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 NINE

LESBIAN RELATIONSHIP SATISFACTION

In order to correlate sexual frequency with relationship satisfaction, a clear understanding of lesbian relationship satisfaction must be established. This chapter explores the key areas of lesbian relationships and the corresponding levels of satisfaction that lesbians experience. Included in this discussion will be satisfaction levels associated with social compatibility, intellectual connections, spiritual compatibility, sexual aspects (chemistry, pleasure, and frequency), and emotional connection. The connection between relationship satisfaction and sexual frequency among lesbians is also examined.

Overall Relationship Satisfaction Levels

The curiosity about lesbian sexuality grew after Schwartz and Blumstein reported that lesbians were having less sex than any other couple pair. In the same publication, they noted that lesbians “do not feel less satisfied with their relationships when sex occurs infrequently” (Scwartz and Blumstein 1983, 201). Since then, much of the research that has been conducted on lesbian relationship satisfaction focused on proving the viability of lesbian relationships, which was usually achieved by comparing them to heterosexual relationships (Peplau and Cochran 1980; Testa et al. 1987; Crawford and Solliday 1996; Kurdek 1998). For example, Peplau and Ghavami confirmed that “same-sex couples do not differ significantly from heterosexual couples” (2009, 1). Essentially, this means there is equal opportunity for both good and bad relationships regardless of the sexual orientation of the partners.

Once researchers established that lesbian relationships are as satisfying as heterosexual relationships, a few researchers expanded their scope of inquiry to include the variables that may contribute to lesbian relationship satisfaction. Schreurs and Buunk were among these researchers, and they found that lesbian relationship satisfaction increases along with the increase in a lesbian’s perception of equity in her relationship (1996). Similarly, Peplau and Spalding discovered that when lesbians believe they have relatively equal levels of power and decision-making in their relationship, their satisfaction rates are higher (2000). Other researchers discovered that sexual satisfaction in women is linked most strongly with emotional variables, especially the quality of relationship rather than physical or sexual characteristics of a relationship (Hawton, Gath, and Day 1994; Herbert 1996; Hurlbert and Apt 1993).

Among the few studies conducted on lesbian relationships, sexual frequency has received more focus than many topics. However, the studies most often addressed the question, “Why are lesbians having sex less frequently than other couple pairs?” This researcher decided to observe the current state of sexual frequency among lesbians and to identify the influence sexual frequency has on lesbian relationship satisfaction.

Respondents in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey were asked in question seventeen, “How would you rate your satisfaction with the following aspects of your current or most recent relationship?” The aspects listed included the following: “emotional connectedness,” “sexual chemistry,” “intellectual connection,” “spiritual connection,” “social compatibility,” “frequency of sex with my partner,” “physical pleasure experienced during sex with my partner,” “amount of time spent during each sexual encounter,” and her “overall relationship satisfaction.” The response options included: “extremely satisfying,” “very satisfying,” “moderately satisfying,” “slightly satisfying,” and “not at all satisfying.” The responses to these questions are detailed in Table 17.

Table 17.   Satisfaction Ratings of Relationship Characteristics for Lesbians

Satisfaction Rating

Extremely Satisfied

Very
Satisfied

Moderately Satisfied

Slightly Satisfied

Not at All Satisfied

Intellectual Connection

51%

11%

28%

5%

5%

Physical Pleasure with Sex

45%

29%

16%

5%

4%

Emotional Connection

40%

27%

20%

7%

6%

Sexual Chemistry

39%

27%

23%

11%

7%

Overall Relationship Satisfaction

34%

34%

17%

9%

6%

Social Compatibility

31%

35%

23%

8%

4%

Time Spent on Sex

30%

37%

19%

7%

6%

Spiritual Connection

28%

28%

23%

14%

8%

Sexual Frequency

17%

22%

25%

16%

21%

 

To analyze these responses, this researcher combined the number of women who responded “extremely satisfying” with those who responded “very satisfying” and created a new category to describe this group as “Fully Satisfied.” The women who responded with “slightly satisfying” or “not at all satisfying” are placed in a newly created category, “Not Fully Satisfied.” The remaining group of responses is categorized as “moderately satisfied,” which will remain its own neutral category of neither fully satisfied nor under satisfied.

Analysis of lesbians in the fully satisfied and the not fully satisfied categories reveals that of all the relationship characteristics assessed, women were most satisfied with the physical pleasure they experienced with sex (74%). The second most highly rated characteristic by lesbians is their overall relationship satisfaction. This was considered fully satisfied by the majority (68%) of the sample, and only fifteen percent of the sample considered their relationship not fully satisfying. Thus, most lesbians are very satisfied with their relationships.

Lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey were least satisfied with their sexual frequency (39%). This finding suggests that despite the fact that lesbians endorse high levels of pleasure associated with sex, they are largely disappointed by their sexual infrequency. The second least satisfying characteristic reported by lesbians is their spiritual connection. Roughly half of the sample (56%) reported they were fully satisfied, and twenty-two percent reported they were not fully satisfied with their spiritual connection.

The remaining five characteristics were all similarly rated and included the following: “time spent on sex” (67%), “emotional connection” (67%), “sexual chemistry” (66%), “social compatibility” (66%), and “intellectual connection” (62%). These same characteristics were rated not fully satisfied by ten to eighteen percent of the sample, with sexual chemistry being the least satisfying (18%) of all the traits.

 

Figure 19.  Lesbians Fully Satisfied with Relationship Characteristics

 

 

Table 18.   Satisfaction Ratings for Lesbians, Based on Fully Satisfied and Not Fully Satisfied

Satisfaction Rating

Fully Satisfied (FS)

Not Fully Satisfied (NFS)

Physical Pleasure with Sex

74%

9%

Overall Relationship Satisfaction

68%

15%

Time Spent on Sex

67%

13%

Emotional Connection

67%

13%

Sexual Chemistry

66%

18%

Social Compatibility

66%

12%

Intellectual Connection

62%

10%

Spiritual Connection

56%

22%

Sexual Frequency

39%

37%

 

 

Sexual Frequency and Relationship Satisfaction

 Further analysis indicates that a slight increase or a slight decrease in sexual frequency does not negatively affect relationship satisfaction for lesbians. 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 (Table 19). The groups who most frequently reported that their relationship was not satisfying were those who stopped having sex (24%), followed by lesbians who reported they had 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 to these satisfaction ratings that would indicate a strong correlation between sexual frequency and overall relationship satisfaction. Moderate 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 sexual frequency changes associated with the lowest satisfaction ratings (significant decrease and stopping all together) do not draw strong negative responses from lesbians when correlated with 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 slight change in sexual frequency in either direction appears to have no serious consequences for lesbians. While not as helpful as a slight increase or decrease is in the overall relationship satisfaction, a moderate increase in sexual frequency also does not indicate serious 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.

Table 19.   Satisfaction Ratings for Lesbians Based on Changes in Sexual Frequency Listed from Most Satisfying to Least Satisfying

Changes in Sexual Frequency

Fully Satisfied

Moderately Satisfied

Not Fully Satisfied

Slight Increase

90%

11%

0%

Slight Decrease

90%

9%

1%

Moderate Increase

88%

12%

0%

No Changes

79%

17%

4%

Significant Increase

78%

13%

13%

Moderate Decrease

70%

26%

3%

Significant Decrease

53%

41%

6%

Stopped

34%

42%

24%

 

Figure 20.  Lesbians Fully Satisfied with Sexual Frequency as it Relates to Sexual Frequency Changes

 

Does sexual frequency influence satisfaction with the overall relationship for lesbians? The answer is not as simple as yes or no. When lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey were asked about their satisfaction with sexual frequency, 165 respondents (37% of the sample) reported they were not fully satisfied. There were 174 respondents who reported they were fully satisfied with their sexual frequency (39% of the sample), and the remaining 111 reported moderate satisfaction with their sexual frequency.

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, which 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 an unsatisfactory sexual frequency report they are not fully satisfied with their overall relationship. When sexual frequency is not fully satisfying, the negative impact on the overall relationship satisfaction is not as great as the positive impact when sexual frequency is fully satisfying. Therefore, the comparative benefit of fully satisfying sexual frequency contributes much more to a lesbian relationship than the disappointment of unsatisfying sexual frequency takes away from lesbian relationships.

Table 20.   Correlation of Sexual Frequency Satisfaction and Overall Relationship Satisfaction for Lesbians

Overall Relationship Satisfaction

FS with Sexual Frequency
n=174                       39% of Sample

Moderately Satisfied with Sexual Frequency                   n=111                                       25% of Sample

NFS with Sexual Frequency                    n= 165                                    37% of Sample

FS with Overall Relationship

90%

76%

39%

Moderately Satisfied with Overall Relationship

7%

12%

33%

NFS with Overall Relationship

3%

13%

28%

According to the respondents in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey, the most important aspect of a lesbian relationship is consistent with findings by other researchers, including Diamond, who stated that “women generally place less emphasis on the sexual component of their lesbian or bisexual identification” (2008, 50). There is little disagreement about the differences between what men value most and what women value most in a relationship. In the words of Peplau and Fingerhut, “ Men, regardless of sexual orientation, are more likely to emphasize a partner’s physical attractiveness; women, regardless of sexual orientation, give greater emphasis to personality characteristics” (2007, 407).

As Ossana stated, “Lesbians may place primary value on emotional relatedness when choosing a partner, which may subsequently lead to problems with boundary maintenance and sexual desire. Gay men, on the other hand, may emphasize sexual attractiveness when choosing a partner, which may subsequently contribute to problems with emotional intimacy” (2000, 283).

In order to test the validity of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey findings regarding sexual frequency and overall relationship satisfaction, this researcher also examined the correlation between emotional connection and overall relationship satisfaction. In table twenty-one it is apparent that unlike the sexual frequency variable, emotional connection appears to have an equally strong positive and negative impact on lesbian relationships depending on the satisfaction with one’s emotional connection. The majority of the sample (64%) reported a strong emotional connection, which correlates with ninety-one percent of these women reporting a fully satisfying relationship.

Conversely, eighteen percent of the sample reported that their emotional connection was not fully satisfied. This correlates with eighty-four percent of these women reporting that their overall relationship was also not fully satisfied. Thirty-nine percent of lesbians who were not fully satisfied with their sexual frequency reported that they were fully satisfied with their overall relationship. Whereas only seven percent of women who reported they were not fully satisfied with their emotional connection were fully satisfied with their relationship. This table suggests that emotional connection has a much stronger impact on lesbian relationships both positively and negatively than the impact of sexual frequency has on lesbian relationships.

Table 21.   Correlation of Emotional Satisfaction and Overall Relationship Satisfaction for Lesbians

Overall Relationship Satisfaction

FS with Sexual Frequency
n=305                       63% of Sample

Moderately Satisfied with Sexual Frequency                   n=91                                       19% of Sample

NFS with Sexual Frequency                    n= 87                                    18% of Sample

FS with Overall Relationship

91%

22%

7%

Moderately Satisfied with Overall Relationship

10%

33%

5%

NFS with Overall Relationship

<.01%

1%

84%

 

Another way to examine the importance of sexual frequency for lesbians is to inquire about their desired sexual frequency. This was the purpose of question number nine, which asked, “In the last six months, how many times would you have liked to have sex with your partner?” Similar to the findings by Lever in her 1995 survey, “No matter how much sex women are getting, most want more” (Lever 1995, 24). Though Lever’s report did not detail the rates of desired sexual frequency, she was clear that at every level of sexual frequency, lesbians desired more sex than they were having.

Figure twenty-one reveals the desired sexual frequency for lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Forty-three percent of lesbians desired to have sex one to three times per week, and only twenty-seven percent of the sample reported having sex this frequently. The most prevalent rate of sexual frequency among lesbians in the sample is once a month or less (37%), which is the desired frequency for only nineteen percent of the sample.

Figure 21.  Desired Sexual Frequency of Lesbians

Overall frequency of sex desired in the last six months for lesbians

 

 

How do these rates of desired frequency compare to the actual amount of sex lesbians are having? For every level of sexual frequency, the number of lesbians having sex at that level is less than the number of lesbians who desire it, except for those wanting sex once monthly or less. In this case, there are more lesbians having sex at this frequency than is desired. Lesbians having sex once monthly or less appear to be the least satisfied. Though fifty percent of the lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey were having sex once monthly or less, only nineteen percent were satisfied with this frequency. The most desired sexual frequency is one to three times per week; however, only twenty five percent of lesbians are actually having sex at that frequency.

Figure 22.  Comparison of Actual and Desired Sexual Frequency Among Lesbians

 

Because the majority of lesbians (68%) surveyed in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey reported they were fully satisfied with their relationship, it is difficult to identify the variables that contribute to this satisfaction. The most compelling variable that correlates with relationship satisfaction is a strong emotional connection. The other significant correlation that surfaced among respondents is that higher rates of sexual frequency were most prevalent among lesbians who were partnered between six and eleven months.

When correlating length of relationship with overall relationship satisfaction, it is interesting to note that the most satisfied couples have been partnered between six and eleven months, followed by couples who have been partnered between one and two years. Only fifty-eight percent of lesbians who have been partnered between six and ten years report they are fully satisfied with their relationship. This group of couples is the least satisfied based on the length of relationship. Satisfaction rates begin to improve for lesbians once they are together for eleven to twenty years, with sixty-four percent reporting they are fully satisfied. For lesbians who celebrate twenty-one or more years together, the satisfaction rates are even better, with seventy percent reporting they are fully satisfied.

The patterns of satisfaction rates in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Study make the most sense when viewed through the stages of relationship development created by Harville and Helen Hendrix in their book, Getting the Love You Want (1988). The initial phase is the Romantic Stage, and it is the beginning period of attraction that brings two people together long enough to create a commitment. This stage involves the release of feel-good chemicals, which improves mood, energy, and overall positive feelings about oneself, one’s partner, and life. The focus of this stage is on the similarities between partners, with the goal of securing a relationship commitment. This blissfully euphoric state is also referred to as limerence, and the pleasing effects of this stage can last up to one or two years. Once a commitment is made, which often coincides with living together, the limerence begins to fade.

The second stage of the relationship development in the Imago Theory is the Power Struggle. This stage is the least enjoyable of the three, and it is often the one which lasts the longest. As time progresses and the feel-good chemicals fade, Hendrix suggests that couples switch their focus from how they are alike, and the primary focus of attention turns to how they are different. This researcher agrees with Hendrix’s theory that when couples make a commitment, they feel secure enough to disagree. Prior to the commitment, couples are too busy cementing the relationship to concern themselves with their differences. The research findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey also support this idea. Satisfaction rates are strongest before year three, and sexual frequency is also more frequent before year three. Couples also report higher rates of relationship satisfaction when they do not cohabitate. These findings support the idea that satisfaction rates are greater the less committed couples are.

According to Hendrix, some couples never exit the power struggle. It makes sense to this researcher that during the years typically associated with the Power Struggle Stage (year two and beyond), couples would experience a decline in relationship satisfaction that would continue to drop until they moved into stage three, Real Love. This is consistent with the findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Relationship satisfaction rates start to decline during the third year of the relationship, and they drop even further when couples enter years six through ten. However, as couples progress through their relationship, and likely through their power struggles, their satisfaction rates improve with every year they are together after year ten.

The final stage in the Imago Theory by Harville and Helen Hendrix is Real Love. This is the stage most commonly associated with unconditional love. Real love is present when partners begin to fully accept one another and their differences. There is no longer a desire to change certain aspects about each other, and with this comes a sense of freedom to be more spontaneous and joyful. When couples enter this phase of their relationship, it makes sense that they would experience an increase in their relationship satisfaction, just as the women did in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. The longer lesbians stay together, the higher their satisfaction rates climb.

Table 22.   Correlation of Length of Relationship and Relationship Satisfaction for Lesbians

Overall Relationship Satisfaction

FS with Overall Relationship

Moderately Satisfied with Overall Relationship

NFS with Overall Relationship

< 6 Months

72%

17%

11%

6-11 Months

76%

12%

12%

1-2 Years

73%

12%

15%

3-5 Years

68%

23%

10%

6-10 Years

58%

22%

21%

11-20 Years

64%

14%

21%

21 + Years

70%

5%

25%

 

 

In summary, lesbians are on average most satisfied with the physical pleasure they experience during sex (74%), and they are least satisfied with their sexual frequency (39%). Lesbians identify the second least satisfying characteristic of relationships as spiritual connection. A slight change in sexual frequency in either direction appears to have no serious emotional consequences for lesbians. When sexual frequency is not fully satisfying, the negative impact on the overall relationship satisfaction does not outweigh the positive impact when sexual frequency is fully satisfying. In a lesbian relationship, the emotional connection of the partners has a much stronger influence than does sexual frequency. Lastly, relationship satisfaction rates mirror the stages of relationship development in the Imago Theory, with couples experiencing strong satisfaction in the early years, a dip in the middle years, with stronger rates of satisfaction in the later years of their relationship.

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