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 EIGHT

CHANGES IN SEXUAL FREQUENCY OVER TIME

Changes in sexual frequency affect all couple pairs. However, in the American Couples study, Schwartz and Blumstein discovered that not only are lesbians less sexual than other couples, they also experience a faster and steeper decline in sexual frequency than other couple dyads. This chapter will provide an updated view of sexual frequency among lesbians. Attention will also be given to the reasons used to explain the decline in sexual frequency among lesbian couples.

Changes in Sexual Frequency

Prior to 1978, “Virtually no empirical research exist[ed] concerning the romantic and sexual relationships of lesbians” (Letitia Peplau, et al 1978, 7). Thirty-four years later, there is still limited research on the topic of lesbian sexuality. Of the studies that have been conducted, most reached the same two conclusions. Lesbians have less sex than other couple pairings, and they also experience a rapid decline in sexual frequency (Letitia Peplau, et al 1978; Schwartz and Blumstein 1983; Loulan 1987).

Only three studies that were conducted with large sample sizes (Schwartz and Blumstein 1983; Loulan 1987; Lever 1995) offer information that correlates sexual frequency with the length of the relationship. These studies will serve as a point of comparison for the findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study.

In her survey of 2,525 lesbians from the gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate, Lever reported that in the first year of their relationship, thirty-three percent of lesbians had sex three or more times per week. The Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey reported seven percent of lesbian couples had sex four times a week or more during the first six months of relationship, twenty-one percent during the second six months, and six percent during years one and two (Table 12).

Lever’s sample also reported that only twenty-percent of lesbians had sex three or more times per week in the second year of their relationship, which compared to six percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey who had sex four or more times per week during their first and second year, and thirty-seven percent who had sex one to three times a week during the same time frame. There were no additional comparisons for couples beyond year two in Lever’s article. These comparisons suggest a slightly higher frequency of sexual activity among Lever’s sample than found in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey.

The 1983 findings by Schwartz and Blumstein represent even higher levels of sexual frequency compared to those reported in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. In both studies, there is a steady decline in sexual frequency, though the decline is more severe in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample than in the American Couples study. In the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, twenty-six percent of lesbians who were partnered two years or less reported they had sex four or more times per week, compared to seventy-six percent of lesbians in American Couples.

Twenty-two percent of couples in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study who were together between three and ten years (compared to 37% with American Couples who were together two to ten years), reported a sexual frequency of once or more times per week. In the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, only one lesbian out of seventy-six who were together eleven or more years reported having sex four or more times weekly, compared one percent of sixty-one lesbians who were partnered ten or more years in the American Couples study. This is an increase in sexual frequency for couples who were partnered ten or more years.

It is interesting to note that in general, sexual frequency among lesbian couples is lower in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey than the frequencies reported in the American Couples study. In this researcher’s study, however, lesbians demonstrated increasingly stronger staying power in their relationships. One of the most noticeable differences among the various surveys conducted over the last thirty years is the increase in length of time lesbians are in their relationship.

Couples in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study had been partnered longer than those represented in the American Couples study. Forty-six percent of the lesbians in the American Couples study were partnered two years or less, compared to thirty-five percent in this researcher’s study. Forty-six percent of lesbians in the American Couples study were partnered between two and ten years. This is similar to the forty-eight percent of lesbians partnered the same length of time in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. The two samples differ, however, with lesbians who have been together over ten years. Only eight-percent of the lesbians in the American Couples study had been partnered over ten years, compared to seventeen percent in this researcher’s study. The average length of relationship among the lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey was between three and five years.

Table 12.  Sexual Frequency Based on Length of Relationship for Lesbian Couples

Length of Relationship

Once Monthly or Less

Two to Three Times Monthly

One to Three Times Weekly

4+ Week

< 6 months (n=41)

29%

27%

37%

7%

6-11 months (n=47)

28%

6%

45%

21%

1-2 years (n=82)

29%

28%

37%

6%

3-5 years (n=122)

51%

22%

22%

5%

6-10 years (n=93)

67%

17%

15%

1%

11-20 years (n=59)

75%

14%

10%

2%

21+ years (n=17)

76%

18%

6%

0%

 

Consistent with prior research, the trend among lesbian couples in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey revealed that lesbian couples experienced a decline in sexual frequency the longer they were partnered (Schwartz and Blumstein 1983; and Loulan 1987; Lever 1995). Lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey reached their peak sexual frequency during months six through eleven, after which there is a steady decline in sexual frequency as the relationship continues. Figure 16 displays the percentage of lesbians who had sex once weekly or more during the last six months. After couples reach their peak sexual frequency during the second six months of their relationship, there is a noticeable and steady decline in the percentage of women who reported having sex once weekly or more as the length of relationship increases.

Figure 16.  Sexual Frequency of Lesbians According to Length of Relationship.

The percentages reflect the number of lesbians who report having sex once or more per week.

 

The most significant drop in activity experienced by respondents in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey occurred early in the relationship. Twenty-seven percent of lesbian couples partnered less than six months reported decreased sexual frequency. However, in the next six months of their relationship, fifty-eight percent of lesbians experienced a decrease in sexual frequency.

Eighty-two percent of lesbians who were partnered three to five years reported a decline in sexual frequency. After year five, the frequency changes were less significant. Of lesbians partnered five to twenty-one or more years, eleven percent reported decreased sexual activity. Thus, the sexual activity declined most dramatically (31%) for lesbians between their first and second six months of a relationship.

The findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey are consistent with those found in Loulan’s study of 1,566 lesbians (1987). Loulan used a graph which compared the number of times lesbians had sex in the last month with the length of their relationship (1987, 215). She reported that lesbians engaged in sex between ten and eleven times a month (2-3 times per week) throughout the first year of their relationship. Then following their one year anniversary, lesbian couples in her sample experienced a fifty percent decline in sexual frequency. This is a lower decline than the seventy-nine percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey who reported a decline in sexual activity after being partnered one to two years.

Table 13.   Changes in Sexual Frequency According to Length of Relationship for Lesbians

Length of Relationship

No Change

Slight Increase

Moderate Increase

Significant Increase

Slight Decrease

Moderate Decrease

Significant Decrease

Stopped Having Sex

Total Decrease

Total Increase

< 6 months

47%

4%

9%

13%

16%

9%

0%

2%

27%

27%

6-11 months

15%

13%

10%

4%

29%

13%

10%

6%

58%

27%

1-2 years

8%

2%

6%

5%

27%

25%

23%

4%

79%

13%

3-5 years

6%

3%

4%

5%

21%

25%

30%

7%

82%

12%

6-10 years

6%

1%

2%

1%

10%

18%

53%

10%

90%

4%

11-20 years

5%

0%

5%

4%

4%

13%

48%

21%

85%

9%

21+ years

0%

0%

0%

7%

13%

20%

53%

7%

94%

7%

 

Age also impacts the changes in the sexual frequency for lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. The age group least likely to experience a significant decline in frequency is lesbians between eighteen and twenty-one years old. This makes sense, given that many lesbians are coming out and entering relationships during these years, and their sex lives are just getting started. The accumulative decrease in sexual frequency among each age group is the sum of lesbians who identified a “slight,” “moderate,” “or “significant” decrease, along with those who “stopped having sex” entirely.

The largest accumulative decrease in sexual frequency occurs with lesbians between the ages of fifty-one and sixty years old. Eighty-three percent of lesbians in this age group reported some level of decline in their sexual frequency. This also makes sense given that this is the decade in which most women enter menopause, which is a well-established period of sexual decline for most women. Interestingly, there does not appear to be a strong pattern of decline among the remaining age groups. Seventy-nine percent of lesbians who are between the ages thirty-one and forty and seventy-six percent of lesbians over the age of sixty reported a decrease in sexual frequency.

Table 14.   Changes in Sexual Frequency According to Age of Lesbian

Age

No Change

Slight Increase

Moderate Increase

Significant Increase

Slight Decrease

Moderate Decrease

Significant Decrease

Stopped Having Sex

Total Decrease

Total Increase

Under 21

33%

0%

33%

17%

17%

0%

0%

0%

17%

50%

Between 21-30

14%

4%

15%

6%

21%

19%

21%

0%

62%

25%

Between 31-40

14%

2%

3%

2%

16%

21%

37%

6%

79%

7%

Between 41-50

9%

6%

3%

6%

20%

20%

27%

10%

76%

15%

Between 51-60

8%

1%

5%

3%

13%

20%

40%

9%

83%

9%

Over 60

13%

0%

6%

6%

13%

0%

44%

19%

75%

12%

 

The most significant decrease in sexual frequency reported in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey is found among lesbians who live together, with or without children. Forty-one percent of couples who lived together and had children reported a “significant decrease” in sexual frequency, and six percent reported that they had no sex at all. Thirty-nine percent of lesbians who lived together without children reported a “significant decrease” in sexual frequency, and nine percent stopped having sex all together. The greatest accumulative decrease (91%) in sexual frequency occurred with women who lived with their partner and no children.

Lesbians who do not live together experience the least amount of decline in their sexual frequency. Those who live separately but spend most nights together experience the least disruption in their sex lives, with only twenty-nine percent having a decrease in sexual frequency. Forty-five percent of lesbians in long-distance relationships and fifty-seven percent of lesbians who live separately but spend a few nights together per week experience a decline in sexual frequency.

Not only is the average length of lesbian relationships longer than it used to be, more couples are also raising children. Twenty-six percent of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey included lesbian moms who live with their children. Because respondents were not asked if they had children, this figure does not include the lesbians who had adult children who no longer lived at home. It is likely that the actual number of lesbian parents in the survey is greater than twenty-six percent. However, this low estimate of parents in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample is still an increase (6%) over the twenty-two percent of lesbians in the 1994 Bryant and Demian survey who had children. This is also a slight increase (2%) over the twenty-two percent of the lesbians with children in the 1995 Lever study.

 

Table 15.   Changes in Sexual Frequency for Lesbian Couples, According to Living Situation

Living Situation

No Change

Slight Change

Moderate Increase

Significant Increase

Slight Decrease

Moderate Decrease

Significant Decrease

Stopped Having Sex

Total Decrease

Total Increase

Own Place,
Most Nights Together

4%

4%

21%

8%

4%

4%

21%

0%

29%

33%

Long Distance Relationship

17%

14%

21%

3%

17%

14%

7%

7%

45%

38%

Own Place, Few Nights Together

19%

6%

4%

15%

17%

23%

15%

2%

57%

25%

With Partner and Kids

9%

0%

3%

1%

16%

25%

41%

6%

88%

4%

With Partner,
No Kids

2%

2%

1%

3%

22%

21%

39%

9%

91%

7%

 

Table 16.   Sexual Frequency of Lesbian Couples, Based on Living Situation

Living Situation

Number of Women

Percent of Sample

Average Sexual Frequency

I have my own place, but my partner
and I spend a few nights together

55

14%

1x/Week

I have my own place, but my partner and I spend most nights together

23

6%

1x/Week

My partner and I have a long-distance relationship

31

8%

2-3x/Month

I live with my partner and children

101

26%

1x/Month or less

I live with my partner, no children

172

45%

2-3x/Month

Average sexual frequency among lesbian couples

382

100%

2-3x/Month

 

Causes for Decline in Sexual Frequency

Most couples report a decline in sexual frequency over the course of their relationship. Lesbians, however, declined at a rate faster than any other couple dyads and to a frequency lower than any other couple pairs (Schwartz and Blumstein, 1983). In the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, only twenty-one (5%) of the lesbians in a relationship reported having sex four or more times per week (Figure 16). Only two of the twenty-one women who had sex a minimum of four times per week had been in a relationship for longer than five years. None of the women having sex this frequently had been in a relationship longer than twenty-one years.

 

Figure 17.  Frequency of Sex for Lesbians Couples

 

Many reasons are offered by various theorists to explain the reduction in sexual activity among lesbian couples. For a long time, lesbians have been accused of merging their relationships too quickly and too intensely, as expressed in Burch’s 1987 introduction of the concept of “the urge to merge” (Burch 1982, 201). This concept refers to the speed with which lesbians move toward commitment and intensity as an expression of their desire to be close and connected. The result, it is suggested, causes lesbians to create a connection so emotionally close that it undermines, and ultimately replaces, sexual desire. Data in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey supports the idea that the more committed a couple is, which this researcher based solely on their living situation, the less sex the couple tends to have. It was established earlier in this chapter that couples who do not cohabitate maintained stronger rates of sexual frequency than couples who do cohabitate. This applies equally to couples with and without children.

An entertaining blogger from lesbilicious.co.uk provides anecdotal advice for lesbians who have succumbed to the “urge to merge.” With humor, the post says, “lesbians do make a lot of mistakes that lead to ‘bed death.’ Like sharing too much. Don’t share your shampoo and soap. It will make you smell alike, and that’s weird. Don’t share your clothes… and for god sake don’t share your underwear. Don’t be in the bathroom together unless you’re having shower sex. What I mean is, don’t go use the toilet while your girlfriend is brushing her teeth. Don’t sleep together naked unless you’re going to actually do something. All this stuff kills the mystery that caused the initial attraction” (Michelle, 2009).

Theorists like Fisher agree with this blogger and the power of novelty. Novelty, which is anything unexpected or never before experienced, is known to “elevate levels of dopamine—the chemical associated with romantic love” (2004, 194). This theory is helpful in understanding the dramatic decline in sexual frequency that occurs with lesbians in the first year of their relationship. The rapid pace with which lesbians familiarize themselves with one another may diminish the novelty involved in initial courtship, thus decreasing sexual desire more quickly than in other couple dyads.

One of the explanations for the rapid decline in sexual frequency among lesbians relates to the difficulty that lesbians (and women in general) have initiating sex. The idea is that when a couple is comprised of two women, neither partner feels like they should be the one to initiate sex, because initiating sex has traditionally been a masculine role in our culture (Blumstein & Schwartz 1983; Letitia Peplau, et al 2004).

Adding her thoughts on the topic, Nichols wrote about women being socialized to repress sexual feelings, leading to difficulty recognizing feelings of desire, and ultimately reducing the amount of sex that is initiated by lesbians in relationships (1987). Blumstein and Schwartz also offered their opinion that “lesbians are not comfortable in the role of sexual aggressor and it is a major reason why they have sex less often than other kinds of couples” (1983, 214).

It is this researcher’s clinical experience that some lesbians are comfortable initiating sex. Typically, lesbian couples present in counseling with differing libidos, and the partner who has a higher sex drive will usually be the primary initiator of sex. However, when the initiator experiences too much rejection, she stops asking, and at this point sex may cease altogether for the couple. This dynamic does seem different from that found in heterosexual relationships, where men are known to pursue sex with their wives regardless of countless experiences with rejection.

Another explanation about lower sexual frequency among lesbians points to the fact that men simply have higher sex drives and are more interested in sex than women. Therefore, the suggestion is that when there is not a male in the relationship to maintain the frequency, sexual frequency naturally declines due to the lower levels of sexual interest experienced by women (Nichols 2005).

Internalized homophobia has been cited as another obstacle for lesbians who wish to have more frequent sex (Nichols 1988, 1990). Internalized homophobia results when a lesbian internalizes the negative judgments of society at large. When a lesbian adopts these negative beliefs about herself, this leads to feelings of shame and self-disgust. A negative self-perception is then thought to reduce her desire to be sexual.

Other theorists conclude that low frequency is not a problem. Fassinger and Morrow asked, “Is lack of sexual desire or genital activity a ‘problem’ in a loving and romantic woman-to-woman relationship? From whose point of view… Who determines what is sexually normative for lesbians?” (1995, 200). The conversation about lesbian sex, including discussions within its scientific study, tends to minimize lesbian sexuality, reducing the entire experience to a numbers game. How many times are you doing it? The irony is that if lesbians want to enter a contest for sexual frequency, they can likely beat any other couple dyad because of their anatomical advantage.

Women are physically well equipped for endless amounts of sexual pleasure. In fact, a woman’s clitoris serves no other purpose than that of pleasure. For a male, the penis has multiple functions, including urination. A woman can have multiple orgasms without interruption, and often there is no need for a recovery period. In the event that a woman wants to have sex multiple times per day, and orgasm multiple times per sexual session, her body would support this desire. The irony of lower sexual frequency for lesbians is that if lesbians desired to do so, they could outperform (if measured by orgasm) any other couple dyad because of the necessary refractory period for men, and the male’s inability to experience multiple orgasms.

Is it possible that sexual decline is a normative state for the majority of women, regardless of her sexual orientation? In a study of 2,400 multi-ethnic women from six U.S. cities, forty percent of women reported that they never, or infrequently, experienced sexual desire. Of these women, only thirteen percent indicated concerns about their sexual experiences, which would suggests that despite how pleasurable sex is, it is not something she desires frequently (Basson 2006).

This researcher proposes that there may be another variable that contributes to reduced sexual frequency among lesbian couples. This variable is partner selection. One of the most common concerns expressed by single lesbians in this researcher’s private counseling practice has been the question, “How am I going to meet someone?” The fear that she will not meet someone, or that there are not many lesbians from which to choose, creates a scarcity perspective when it comes to dating prospects. In turn, this can lead lesbians to settle into relationships with women who are “good enough,” even when this new partner does not elicit a strong physical or sexual attraction.

It has not been uncommon throughout this researcher’s counseling career (since 1997), to work with lesbians who report a limited attraction to their partner in the beginning of the relationship. Among the clients with whom this researcher has worked, it has been the case that couples rarely, if ever, resume a sexual attraction that supersedes the sexual feelings they experienced when they first partnered. Therefore, poor partner selection is another possible contributor to the low levels of sexual frequency.

After reflecting on the multiple theories put forth by various researchers over the last few decades about the causes of rapid decline of sexual frequency, this researcher has concluded that decline in sexual frequency is explained by multiple variables. What makes sense to this researcher is that women, not just lesbians, have a complicated process of sexual development which starts with early messages that discourage healthy sexual development, regardless of sexual orientation. The gist of these messages is, “guys just want one thing (sex),” and that gals should be “good (not sexual).” These early messages received by young women in our society create a double-edged sword. The message is that sex is for men, and that “good girls” don’t participate.

Then lesbians develop into young women, and they begin to identify feelings of attraction for other women. With this comes self-judgment that results from the internalization of negative societal beliefs. These internalized, negative messages lead to self-doubt and cause lesbians to question their sexual feelings. Once a lesbian is able to move through these obstacles, she is faced with the prospect of actually finding a potential mate, which, despite the proliferation of dating sites in the last decade, can be a daunting task for many lesbians.

With the knowledge that lesbians are inclined to pursue emotional connection as a primary source of comfort and satisfaction, it seems possible that a contributing factor to the declining sexual frequency among lesbians could be the result of the partner selection process. When there is a scarcity mentality about the availability of lesbians, a woman may be more inclined to settle for a partner to whom she is not sufficiently attracted in the first place.

In the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, question twelve asked respondents to identify the statement that best describes the reason sexual frequency in their current or most recent relationship declined, if applicable. The choices for question twelve were the following: “one or both of us has recently experienced a major life stressor,” “our frequency did not decline, my desire/libido declined,” “I do not feel connected/attuned to my partner,” “I find my partner to be too dependent on me/needy in our relationship,” and the last option was a fill-in-the-blank, free response space.

The most commonly reported (29%) reason for the sexual decline was “one (or both) of us has recently experienced a major life stressor” (Figure 18). Stressors were broadly defined in the survey description as “death of a loved one, job change, coming out, legal issues, financial stresses, job loss, etc.”

According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, lesbians were not alone in their experience of stress and sexual frequency. After looking at 400 premenopausal women with low sexual desire, sixty-percent of the study participants attributed low desire to stress or fatigue (Zerbe 2011). In fact, stress is a rising concern for forty-eight percent of Americans, according to a study conducted by the American Psychological Association (Mintz 2010).

Only twenty percent of the sample indicated that they did not experience a decline in their sexual activity. Of the twenty percent that reported no decline in sexual frequency, seventy-two percent were in their relationship five years or less, and forty percent of this group were together less than six months. Eighteen percent of the participants that reported a decline in frequency were in their relationship between six and twenty years, and none were in a relationship over twenty years.

Figure 18.  Reasons for Decline in Sexual Frequency Among Lesbians

 

In summary, lesbian sexual activity declines most dramatically after couples have been partnered only a year. 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. 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 Survey sample reported no loss of sexual frequency. The next chapter will discuss how satisfied lesbians are with their relationships and with their sexual frequency. Conclusions will also be drawn about the correlation between sexual frequency and relationship satisfaction.

Read Chapter Seven

Read Chapter Nine

X