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.

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Relationship Advice for Lesbian Couples for Five Common Issues

Relationship Advice for Lesbian Couples for Five Common Issues

Relationship advice for lesbian couples

Relationship Advice for Lesbian Couples

Lesbian couples are different in many ways from their heterosexual and gay male couple peers. However, lesbian couples are not particularly different from one another. There are some very common issues among female pairings, and I will be offering Relationship Advice for Lesbian Couples for five of the most common issues.

Despite the endless stereotyping about what a lesbian is, women who love women are impressively diverse. If you find yourself doubting that, it’s because those who don’t meet the stereotype of a lesbian go unnoticed. When it comes to lesbian relationships, however, we are remarkably similar in the types of issues we experience.

Unlike heterosexual women, lesbians do not have easy access to information about what a typical lesbian relationship looks like. Rare is the lesbian who finds herself in the break room at work, sharing stories about her wife and their relationship. Additionally, the experiences that heterosexual women describe are often not relatable for lesbians. For example, how many heterosexual women do you hear expressing concern that her husband is best friends with the girlfriend he had before he married her? Or, how often have you heard a heterosexual woman express concern that her husband is constantly trying to read her mind and worries non-stop about whether or she’s feeling okay?

So, here’s today’s Relationship Advice for Lesbian Couples. Rather than putting our focus on the common relationship problems, however, we will get right to the fixes for these issues. After all, we move in the direction we think — so let’s think solutions.

#1 Relationship Advice for Lesbian Couples: Allow Your Partner to Feel

It is okay if she is experiencing sadness, hurt, frustration or any other emotion that you find yourself wanting to fix or understand. As long as emotions are not used to communicate something (that’s good old fashioned passive-aggressiveness), let her feel what she feels without making it about you. The purpose of our emotions is to alert us to that which is joyful, dangerous, missing, violating, or any other situation that requires our attention. When you personalize how she is feeling, you interrupt an important and necessary process designed to help her clarify things for herself. Communicate with words and behaviors. Feelings are not a verb. We don’t anger. We express anger. Clarify what you are feeling. Then communicate with words or actions.

#2 Relationship Advice for Lesbian Couples: Facts are Your Friends, Stories Not so Much

I am sure you have a superpower. It’s just not mind reading. Trust me on this. When you are certain you know what she is thinking, feeling, wanting or not wanting, fact check. Believe her if she says you are misunderstanding her, or that what you are perceiving is wrong. They are her thoughts and feelings, so she really does have the final say about what is true for her. Even if she changes her mind later, believe her now. Focus on your feelings and thoughts, share those, and let her do the same when she’s ready.

 

#3 Relationship Advice for Lesbian Couples: Keep Your Friends, Not Your Exes

Independence is the first thing to go in lesbian relationships. If you want your new relationship to be your best, invest yourself fully and cut your emotional ties with your ex.

#4 Relationship Advice for Lesbian Couples: Forgive

If you are holding on to resentments that occurred more than one year ago, they have officially expired. Holding on to hurt as a way to protect yourself causes more hurt than good. If you are choosing this relationship, then you are choosing all of it, not just the parts that feel good. Deal with old hurts and resentments then let them go.

#5 Relationship Advice for Lesbian Couples: Flirt with her

My research tells us that lesbians want to be having more sex with their partner, but a lot of women do not want to initiate it. In the quest to commit, dating, flirting, romancing and all the good stuff gets rushed and sometimes neglected altogether. Time to go old school on your gal. Romance her. Flirt. Let her know you desire her. So get out your pretties, your boyfriend briefs, boxers or whatever does the trick for her and show some interest.

 

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Lesbian Relationship Satisfaction

Lesbian Relationship Satisfaction

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.

Read Chapter Eight

Read Chapter Ten

Sexual Frequency Among Lesbians Copy  Copy

Sexual Frequency Among Lesbians

Lesbian Bed Death Meaning and History

 

 

Lesbian Bed Death Meaning

In 1983, when Pepper Schwartz and Phillip Blumstein revealed to the world that lesbians were the least sexual couple of all couple pairings, a vision of lesbians as non-sexual started to emerge in our culture. This research led to more research (Loulan 1984) 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. Ultimately, a powerfully descriptive and derogatory three-letter phrase emerged to describe the lower frequency and rapid decline of sexual frequency among lesbian couples. The phrase used to describe this phenomenon was lesbian bed death (LBD).

 

Where did the phrase lesbian bed death come from?

Once the phrase, Lesbian bed death, grabbed the attention of the media, researchers, and comedians in the 80’s, it wasn’t long before this phrase became regularly associated with the sex lives of lesbians. The origin of this phrase has been attributed to three different women. In researching the etiology of LBD, it became apparent to this researcher that no one had investigated the roots of this term. The three women most commonly cited for coining the phrase are the author of the book Lesbian Sex Joann Loulan; famous lesbian comedian Kate Clinton; and researcher and co-author of the book American Couples, Pepper Schwartz.

Pepper Schwartz, co-author of American Couples

In a search for the original creator of the phrase lesbian bed death, 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).

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).

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.

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).

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 decades left this researcher with 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

Read Chapter Five

Read Chapter Seven

 

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Lesbian Bed Death Meaning

SEXUAL FREQUENCY AMONG LESBIANS

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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