa, raping a lesbian can make a man a township hero. “Attackers boast publicly of their crimes and declare to their victims: ‘We’ll show you-you’re a woman,’ the report said. Such attacks are often referred to as ‘corrective rapes’ in South Africa” (Guardian 2011, 1). A woman without a man in South Africa is not considered a woman at all. As archaic as this perspective seems in 21st century America, it is not unreasonable to think that we are a culture that is not yet finished moving slowly out of one view (women are defined by men) and into a new perspective (women are defined by themselves). As we have learned from many other oppressed groups, such as Blacks in America, cultural change is slow, regardless of what is true and right.

Another curiosity that surfaced during this research is about the momentum required to get the message of LBD off the ground. Groups of women were reportedly having regular chats about sex, which served to enhance their own sex lives, and simultaneously fulfilled an important need for a sense of belonging. These participants of these chats percolated the unifying concept of lesbian bed death. From these chats what rose to the surface was the message of lesbian bed death. If McGleughlin’s perception of this phrase is true, it expresses a dual message about the loss of sex and loss of community. In that case, the message itself has somehow changed over time, losing the emphasis once placed on the “death” of the community of lesbians who talk about sex.

An alternate theory about the spread of this message is the possibility that it was simply true, and lesbians themselves were seeking personal validation for their own experience. It is possible that the continued discussions, which also kept LBD alive and spreading, provided an outlet for lesbians to validate their experience. Although there has not been much research about lesbian sexuality over the last three decades, the existing research consistently reported low rates of sexual activity for lesbians, with few exceptions (Alicia Mathews et al 2003, Lelita Peplau et al 1997). Research has also consistently shown a quick decline in frequency over the course of lesbian relationships. The reality seems to be that lesbians had, and still have, less sex. This researcher keeps returning to one question. Who cared, and why was this a problem?

 

Is lower sexual frequency a problem for lesbians?

Coming out in the 70s and 80s was avant-garde behavior. Lesbians were not previously visible to the general public. The best way to establish a sense of belonging is to identify the ways in which you are similar to those with whom you wish to join. If research revealed that lesbians are sexually inadequate during the same time that lesbians were seeking approval for their identity, it seems possible that lesbians themselves would have difficulty accepting this information.

Instead of embracing what is, advocates of lesbians sought, and seem to still be seeking, to disprove the amount of sexual activity that occurs between women, as if to say, “We are like you.” Presumably, the assumption is that being like heterosexuals will allow lesbians to be seen as “normal.” This researcher believes that the greatest power is sourced from the truth. It is not important how much sex lesbians are having, or how often lesbians are having sex. What is important is whether or not lesbians are satisfied with their intimate relationships and whether or not they feel empowered to create these relationships according to their own truth, and not a social standard randomly transferred from other couple pairings.

Gay men are reportedly the most sexual of all pairings. If the frequency or amount of sex determines health, then why are gay men not considered the healthiest of all couples? What would have happened if Schwartz and Blumstein discovered that heterosexuals were having the least amount of sex and that their sexual activity declined more rapidly than the other couple pairs? It is likely that this paper would be evaluating the concern with sexually overactive lesbians, even if their sexual behaviors were exactly as they are now.

Another question that evolved from this research is; How far did the phrase lesbian bed death travel? This researcher decided to briefly explore perceptions of lesbian sexuality in other countries. A cursory look for information about sexual frequency among lesbians in other countries did not reveal much. There was one report on lesbians in The Netherlands/Holland by Karin Van Rosmalen-Nooijens, et al which was conducted in 2008. This study indicated that seventy-six percent of lesbians of all ages experienced a decline in sexual activity.  It appears that the phrase lesbian bed death did not spread far beyond the borders of the United States, but perhaps the phenomena of lower sexual frequency is a shared experience regardless of the country in question.

What does appear consistent is that how lesbians are viewed within a culture is rooted in how women are viewed within that culture. The attitude towards lesbian behavior is directly affected by the role a woman is expected to play in her culture. For example, in Asia, a woman’s role is primarily concerned with reproduction. The concept of sexual orientation is irrelevant because sex for women is not about sex, it is about having babies. In Asia, any sexual behavior that doesn’t have the goal of procreation is considered an aberration. Thus, homosexuality is not acceptable behavior because it is by its very nature about pleasure.

Lesbian bed death stereotyped the sex lives of lesbians as defective, inadequate, and inferior to others. This label added another layer of oppression very similarly to the way “sexual inverts” did in the early 20th century. It is useful to consider the history of the term sexual invert, and the influence this term had on cultural perceptions of lesbians. From the mid-1920s to the mid-1970s, lesbians were considered “sick,” “disturbed,” and “deviant.” It took a half-century to transcend the damaging perceptions of lesbians as mentally ill.

History, it is said, often repeats itself. Given this, it is possible, or even likely, that lesbian bed death, much like sexual inversion, will cycle out of the collective consciousness and be replaced by a new, improved perception of lesbians. If lesbian bed death is a concept that evolved in the mid-1980s, history would indicate that by the year 2030, LBD should be nearly erased from the collective consciousness. This does not, of course, mean that lesbians will be having more sex, but the absence of the label will clarify cultural perceptions about lesbian sexuality, and how those perceptions play out in the sex lives of lesbians.

What makes the most sense to this researcher when assessing the history and influence of the phrase lesbian bed death, is that there was a melting pot of motivations, which led to a conversion of agendas that served multiple purposes simultaneously. Whether it was used as a form of oppression, a way to keep women in their place in society, or whether it was simply because it is true and lesbians needed validation for their truth, the side-effects of this phrase on the sex lives of lesbians have proved unhelpful.

This researcher has concluded that lesbian bed death is a disparaging phrase used to criticize the sexual realities of lesbians in comparison to heterosexuals. It is not the behavior of lesbians that is the problem, it is the grossly inaccurate and irresponsible categorization of these behaviors as inadequate or dysfunctional that is the problem. Debating lesbian bed death validates its merit. This researcher’s conclusion is that lesbians have a bed (a sex life) and it is different than other couple pairs. That difference does not make it dead, it simply makes it different.

To defend lesbian bed death suggests that there is something legitimate to argue against. This researcher does not believe in the legitimacy of LBD. It is a misunderstood concept that filled a void of understanding during a time that lesbians were stepping out and exploring the uncharted territory of a visible life among the heterosexual population. The mistake, it seems, was to agree that a lesbian relationship should mirror that of a heterosexual relationship in order to be successful.

As it turns out, in the limited research conducted about the difference between gay and heterosexual relationships, authors such as John Gottman have concluded that gays and lesbians are more inclined to fight fairly, are not as belligerent with one another as heterosexuals are, and are less domineering and not as fearful with each other. He also discovered that lesbians and gay men make better use of humor when they argue than do their heterosexual counterparts (John Gottman, et al 2003). Is frequent sex more important to a relationship than fair fighting and being kind?

Sexual Frequency of Lesbians

What is the current sexual frequency of lesbians? Question number eight in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey asked, “In the last six months, how many times have you had sex (intimate contact intended to create sexual pleasure) with your partner?” Respondents were prompted to fill in the number of times they had sex in the last six months. Four separate categories of frequency were created to quantify the amount of sex that lesbians were having. Women who reported having sex zero to nine times were placed in the category labeled “once monthly or less.” Women who reported having sex between ten and twenty-one times in the last six months were assigned to the category of “two to three times per month.” Women who reported having sex twenty-two to eighty-three times in the last six months were categorized as having sex “one to three times a week.” The final category of “four or more times per week” included women who reported eighty-four or more episodes of sexual activity in the last six months.

The reported sexual frequencies were then rounded to the nearest category. For example, if a woman reported she had sex nine times in the last six months she would be assigned to the category of “once monthly or less.” Nine times in the last six months is obviously more than once monthly, however, it is closer to this category than it is to the next category of “two to three times a month,” and thus the best fit.

Question eight was completed by 416 women. Twelve percent (50 lesbians) of the sample reported having no sex in the last six months. Thirty-seven percent (154 lesbians) of the sample reported having sex once monthly or less. Combined, these groups represent almost half of the sample population, suggesting that the majority of lesbians are having sex once monthly or less. Twenty percent of lesbians reported having sex two to three times a month. Twenty-seven percent of lesbians reported having sex one to three times weekly. Only five percent reported having sex five or more times weekly.

Few studies have been conducted on the sexual frequency of lesbians. One of the most recent studies was published in 2003 by Matthews, Tartaro, and Hughes. In a comparative study of lesbian and heterosexual women in committed relationships, Alicia Matthews, et al found that sixty-nine percent of lesbians and seventy-six percent of heterosexual women reported having sex at least once weekly. These findings are significantly higher than those of this study. Only thirty-four percent of the women in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample reported having sex at least weekly, as seen in figure seven. It is important to note, however, that the sample size for the Alicia Matthews, et al. study was based on thirty-six lesbians. The small sample size raises questions about the validity of these findings, and the authors acknowledge that the small sample limits their ability to make any generalizations about lesbian sexuality.

Another study was done in 1997 by Letitia Peplau, et al also revealed higher rates of sexual frequency among lesbians. This particular study focused on the sexual behaviors of 398 Black lesbians (Letitia Peplau, et al 1997). The findings showed that eleven percent of Black lesbians reported having sex more than three times a week. This is slightly higher than the eight-percent in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study. Forty-seven percent of lesbians in Letitia Peplau, et al’s study reported having sex one to three times per week, which is significantly higher than the twenty-nine percent in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Forty-one percent of the Black lesbians reported having sex less than once a week, which is significantly lower than the sixty-five percent in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey.

Letitia Peplau, et al acknowledge that the sample is non-representative; however, it does offer insight to the variability of lesbian sexuality. What accounts for the higher rate of sexual frequency among Black women? This is valuable information, given that most of the studies conducted on lesbian sexuality are based on the histories of Caucasian women, including the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample. While this question is outside the scope of this paper, it is none-the-less a valuable question to note.

The most commonly cited source about lesbian sexual frequency is still Schwartz and Blumstein (1983). The frequency of lesbian sex is presented in the context of length of relationship and the rating of one’s quality of sex life. For the American Couples study, it appears these statistics were based on a total of 768 lesbians. Of these lesbians, 195 reports having sex once a month or less, which equals twenty-five percent of the sample. This is significantly lower than the findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey which suggest that forty-eight percent of all lesbians in the sample (44% of lesbian couples) are having sex once monthly or less.

The same calculation process reveals that twenty-seven percent of the American Couples sample have “sex between once a month and once a week” This compares to sixty-eight percent of the women in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample who have sex between once a month and once a week. The third category offered is “sex between one and three times a week.” This includes 274 lesbians or thirty-six percent of the American Couple’s sample. This finding does not differ much from the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, which indicated that twenty-nine percent of lesbians are having sex one to three times per week. The final category of frequency, “Sex three times a week or more,” comprised nineteen percent of the sample. The Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey reported eight percent of women at this level of sexual frequency, which is less than half of the findings by Schwartz and Blumstein (Schwartz and Blumstein 1983, 27).

Loulan’s 1987 study revealed remarkably similar findings to the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Twelve percent of women in both samples report having no sex. Loulan categorized sexual frequency as “once or fewer times” (presumably per month) and “two to five times a month,” which compare closely to the fifty-three percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey who reported having sex up to one or two times per month (Figure 7). Twenty percent of lesbians reported having sex six to ten times a month in Loulan’s survey, compared to twenty-six percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study who reported having sex one to two times weekly. Those reporting sexual activity three or more times a week in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey comprise eight percent of the sample, and for Loulan’s study, fourteen percent reported having sex “eleven or more times in a month.” The similarity in these findings is striking.

Figure 6.  General Overview of Lesbian Sexual Frequency

Figure 7.  Detailed Lesbian Sexual Frequency

Women aged twenty-one to thirty are the most sexually active of the lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study, with forty-eight percent having sex once weekly or more (Table 9). A noticeable drop in sexual frequency does not begin until after age fifty. At fifty-one, there is a ten percent drop in weekly sexual frequency. Thirty-one percent of forty-one to fifty-year-olds report having weekly sex. This drops to twenty-one percent at age fifty-one and to fourteen percent at age sixty-one. According to the National Institute on Aging, the average age of menopause is fifty-one, which seems to be the strongest explanation for this drop. One of the common side effects reported about menopause is a decrease in libido. The Frequency vs. Satisfaction findings is also similar to the findings of Loulan (1987), where she reports a general decline in sexual frequency as women age, with the most notable drop in frequency occurring between the age group forty to forty-nine, and fifty to fifty-nine.

Table 9.  Sexual Frequency Based on Age of Lesbians

Age

Four or More
Times Per Week

One to Three
Times Per Week

Two to Three
Times Per Month

Once Monthly
or Less

Once weekly or more

< 21 Years (n=6)

17%

17%

33%

33%

34%

21-30 Years (n=50)

10%

38%

18%

34%

48%

31-40 Years (n=127)

6%

28%

20%

47%

34%

41-50 Years (n=169)

4%

27%

24%

44%

31%

51-60 Years (n=72)

6%

15%

17%

63%

21%

60 + Years (n=15)

7%

7%

13%

73%

14%

 

Percentages reflect sexual frequencies per age group

n=lesbians per age

To explore the desire for sex as thoroughly as possible, the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey inquired with participants about the frequency of non-partner sex in the last six months. Question ten asks, “In the last six months, how many times did you have sex with someone other than your partner?” Of the 498 respondents, only forty-two (12%) reported having non-partner sex. The most non-partner sex occurs with couples who have been partnered between six and ten years, followed by women who are newly partnered for up to six months (21%).

Of the forty-two women who report non-partner sex, thirty-nine responded to the question about whether or not their relationship is open or closed to outside sex. Of these thirty-nine who reported having sex outside their relationship in the last six months, thirteen are not currently partnered. This might suggest that thirteen (3%) of women pursued another relationship or at least sex, and it may or may not have been the cause of their relationship break-up. Eight (2%) of the women who had non-partner sex report that they have agreements with their partner to engage in sex outside the relationship. Eighteen of the women (4%) reported no such agreement, so were likely engaged in acts of infidelity.

The incidence of non-partner sex with or without partner approval is nominal. These findings are lower than the incidence of non-partner sex found in 1983 by Schwartz and Blumstein. Ten percent of their sample of lesbians reported infidelity, compared to four percent of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample. Of those with an agreement about non-partner sex, twenty-five percent engaged in sex outside of their relationship.

There are two possibilities that may account for this decline in non-partner sex. One, the onset of AIDS occurred around the time Schwartz and Blumstein reported their findings, which would place participants of their survey at the tail end of the sexual liberation movement where sex was viewed less restrictively in our culture. This era put a damper on the sex lives of all couple pairs.

Another possibility is that during the 70s and 80s, lesbians were less visible than they are in today’s culture. With this visibility comes an increased level of validation and possibly accountability. A client who was in her prime dating years during the years of Schwartz and Blumstein’s study explained to this researcher that she had been unfaithful in every relationship from around age twenty to age forty. She stated that now that she is approaching sixty years old, she has come to see that she never valued her relationships, that she did not see lesbian relationships as important as heterosexual relationships. She shared that she had trouble conceiving that they would last in the same way that married couples believed their relationships would last. She explained that she feels differently now, that she has come to see her relationship as something that has meaning, and she experienced this only after coming out and having others (particularly heterosexuals) know about her relationship.

Once lesbians became more visible, it is possible they began to take their own relationships more seriously, which may have contributed to the decline in non-partner sex among those without agreements.

Figure 8.  Instances of Sex Outside the Relationship Among Lesbians

In summary, research largely supports the fact that lesbians are less sexual than other couple pairings. However, there is no evidence to support the belief that this translates into a deficiency, or that a lower frequency is in any way unhealthy. The assumption that heterosexuals are the healthy standard by which lesbians must be compared is a paradigm this researcher rejects. Some lesbians have a lot of sex. Some lesbians have none. Lesbians of all ages are sexual, and most are disinclined to stray sexually from their primary relationship. Lesbian sex does appear to continue at a rate similar to that found in 1987 by Loulan, though fewer lesbians appear to engage in non-partner sex than in previous years. Chapter Seven will shift attention to what is important to lesbians when it comes to their intimate relationships

How did the Narrative of Lesbian Bed Death Impact Lesbian Sexuality?

The search for understanding about how Lesbian Bed Death influenced lesbian sexuality over the last three produces more questions than answers. There is great curiosity about how the topic of lesbian sex, and the phrase lesbian bed death, was carried from the east coast to the west coast so swiftly and effectively during an era when the internet was not available to spread information at viral rates. Though it is interesting to uncover the roots of this phrase, the ultimate goal of this research is to gain a better understanding of how this phrase assumed enough power in our culture to influence the perceptions of lesbians as sexually inferior. How did this message spread so quickly, and then remain so active in the cultural consciousness?

The label of Lesbian Bed Death devalues lesbian relationships by suggesting that lesbians are inadequate, or worse yet, sexually broken. When the measurement is frequency, lesbians lose the race against heterosexual or gay pairings when it comes to sex.

 

 

Who benefits if lesbian sex is viewed as inadequate, or inferior to the sex had by heterosexuals?

One theory is that lesbians pose a threat to social order. Historically, men have held the power in our culture, and women have been raised to depend on them, primarily financially, for survival. This pattern has broken down over the years, thanks to the women’s liberation movement and the increase of women in the workforce. However, women still struggle to find equal footing with men in most areas of life. In South Africa, raping a lesbian can make a man a township hero. “Attackers boast publicly of their crimes and declare to their victims: ‘We’ll show you-you’re a woman,’ the report said. Such attacks are often referred to as ‘corrective rapes’ in South Africa” (Guardian 2011, 1). A woman without a man in South Africa is not considered a woman at all. As archaic as this perspective seems in 21st century America, it is not unreasonable to think that we are a culture that is not yet finished moving slowly out of one view (women are defined by men) and into a new perspective (women are defined by themselves). As we have learned from many other oppressed groups, such as Blacks in America, cultural change is slow, regardless of what is true and right.

Another curiosity that surfaced during this research is about the momentum required to get the message of LBD off the ground. Groups of women were reportedly having regular chats about sex, which served to enhance their own sex lives, and simultaneously fulfilled an important need for a sense of belonging. These participants of these chats percolated the unifying concept of lesbian bed death. From these chats what rose to the surface was the message of lesbian bed death. If McGleughlin’s perception of this phrase is true, it expresses a dual message about the loss of sex and loss of community. In that case, the message itself has somehow changed over time, losing the emphasis once placed on the “death” of the community of lesbians who talk about sex.

An alternate theory about the spread of this message is the possibility that it was simply true, and lesbians themselves were seeking personal validation for their own experience. It is possible that the continued discussions, which also kept LBD alive and spreading, provided an outlet for lesbians to validate their experience. Although there has not been much research about lesbian sexuality over the last three decades, the existing research consistently reported low rates of sexual activity for lesbians, with few exceptions (Alicia Mathews et al 2003, Lelita Peplau et al 1997). Research has also consistently shown a quick decline in frequency over the course of lesbian relationships. The reality seems to be that lesbians had, and still have, less sex. This researcher keeps returning to one question. Who cared, and why was this a problem?

 

Is lower sexual frequency a problem for lesbians?

Coming out in the 70s and 80s was avant-garde behavior. Lesbians were not previously visible to the general public. The best way to establish a sense of belonging is to identify the ways in which you are similar to those with whom you wish to join. If research revealed that lesbians are sexually inadequate during the same time that lesbians were seeking approval for their identity, it seems possible that lesbians themselves would have difficulty accepting this information.

Instead of embracing what is, advocates of lesbians sought, and seem to still be seeking, to disprove the amount of sexual activity that occurs between women, as if to say, “We are like you.” Presumably, the assumption is that being like heterosexuals will allow lesbians to be seen as “normal.” This researcher believes that the greatest power is sourced from the truth. It is not important how much sex lesbians are having, or how often lesbians are having sex. What is important is whether or not lesbians are satisfied with their intimate relationships and whether or not they feel empowered to create these relationships according to their own truth, and not a social standard randomly transferred from other couple pairings.

Gay men are reportedly the most sexual of all pairings. If the frequency or amount of sex determines health, then why are gay men not considered the healthiest of all couples? What would have happened if Schwartz and Blumstein discovered that heterosexuals were having the least amount of sex and that their sexual activity declined more rapidly than the other couple pairs? It is likely that this paper would be evaluating the concern with sexually overactive lesbians, even if their sexual behaviors were exactly as they are now.

Another question that evolved from this research is; How far did the phrase lesbian bed death travel? This researcher decided to briefly explore perceptions of lesbian sexuality in other countries. A cursory look for information about sexual frequency among lesbians in other countries did not reveal much. There was one report on lesbians in The Netherlands/Holland by Karin Van Rosmalen-Nooijens, et al which was conducted in 2008. This study indicated that seventy-six percent of lesbians of all ages experienced a decline in sexual activity.  It appears that the phrase lesbian bed death did not spread far beyond the borders of the United States, but perhaps the phenomena of lower sexual frequency is a shared experience regardless of the country in question.

What does appear consistent is that how lesbians are viewed within a culture is rooted in how women are viewed within that culture. The attitude towards lesbian behavior is directly affected by the role a woman is expected to play in her culture. For example, in Asia, a woman’s role is primarily concerned with reproduction. The concept of sexual orientation is irrelevant because sex for women is not about sex, it is about having babies. In Asia, any sexual behavior that doesn’t have the goal of procreation is considered an aberration. Thus, homosexuality is not acceptable behavior because it is by its very nature about pleasure.

Lesbian bed death stereotyped the sex lives of lesbians as defective, inadequate, and inferior to others. This label added another layer of oppression very similarly to the way “sexual inverts” did in the early 20th century. It is useful to consider the history of the term sexual invert, and the influence this term had on cultural perceptions of lesbians. From the mid-1920s to the mid-1970s, lesbians were considered “sick,” “disturbed,” and “deviant.” It took a half-century to transcend the damaging perceptions of lesbians as mentally ill.

History, it is said, often repeats itself. Given this, it is possible, or even likely, that lesbian bed death, much like sexual inversion, will cycle out of the collective consciousness and be replaced by a new, improved perception of lesbians. If lesbian bed death is a concept that evolved in the mid-1980s, history would indicate that by the year 2030, LBD should be nearly erased from the collective consciousness. This does not, of course, mean that lesbians will be having more sex, but the absence of the label will clarify cultural perceptions about lesbian sexuality, and how those perceptions play out in the sex lives of lesbians.

What makes the most sense to this researcher when assessing the history and influence of the phrase lesbian bed death, is that there was a melting pot of motivations, which led to a conversion of agendas that served multiple purposes simultaneously. Whether it was used as a form of oppression, a way to keep women in their place in society, or whether it was simply because it is true and lesbians needed validation for their truth, the side-effects of this phrase on the sex lives of lesbians have proved unhelpful.

This researcher has concluded that lesbian bed death is a disparaging phrase used to criticize the sexual realities of lesbians in comparison to heterosexuals. It is not the behavior of lesbians that is the problem, it is the grossly inaccurate and irresponsible categorization of these behaviors as inadequate or dysfunctional that is the problem. Debating lesbian bed death validates its merit. This researcher’s conclusion is that lesbians have a bed (a sex life) and it is different than other couple pairs. That difference does not make it dead, it simply makes it different.

To defend lesbian bed death suggests that there is something legitimate to argue against. This researcher does not believe in the legitimacy of LBD. It is a misunderstood concept that filled a void of understanding during a time that lesbians were stepping out and exploring the uncharted territory of a visible life among the heterosexual population. The mistake, it seems, was to agree that a lesbian relationship should mirror that of a heterosexual relationship in order to be successful.

As it turns out, in the limited research conducted about the difference between gay and heterosexual relationships, authors such as John Gottman have concluded that gays and lesbians are more inclined to fight fairly, are not as belligerent with one another as heterosexuals are, and are less domineering and not as fearful with each other. He also discovered that lesbians and gay men make better use of humor when they argue than do their heterosexual counterparts (John Gottman, et al 2003). Is frequent sex more important to a relationship than fair fighting and being kind?

Sexual Frequency of Lesbians

What is the current sexual frequency of lesbians? Question number eight in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey asked, “In the last six months, how many times have you had sex (intimate contact intended to create sexual pleasure) with your partner?” Respondents were prompted to fill in the number of times they had sex in the last six months. Four separate categories of frequency were created to quantify the amount of sex that lesbians were having. Women who reported having sex zero to nine times were placed in the category labeled “once monthly or less.” Women who reported having sex between ten and twenty-one times in the last six months were assigned to the category of “two to three times per month.” Women who reported having sex twenty-two to eighty-three times in the last six months were categorized as having sex “one to three times a week.” The final category of “four or more times per week” included women who reported eighty-four or more episodes of sexual activity in the last six months.

The reported sexual frequencies were then rounded to the nearest category. For example, if a woman reported she had sex nine times in the last six months she would be assigned to the category of “once monthly or less.” Nine times in the last six months is obviously more than once monthly, however, it is closer to this category than it is to the next category of “two to three times a month,” and thus the best fit.

Question eight was completed by 416 women. Twelve percent (50 lesbians) of the sample reported having no sex in the last six months. Thirty-seven percent (154 lesbians) of the sample reported having sex once monthly or less. Combined, these groups represent almost half of the sample population, suggesting that the majority of lesbians are having sex once monthly or less. Twenty percent of lesbians reported having sex two to three times a month. Twenty-seven percent of lesbians reported having sex one to three times weekly. Only five percent reported having sex five or more times weekly.

Few studies have been conducted on the sexual frequency of lesbians. One of the most recent studies was published in 2003 by Matthews, Tartaro, and Hughes. In a comparative study of lesbian and heterosexual women in committed relationships, Alicia Matthews, et al found that sixty-nine percent of lesbians and seventy-six percent of heterosexual women reported having sex at least once weekly. These findings are significantly higher than those of this study. Only thirty-four percent of the women in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample reported having sex at least weekly, as seen in figure seven. It is important to note, however, that the sample size for the Alicia Matthews, et al. study was based on thirty-six lesbians. The small sample size raises questions about the validity of these findings, and the authors acknowledge that the small sample limits their ability to make any generalizations about lesbian sexuality.

Another study was done in 1997 by Letitia Peplau, et al also revealed higher rates of sexual frequency among lesbians. This particular study focused on the sexual behaviors of 398 Black lesbians (Letitia Peplau, et al 1997). The findings showed that eleven percent of Black lesbians reported having sex more than three times a week. This is slightly higher than the eight-percent in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study. Forty-seven percent of lesbians in Letitia Peplau, et al’s study reported having sex one to three times per week, which is significantly higher than the twenty-nine percent in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Forty-one percent of the Black lesbians reported having sex less than once a week, which is significantly lower than the sixty-five percent in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey.

Letitia Peplau, et al acknowledge that the sample is non-representative; however, it does offer insight to the variability of lesbian sexuality. What accounts for the higher rate of sexual frequency among Black women? This is valuable information, given that most of the studies conducted on lesbian sexuality are based on the histories of Caucasian women, including the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample. While this question is outside the scope of this paper, it is none-the-less a valuable question to note.

The most commonly cited source about lesbian sexual frequency is still Schwartz and Blumstein (1983). The frequency of lesbian sex is presented in the context of length of relationship and the rating of one’s quality of sex life. For the American Couples study, it appears these statistics were based on a total of 768 lesbians. Of these lesbians, 195 reports having sex once a month or less, which equals twenty-five percent of the sample. This is significantly lower than the findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey which suggest that forty-eight percent of all lesbians in the sample (44% of lesbian couples) are having sex once monthly or less.

The same calculation process reveals that twenty-seven percent of the American Couples sample have “sex between once a month and once a week” This compares to sixty-eight percent of the women in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample who have sex between once a month and once a week. The third category offered is “sex between one and three times a week.” This includes 274 lesbians or thirty-six percent of the American Couple’s sample. This finding does not differ much from the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, which indicated that twenty-nine percent of lesbians are having sex one to three times per week. The final category of frequency, “Sex three times a week or more,” comprised nineteen percent of the sample. The Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey reported eight percent of women at this level of sexual frequency, which is less than half of the findings by Schwartz and Blumstein (Schwartz and Blumstein 1983, 27).

Loulan’s 1987 study revealed remarkably similar findings to the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Twelve percent of women in both samples report having no sex. Loulan categorized sexual frequency as “once or fewer times” (presumably per month) and “two to five times a month,” which compare closely to the fifty-three percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey who reported having sex up to one or two times per month (Figure 7). Twenty percent of lesbians reported having sex six to ten times a month in Loulan’s survey, compared to twenty-six percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study who reported having sex one to two times weekly. Those reporting sexual activity three or more times a week in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey comprise eight percent of the sample, and for Loulan’s study, fourteen percent reported having sex “eleven or more times in a month.” The similarity in these findings is striking.

General Overview of Lesbian Sexual Frequency

Detailed Lesbian Sexual Frequency

Women aged twenty-one to thirty are the most sexually active of the lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study, with forty-eight percent having sex once weekly or more (Table 9). A noticeable drop in sexual frequency does not begin until after age fifty. At fifty-one, there is a ten percent drop in weekly sexual frequency. Thirty-one percent of forty-one to fifty-year-olds report having weekly sex. This drops to twenty-one percent at age fifty-one and to fourteen percent at age sixty-one. According to the National Institute on Aging, the average age of menopause is fifty-one, which seems to be the strongest explanation for this drop. One of the common side effects reported about menopause is a decrease in libido. The Frequency vs. Satisfaction findings is also similar to the findings of Loulan (1987), where she reports a general decline in sexual frequency as women age, with the most notable drop in frequency occurring between the age group forty to forty-nine, and fifty to fifty-nine.

Sexual Frequency Based on Age of Lesbians

Age

Four or More
Times Per Week

One to Three
Times Per Week

Two to Three
Times Per Month

Once Monthly
or Less

Once weekly or more

< 21 Years (n=6)

17%

17%

33%

33%

34%

21-30 Years (n=50)

10%

38%

18%

34%

48%

31-40 Years (n=127)

6%

28%

20%

47%

34%

41-50 Years (n=169)

4%

27%

24%

44%

31%

51-60 Years (n=72)

6%

15%

17%

63%

21%

60 + Years (n=15)

7%

7%

13%

73%

14%

 

Percentages reflect sexual frequencies per age group

n=lesbians per age

To explore the desire for sex as thoroughly as possible, the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey inquired with participants about the frequency of non-partner sex in the last six months. Question ten asks, “In the last six months, how many times did you have sex with someone other than your partner?” Of the 498 respondents, only forty-two (12%) reported having non-partner sex. The most non-partner sex occurs with couples who have been partnered between six and ten years, followed by women who are newly partnered for up to six months (21%).

Of the forty-two women who report non-partner sex, thirty-nine responded to the question about whether or not their relationship is open or closed to outside sex. Of these thirty-nine who reported having sex outside their relationship in the last six months, thirteen are not currently partnered. This might suggest that thirteen (3%) of women pursued another relationship or at least sex, and it may or may not have been the cause of their relationship break-up. Eight (2%) of the women who had non-partner sex report that they have agreements with their partner to engage in sex outside the relationship. Eighteen of the women (4%) reported no such agreement, so were likely engaged in acts of infidelity.

The incidence of non-partner sex with or without partner approval is nominal. These findings are lower than the incidence of non-partner sex found in 1983 by Schwartz and Blumstein. Ten percent of their sample of lesbians reported infidelity, compared to four percent of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample. Of those with an agreement about non-partner sex, twenty-five percent engaged in sex outside of their relationship.

There are two possibilities that may account for this decline in non-partner sex. One, the onset of AIDS occurred around the time Schwartz and Blumstein reported their findings, which would place participants of their survey at the tail end of the sexual liberation movement where sex was viewed less restrictively in our culture. This era put a damper on the sex lives of all couple pairs.

Another possibility is that during the 70s and 80s, lesbians were less visible than they are in today’s culture. With this visibility comes an increased level of validation and possibly accountability. A client who was in her prime dating years during the years of Schwartz and Blumstein’s study explained to this researcher that she had been unfaithful in every relationship from around age twenty to age forty. She stated that now that she is approaching sixty years old, she has come to see that she never valued her relationships, that she did not see lesbian relationships as important as heterosexual relationships. She shared that she had trouble conceiving that they would last in the same way that married couples believed their relationships would last. She explained that she feels differently now, that she has come to see her relationship as something that has meaning, and she experienced this only after coming out and having others (particularly heterosexuals) know about her relationship.

Once lesbians became more visible, it is possible they began to take their own relationships more seriously, which may have contributed to the decline in non-partner sex among those without agreements.

Instances of Sex Outside the Relationship Among Lesbians

In summary, research largely supports the fact that lesbians are less sexual than other couple pairings. However, there is no evidence to support the belief that this translates into a deficiency, or that a lower frequency is in any way unhealthy. The assumption that heterosexuals are the healthy standard by which lesbians must be compared is a paradigm this researcher rejects. Some lesbians have a lot of sex. Some lesbians have none. Lesbians of all ages are sexual, and most are disinclined to stray sexually from their primary relationship. Lesbian sex does appear to continue at a rate similar to that found in 1987 by Loulan, though fewer lesbians appear to engage in non-partner sex than in previous years. Chapter Seven will shift attention to what is important to lesbians when it comes to their intimate relationships.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michele O’Mara, LCSW, Ph.D. is an expert lesbian relationship coach and psychotherapist with a comfortable obsession with all things related to love and relationships between women. She is particularly fascinated by lesbian couples in blended families, issues of infidelity, lesbian sexuality, and recovery from lesbian breakups. She is the author of Just Ask: 1,000 Questions to Grow Your Relationship, which is available in paperback or Kindle on Amazon, as well as an app on Itunes /Google play. As a side-hobby, she operates a quirky site called “AskLesbians.com” where she randomly polls lesbians to satisfy the quirkiest of curiosities. Lastly, she and her wife Kristen host Lesbian Couples Retreats in various destinations, and you can learn more about those at lesbiancouples.co.

This article is an adaption of Chapter Six of a dissertation written by Michele O’Mara, PhD. Tap here t read the entire dissertation in a pdf format.

Got Questions?

9 + 8 =

Strategy 20 – John Gottman Says Lesbian Couples Do this Better

Strategy 20 – John Gottman Says Lesbian Couples Do this Better

John Gottman tells all couples, including lesbian couples, that one of the Seven Principles of Making Marriage work is to allow your partner to influence you.

lesbian couples, john gottman
For those of you sensitive to being “controlled,” be sure to note the difference between influence and control.  Influence suggests that her thoughts, opinions, wants and needs matter to you.  Control is a coercive tactic to get your way.  There is a big difference between the two.

When you partner with someone, typically you do so because you have respect, value, admiration, appreciation, and belief in the person with whom you choose to spend your life. If that is not true for you, then you may need to reexamine your willingness to accept influence from your partner, or according to John Gottman, your relationship soon may be in trouble. Remember, a relationship is the greatest investment you will make with your life.  If your investment in a relationship does not improve your life, then what purpose does it serve?

By partnering, you are positioning your life in such a way that you have an expanded resource (your relationship) on which to draw from and assist you in becoming the very best version of your self. If you have indeed partnered with someone you respect and value, then it only makes sense that it may be worth listening to their thoughts, opinions, beliefs and suggestions.

As happy lesbian couples, you respond to one another in ways that consistently communicate to the other “What you think and how you feel about things matters to me, and I value you and your opinions, even when I disagree.” John Gottman’s research has revealled many lesbians are doing this well already.  In fact, lesbian couples tend to accept their partner’s influence more readily than heterosexual couples. It is not that you have to agree on everything, but it is imperative that you respect and value one another’s opinions.

According to John Gottman, gay and lesbian couples value fairness and power-sharing between partners more than it appears heterosexual couples do.  In fact, in research with heterosexual couples, Dr. Gottman discovered that husbands who do not accept the influence of their wives have an 81% chance of their marriage deteriorating.

Continue to value power-sharing and fairness and you will continue moving toward a happy lesbian relationship!

Lesbian Sex FAQS:  How many times weekly?

Lesbian Sex FAQS: How many times weekly?

Lesbian Sex:  Frequently Asked Questions Series

How many times does the average lesbian couple have sex per week?

This is a question I asked 496 lesbians whom I surveyed in 2011 while working on my dissertation for my PhD in Clinical Sexology.  The topic of my dissertation was lesbian sex and relationship satisfaction.

Lesbians were asked to report how frequently they had had sex within the six months prior to taking the survey.  If they were single, they were asked to reflect on the last six months of the last relationship they were in.  Clearly, self-report is subject to memory and as a therapist who works with lesbian couples on a daily basis, I can attest that self-report varies among lesbian couples when asked, “How often would you say you have sex per week?”  Not surprisingly, the satisfied partner often recalls a higher number of sexual encounters with her partner than the unsatisfied parter.

Here’s the lesbian sex chapter of my dissertation regarding how often lesbian couples are having sex.

However, here’s what was reported by the 496 lesbians surveyed.

lesbian sex, times per week

When you add up the top three options, no sex, once per month or less you have 49% of lesbians having sex 0 – 1 times per month.  On the other end, you have roughly 32% having sex 1-4 times per week.  In the middle, there is 20% having sex 2-3 times per month.  So, it would seem that lesbians tend to fall into two different camps – sexually active at a fairly regular rate or minimally sexually active.

Summary of how often lesbian sex occurs with lesbian couples:

  • 49% = 0-1 x’s per month
  • 47% = 2x’s a month to 3x’s a week
  • 5% = 4 or more times a week

 

Read : 11 Erogenous Zones – tips for Lesbian Sex

 

Lesbian Sexual Frequency Dissertation References

This is a dissertation by Michele O'Mara, PhD on the topic of Sexual Frequency and Relationship Satisfaction Among Lesbians.  Tap here to read the entire dissertation in a pdf format.

 

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How Often Should Lesbian Couples Have Sex?

This is a dissertation by Michele O'Mara, PhD on the topic of Sexual Frequency and Relationship Satisfaction Among Lesbians.  Tap here to read the entire dissertation in a pdf format.

 

CHAPTER TEN

CONCLUSION

The purpose of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey was to determine the correlation between sexual frequency and relationship satisfaction among lesbians. This researcher was successful in achieving this goal, and also revealed the following information in the process: the sexual frequency of lesbian couples in the twenty-first century, a contemporary definition of lesbian sex according to lesbians themselves, the sexual behaviors in which lesbians regularly engage, and the satisfaction levels with sex as it relates to sexual frequency.

This researcher hypothesized that there is not a strong correlation between sexual frequency and relationship satisfaction among lesbians. Based on findings from the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, this researcher concludes that while there is a correlation between sexual frequency and relationship satisfaction, the correlation is not strong. To determine the correlation between sexual frequency and relationship satisfaction for lesbians, four key questions had to be answered. These questions were the following: “How do lesbians define sex?”, “What are contemporary lesbians doing sexually?”, “How frequently lesbians are lesbians actually having sex?”, and, “How satisfied are lesbians with their relationships?”

The first question answered in this research was, “How do lesbians define sex?” The results of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey revealed that how lesbians define sex has become more inclusive over the last thirty years. Lesbian sex was most commonly defined by the respondents in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study as one of three behaviors between women: oral sex, vaginal penetration, or clitoral stimulation. The older the respondent, the more likely she was to include non-genitally focused activities in her definition of sex. The younger the respondent, the more likely she was to include anal stimulation in her definition of sex. The majority of contemporary lesbians also agree that an orgasm is not a requirement when defining lesbian sex.

Next, this researcher answered the question, “What are contemporary lesbians doing sexually?” Not only has the definition of sex expanded to include more activities, but the actual sexual behaviors of lesbians also bring more diverse experiences to the 21st century lesbian than the 20th century lesbian. While foreplay and kissing during sex continue to be the most consistent ingredients in the sexual repertoire of lesbians, penetrative sex with a vibrator/dildo and oral sex have increased in popularity over the last three decades.

Masturbation rates have remained stable over the past few decades; lesbians masturbate roughly three to four times per month. The majority of lesbians (84%) experience orgasms when they have sex. The research also revealed that the most common technique used by lesbians during sex is clitoral stimulation (finger sex), followed by penetrative sex. Oral sex is the least common of the top three behaviors considered “having sex” by lesbians. Lesbians also reported that they like to take their time when they have sex, with seventy-nine percent having engaged in sexual sessions that characteristically lasted thirty minutes or longer.

With answers to how lesbians define and practice sex, this researcher next answered the question, “What is most important in a relationship for lesbians?” The most important aspects of a relationship for lesbians are a strong emotional connection and a strong intellectual connection. Among the various relationship characteristics evaluated in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, sexual frequency surfaced as least important to lesbians.

Lesbians who placed the greatest value on sexual frequency were those partnered for three to five years, and those who lived together with no children. The majority of women (55%) reported that sex was not the issue that caused their relationships to end, and of those who cited sexual issues as the motivation for their relationship’s demise, twenty-eight percent indicated that it was caused by a difference in desired sexual frequency.

The next question this researcher answered was, “How frequently are lesbians having sex?” When compared to research dating back to the 1980s, the findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey suggest that the frequency of lesbian sex has not increased. In fact, when compared to some studies, the rates of lesbian sexual frequency have experienced a slight decline.

Finally, this researcher then answered the question, “How satisfied are lesbians with their relationships?” In lesbian relationships, the least satisfied couples were those who were partnered between six and ten years. This is valuable information for the clinician who strives to normalize the various phases of relationship development, offering clients affirmation that they are not alone in their relationship struggles. This information is also useful in promoting the importance of greater attention to lesbian relationships during these years, as the lower satisfaction rates may lead to more breakups if appropriate interventions are not made during these years.

Unlike heterosexuals, lesbians do not have clear roadmaps to guide the development of their relationships. Even if heterosexuals reject the traditional paths that are socially prescribed for relationship development (dating, engagement, marriage, children, etc.), there is, at least, a point from which to consciously deviate. Lesbians, however, are left to trial and error. There is little information available to guide lesbians as they seek to understand the dynamics of their own relationships.

While analyzing the data provided in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, it became apparent that the number of lesbians who are raising children together is increasing, and the average length of a lesbian relationship is longer than it was decades ago. This makes sense in the context of increasing societal acceptance of lesbian relationships. With acceptance comes a higher level of family support, which is important for creating lasting partnerships and families, regardless of sexual orientation. Another benefit of social acceptance for lesbians is the likelihood that lesbians will have a greater respect for their own relationship.

Prior research has emphasized the comparison of sexual frequency between the various couple dyads, inferring that lesbian sexuality is somehow impaired because of the consistently lower rates of frequency that result from this comparison. This researcher believes there is no need to compare frequency rates between couple dyads, and that the rate of sexual frequency is not central to the health or success of lesbian relationships. This researcher rejects the assumption that heterosexuals represent the healthy standard by which lesbians must be compared. By rejecting this comparison, it is easier to see relationships created between women as a unique and separate experience, and this allows for the comparison of apples to apples, rather than apples (lesbians) to oranges (heterosexuals).

According to the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, lesbian couples experience a relatively dramatic decline in sexual frequency after they have been partnered for only six months. The most significant decrease in sexual frequency is found among lesbians who live together, regardless of whether or not children are living with them. Lesbians between the ages of twenty-one and thirty years old report the lowest rates of decline in their sexual frequency. This is also the most sexually active group of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey based on age. The highest drop in frequency occurs with lesbians who are fifty-one to sixty years old. The most commonly reported reason for a decline in sexual frequency is stress, and only twenty percent of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample denied a loss of sexual frequency in their relationships.

This leads to the big question on which this research is based. Do the lower rates of sexual frequency, and the rapid declines in sexual frequency, impact the overall relationship satisfaction for lesbians? Ironically, lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey rated sexual frequency among the least important variable of their relationships, yet they report this is also what they are least satisfied with in their relationship.

The Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey suggests that a slight change in sexual frequency in either direction appears to have no serious consequences on lesbian relationship satisfaction. However, when sexual frequency is not fully satisfying, the negative impact on overall relationship satisfaction is not as great as the positive impact of a fully satisfying rate of sexual frequency. In a lesbian relationship, an emotional connection has a much stronger impact than sexual frequency does. This applies equally to negative and positive changes in the emotional connection that lesbians share.

After analyzing the data of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, this researcher reached several conclusions. First, lesbian relationship development follows a strong, consistent pattern for the majority of lesbian couples. The pattern starts when lesbian couples partner with a particular emphasis on the emotional attraction, which is prized more highly than any other aspect of the relationship throughout the course of their relationship, no matter how long their relationship lasts. Sexual connection between lesbians is strongest at the start of the relationship, and dramatically declines after the first year lesbian couples are partnered. Lesbians experience the greatest decline in relationship satisfaction between years six and ten, and lesbian couples who make it to their eleventh anniversary begin to experience incremental improvements in relationship satisfaction as their relationship continues.

Another conclusion this researcher reached is that sexual frequency does influence relationship satisfaction; however, it appears the power of its influence is unidirectional. Higher sexual frequency correlates with higher relationship satisfaction. The reverse, however, is not true. Lower sexual frequency does not correlate with lower relationship satisfaction.

Couples who experienced a slight decrease in sexual frequency were still fully satisfied ninety percent of the time, and couples who experienced a slight increase in sexual frequency were also fully satisfied ninety-percent of the time. The groups who most frequently reported that their relationship was not satisfying were comprised of the following: those who stopped having sex (24%) and lesbians who reported a significant increase in their sexual frequency (13%).

Lesbians who ceased all sexual activity had relationship satisfaction ratings that were distributed fairly evenly among the three levels of satisfaction. Thirty-four percent were fully satisfied, forty-two percent were moderately satisfied, and the lowest group was twenty-four percent who were not fully satisfied. Of the lesbians who reported a significant decrease in sexual frequency, fifty-three percent indicated they were very satisfied with their overall relationship, forty-one percent reported they were moderately satisfied, and only six percent reported they were not satisfied.

There is no discernible pattern in satisfaction ratings that indicates a strong correlation between sexual frequency and overall relationship satisfaction. Many of the reported changes in sexual frequency (slight increase, slight decrease, moderate increase, no changes, and significant increase) do not seem to greatly impact the overall relationship satisfaction of lesbians.

The changes in sexual frequency that are associated with the lowest satisfaction ratings (significant decrease and stopping all together) do not elicit strong negative responses from lesbians in terms of their overall relationship satisfaction. Interestingly, the two categories that draw the strongest negative ratings for overall relationship satisfaction are women with a significant increase in sexual frequency (13%) and women who have stopped having sex all together (24%).

A moderate increase in sexual frequency does not pose any harm to relationship satisfaction. Ultimately, it appears that any amount of sex is important to lesbians, and even though lesbians generally want more sex than they are having, the absence of sex does not decisively detract from relationship satisfaction.

Ninety percent of lesbians who are fully satisfied with their sexual frequency are also fully satisfied with their overall relationship. This suggests that when sexual frequency is satisfying, there is a strong possibility that the relationship in general will be satisfying. However, when looked at from the opposite perspective, lesbians who report that they are not fully satisfied with their sexual frequency still state they are fully satisfied with their overall relationship thirty-nine percent of the time, and moderately satisfied thirty-three percent of the time. This means the majority of lesbians (72%) do not identify their overall relationship as not fully satisfied regardless of how infrequently they are having sex.

Only twenty-eight percent of lesbians with unsatisfactory sexual frequency report they are not fully satisfied with their overall relationship. When sexual frequency is not fully satisfying, the negative impact on overall relationship satisfaction is not as great as the positive impact when sexual frequency is fully satisfying. Therefore, the positive impact of satisfying rates of sexual frequency is greater than the negative impact of unsatisfying rates of sexual frequency for lesbian couples.

In conclusion, sexual frequency bears more relevance to relationship satisfaction than this researcher anticipated. However, the data analyzed in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Study does not support a relationship between sexual frequency and relationship satisfaction that is strong enough to assert that there is a correlation. Thus, the formal conclusion of this research is that while sexual frequency has the power to positively impact a lesbian relationship, infrequent sexual activity among lesbians does not necessitate the likelihood of lower levels of relationship satisfaction.

Challenges with the Study

There were some challenges with the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study. The sample from which the data was drawn included primarily white lesbians (77%), resulting in a racially homogenous pool of survey respondents. Another concern with the sample was the disproportionate geographic representation. Although eighty-four percent of the U.S. cities are represented in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey with at least one respondent from each state, the majority of the sample (61%) is from the researcher’s home state, Indiana. The imbalance in geographic representation may overemphasize the attitudes, beliefs, and feelings of lesbians in the Midwest, which is commonly believed to be more conservative. This geographic bias may skew the survey results.

Another concern about the sampling process results from the outreach method used. Because the research was conducted by a psychotherapist who specializes in the care of lesbian individuals and couples, the survey outreach may have included a disproportionate number of lesbians who are in therapy. This also has the potential to bias the survey outcomes, assuming that lesbians in therapy may present with more concerns about their relationship than lesbians not in counseling.

A third concern with the study relates to the use of self-report to gather data. In some cases, lesbians were asked to rely on their memory of a relationship that was terminated up to six months ago. The greater amount of recall that is required, the greater margin of error there is in the ultimate findings. Additionally, lesbians who were recounting their experiences of a prior relationship may have a biased perception of that relationship depending on how it ended. If the relationship ended poorly, they may experience negative recall, which could influence their thoughts about relationship satisfaction, or even their feelings about the frequency of sex and other variables explored in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey.

Areas identified for future research

Several additional questions surfaced while researching the topic of sexual frequency as it correlates with relationship satisfaction. One of the findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, as well as Lever’s Survey (1995), shows that no matter how much sex lesbians are having, they generally report the desire for more. This particular dichotomy of infrequent sex by lesbians who state a wish for more seems to be at the heart of the lesbian sexual dilemma. Further research may prove helpful in answering this question: What is preventing lesbians who report a desire for more frequent sex from having more sex?

Another unanswered question that surfaced during this study is, “How does perceived relationship security influence sexual frequency in lesbian relationships?” This is not a topic that was addressed in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, nor is it a topic that this researcher came across in her research. However, it seems that relationship security, or more specifically, the feeling of safety that one’s relationship is strong and stable, appears to be a valuable characteristic to lesbians, and one that is supported by a strong emotional connection. This researcher theorizes the possibility that the greater the perceived relationship security for a lesbian couple, the lower the rate of sexual frequency.

Other areas of interest for further research relate to the universality of lesbian sexual frequency. How do rates of lesbian sexual frequency in the United States compare to other countries, particularly in more progressive countries that provide rights and protections for lesbian relationships? Is there a cultural influence, or even a geographical influence, on sexual frequency among lesbians? Perhaps a study comparing lesbians from selected larger cities such as New York City, New York and Los Angeles, California could be compared to lesbians from smaller cities in the Midwest such as Indianapolis, Indiana and Columbus, Ohio. The correlation of race and sexual frequency among lesbians is also a valuable topic to explore.

This worker concludes that the next step in the quest for greater understanding about lesbian sexuality will be best achieved through qualitative research. The most accurate picture of lesbian sexuality will likely require a detailed, longitudinal, qualitative study that tracks the nuances and dynamics of a lesbian couple’s relationship from the initial stages of courtship throughout the course of their relationship. This would allow for new information to surface that has not yet been hypothesized, and for lesbians to give voice to their experiences as they are happening, rather than the subjective nature involved in recalling the events of one’s relationship.

What is most clear to this researcher is that sex between women is uniquely lesbian and without comparison. When juxtaposed with heterosexual or gay male relationships, lesbian sexuality is out of focus, blurred by what is perceived to be “normal” when in fact, lesbian sexuality has no established baseline behavior of its own. As research continues on lesbian sexuality without preconceived notions about how it “should” look or what it “should” entail, interesting and important discoveries will likely be made. Ultimately, lesbian sexuality is already valuable in its own right for its own nuances. Unfortunately, it is not yet well understood. In time, lesbians will be equipped to define their own sexual health through greater understanding of lesbian sexuality as a whole, and when that happens, needed progress will have been made.

Read Chapter Nine

Dissertation References

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