CHARACTERISTICS MOST VALUED IN LESBIAN RELATIONSHIPS
The frequency with which any couple has sex is just one of many aspects of the relationship. Other components of a relationship include the following: social compatibility, intellectual connections, spiritual compatibility, sexual aspects (chemistry, time spent having sex, and pleasure), and emotional connection. This chapter will explore how lesbians rank the importance of these relational characteristics. Once establishing what lesbians value most in their relationships, attention will turn to the importance of sex and sexual frequency to lesbians. This researcher will analyze how the length of a lesbian relationship, as well as a lesbian’s age influences what she most values in relationships.
Overview of Relationship Characteristics and Their Importance to Lesbians
When studying sexuality, there are two ways to examine what is important to lesbians. The first option is to analyze the sexual behaviors of lesbians, as was discussed in the previous chapter. However, in looking at lesbian behavior alone, it would have been plausible to conclude that most lesbians did not value sex, given that two-thirds of lesbians in this sample have sex two times a month or less. The second method used to identify what is important to lesbians is to simply ask them what they think. This was the intent of question thirteen on the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, and was the method used to understand the subjective importance of sex to lesbians.
Question thirteen asked respondents to rate the importance of nine characteristics of a lesbian relationship, including the following: emotional connectedness, sexual chemistry, intellectual connection, spiritual connection, social compatibility, frequency of sex, physical pleasure during sex, amount of time spent during a sexual encounter, and the overall relationship satisfaction. The ratings for each characteristic included the following: extremely important, very important, moderately important, slightly important, and not at all important.
The characteristic identified as most important by the majority of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction sample was emotional connectedness. Ninety-seven percent of lesbians reported that this was either “extremely important” or “very important.” Similarly to love, emotional connection is a subjective experience. Emotional connection occurs when partners experience a deep, mutual sense of knowing one another. This results when partners share their thoughts, feelings, fears, and dreams. Intimacy is another word commonly used to describe an emotional connection. Intimacy is a feeling of closeness or familiarity, and it conveys warmth, affection, vulnerability, and trust.
The characteristic rated second most important to lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey is the importance of overall relationship satisfaction (96%). This was rated almost as high as emotional connection. The overall relationship satisfaction can be described as a sense of satisfaction with the sum of all parts of the relationship, or an overall sense of relationship balance.
The third most important aspect of a relationship is an intellectual connection. Ninety-two percent of the sample indicated that this is “extremely important” or “very important.” An intellectual connection requires that lesbian partners are able to relate thoughts and information to each other in a ways that are stimulating and engaging. An intellectual connection occurs when lesbian couples can voice their beliefs, share new information, and in some cases, respectfully debate differences of opinions.
Four of the relationship characteristics explored in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey relate to the sex life of lesbians. These characteristics are sexual chemistry, sexual pleasure, time spent engaged in sexual episodes, and sexual frequency. Sexual chemistry refers to the feeling of attraction that generates sexual energy between couples. This also involves a feeling of sexual desire toward one’s partner. Eighty-seven percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey rated sexual chemistry “extremely important” or “very important.”
Sexual pleasure speaks to the amount of enjoyment derived from the sexual interactions that occur with one’s partner. This characteristic evaluated how crucial it is for lesbians to have partner sex that feels pleasurable and satisfying. This was rated the fifth most important relationship characteristic on the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Seventy-eight percent of lesbians indicated that sexual pleasure was “extremely important” or “very important.”
Sexual frequency refers to the amount of sex that a couple has on a regular basis. When asked about the importance of sexual frequency, only fifty-three percent of lesbians reported that it was “extremely important” or “very important.” This was rated the second least esteemed relationship variable by lesbians on the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. The only characteristic rated less valuable was “time spent on the sexual encounter,” which was rated “extremely important” or “very important” by only thirty-two percent of the sample.
It is relevant to note that most lesbians did not report that the length of time spent during a sexual episode was important, yet, the majority of lesbians reported that they had engaged in lengthy sexual sessions with one another (Table 10). Question number sixteen on the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey inquired about the length of time spent during a sexual episode. The majority of lesbians (79%) spent at least thirty minutes when they had sex, and thirty-six percent of these women spent over an hour when they had sex. The responses suggested that most lesbians (43%) spent between thirty minutes to an hour when engaged in sexual activity. Only twenty percent of women spent less than thirty minutes during sexual sessions with their partner. An additional two percent spent less than fifteen minutes in a sexual encounter with their partners. This researcher believes that the time spent during sex might be more valued than their responses indicated, based solely on this insight into their behavior.
The average length of heterosexual sex is typically based on the length of time between penile entry and the man’s orgasm. A commonly cited source for sexual duration among heterosexuals is a study conducted by fifty members of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research in the U.S. and Canada, in which they concluded that the ideal length of time for sexual intercourse was three to thirteen minutes. The way this research was presented in the media suggests that three to thirteen minutes is sufficient time to please a woman.
USA Today included an article titled, “Sex therapists: A few minutes is best.” The article started with, “Maybe men had it right all along: It doesn’t take long to satisfy a woman in bed.” Dr. Irwin Goldstein reported that based on a sample of 1,500 couples whom he studied in 2005, 7.3 minutes is the median time for sexual intercourse (Scott, 2008). This is a discouraging conclusion for the media to be promoting, given that research suggests that partners of women who spend “twenty-one minutes or longer on foreplay” have a 92.3% likelihood of bringing her to orgasm (Kerner 2004, 19). Solot and Miller also state that “On average, it takes a woman twenty minutes of direct clitoral stimulation to have an orgasm” (2007, 20). Perhaps that is why seventy-nine percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey have sex that lasts thirty minutes or longer, and only two percent have sex in less than fifteen minutes.
Table 10. Time Length of Sexual Experience for Lesbians
|Length of Sexual Encouter|
Percentage of Women
|Thirty minutes to an hour|
|One to two hours|
|Over fifteen minutes, under thirty minutes|
|Two or more hours|
|Under fifteen minutes|
|Never had sex with a woman|
Of the four relationship characteristics that were sexually-related on the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, sexual chemistry was reported the most important, and was also the fourth most valued overall relationship characteristic. Sexual chemistry describes a feeling of attraction and desire that is sexually charged. This chemistry does not require a relationship or physical contact; in fact, it does not even require knowing the person with whom you feel sexual chemistry. This is a felt experience that may or may not be acted upon.
Of the four components of a relationship that relate directly to sex (sexual chemistry, sexual pleasure, sexual frequency, and time spent on sexual encounter), sexual chemistry is rated the most significant of the four on the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Eighty-seven percent of respondents reported sexual chemistry is “very important,” or “extremely important.” Sexual pleasure is valued by seventy-eight percent of lesbians, followed by sexual frequency with fifty-three percent, and least significant is the amount of time spent on the sexual encounter (32%).
When evaluating what was most important, respondents rated each relationship characteristic independently, and they were not required to prioritize the nine relationship characteristics. Therefore, it is conceivable that some lesbians could have indicated that all nine characteristics were “extremely important.” However, nearly half of the lesbians in this survey indicated that sexual frequency was not important. Conversely, almost every woman (97%) in the survey reported emotional connection as paramount. Sexual frequency proved nearly half as necessary to lesbians as emotional connection in a survey where both could have been rated equally.
Figure 9. Importance of Relationship Characteristics to Lesbians
When the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey results are cross examined for age and the importance of relationship characteristics, emotional connection remains the most valued characteristic regardless of a lesbian’s age (Table 11). The correlation between age of lesbians and what is most important also reveals that sexual chemistry is noticeably less important among older lesbians. Once lesbians reach age sixty, the importance of sexual frequency drops significantly. The Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey results showed that frequency is most important to lesbians ages fifty-one to sixty years old (57%), and least valuable to lesbians ages sixty-one years and older (28%).
Table 11. Importance of Relationship Characteristics to Lesbians According to Age
Overall Relationship Satisfaction
Time Spent on Sexual Encounter
Percentage of lesbians who view relationship characteristics as important
The Importance of Sex to Lesbians
Question five on the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey asked, “Which statement most accurately describes how you feel about having sex with your current or most recent partner?” Respondents had five responses from which to choose, including the following: “I want to have sex with my partner;” “I need to have sex with my partner;’ ‘I enjoy and want sex, but have lost the desire to have it with my partner;” “I could take it or leave it;” and “I could easily go the rest of my life without sex with anyone.”
Of the 473 lesbians who responded to this question, sixty-percent reported that they wanted to have sex with their partner (Figure 10). This was followed by twenty-two percent of lesbians who stated they needed to have sex with their partner. The next largest category (10%) was women who reported that they had a desire for sex, but they had no desire for sex with their current partner. Therefore, only eight percent of the sample reported limited interest in sex.
In Loulan’s 1987 study, she asked lesbians how they felt about sex. While not the same question, it was close enough to draw parallels to the responses of women in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. Loulan’s study reported that eighty-seven percent “love it,” four percent “hate it,” and nine percent “didn’t respond” (1987, 212). When combined, eighty-two percent of women in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey reported that they either “wanted” or “needed” sex, which is similar to Loulan’s eighty-seven percent who “love it.”
Figure 10. Importance of Sex to Lesbians
Percentages reflect the way participants rated the importance of sex in lesbian relationships
Based on the length of relationship, lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey who were partnered for three to five years placed the greatest value on sexual frequency. Lesbian couples who were partnered twenty-one years or more placed the least importance (2%) on sexual frequency. The remaining categories of relationship lengths (0-6 months, 6-11 months, 1-2 years, 6-10 years, and 11-12 years) rated the importance of sexual frequency between eleven and eighteen percent (Figure 11).
Figure 11. Correlation of Length of Relationship and Lesbians Who Rated Sexual Frequency “Very” or “Extremely” Important
Percentages are calculated on survey respondents who identified sexual frequency as either “Extremely Important” or “Very Important”
Of the fifty-three percent of lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey who reported that sexual frequency was “extremely important” or “very important,” the majority of these women (59%) lived with a partner and did not have children (Figure 12). Sexual frequency was also important to lesbians who lived with a partner and had children (46%). Slightly lower was the percentage of lesbians who had their own place and spent a few nights together (33%). The importance of sexual frequency drops further for lesbians who do not cohabitate with their partner. The lowest values placed on sexual frequency were by lesbians in long-distance relationships (17%), lesbians who had their own place but spent most nights together (14%), and those who lived with an ex-girlfriend (1%).
Figure 12. Correlation of Living Arrangement and Lesbian Couples Who Rated Sexual Frequency “Very” or “Extremely” Important
Percentages are calculated on survey respondents who identified sexual frequency as either “Extremely Important” or “Very Important”
How often is Sex the Cause for Leaving a Relationship?
Question number nineteen on the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey asked respondents, “Have you ever had a relationship end because of issues with sex?” The options from which respondents could choose were the following: “yes,” “no,” “I’m not sure,” and “Does not apply.” Respondents were also given the option to explain their response. The majority of responses indicated that most relationships (55%) did not end because of sex-related issues.
This researcher analyzed the explanations provided by lesbians who reported that sex was a cause for ending their relationship. Of the 481 lesbians that answered question nineteen, 144 (30%) responded “yes,” issues with sex caused the relationship to end (Figure 13). Only 101 lesbians offered an explanation about how sex caused problems for them personally, and of the 101 explanations, the largest percentage of lesbians (28%) involved lesbians that indicated a discrepancy in the desired frequency of sex.
Of the 46 lesbians who responded with “I don’t know,” twenty six provided explanations. While a handful of these lesbians reported that sex was an issue, most of the lesbians reported that sexual concerns were either secondary to another issue or a result of other issues. Sex was considered a secondary cause to issues such as the following: communication, control, abuse, and not feeling validated.
The second reason most commonly cited to explain how sex contributed to the demise of a relationship was the cessation of sex in their relationship. Twenty-one percent of the sample who endorsed sex as a cause for their relationship ending reported that the sex in their relationship stopped all together. The type of comments provided by respondents included statements such as, “five years later, the sex died, and we were too young to know how to fix it;” and, “[my] partner indicated a complete cessation of interest in sex, so the relationship ended.”
Additional explanations for how sex contributed to the demise of their relationship included the following: infidelity (17%), sexual incompatibility (15%), loss of attraction (11%), and a history of sexual abuse that affected the sexual relationship (5%). Two respondents cited homophobia (2%), and two cited a desire to be with a man (2%) as the cause of their relationship ending.
Some of the respondents in the sample offered uncommonly thorough explanations which provided additional insights. One of the most interesting responses was from a woman who desired more frequent sexual activity, and she had already had four relationships end because of this issue. Here is her response to question number nineteen:
In each of the 4 significant relationships I have been involved in, including my current one; all have had a lack of sexual intimacy. I don’t consider myself a ‘sex addict,’ but I also don’t think having sex 2-3 times a week is unreasonable. In each of these relationships, the sex started out with good frequency and satisfaction apparently on both sides. Within a very short period, say a couple of months, if that long, things seemed to have dried up either completely, or to where there would be several weeks of no sex or intimacy at all, until I would say something, they would ‘perform’ and then things returned to no sex again. Not believing in ‘running’ at the first signs of trouble, I would try open and honest communication, and try to work on the relationship. As mentioned above, ‘if things aren’t working inside the bedroom, then they aren’t working outside the bedroom’. I have cared deeply for, and loved each one of those partners, but without that important component, the relationship is not complete for me. I kind of view it as having the perfect old classic car….it’s sweet, and after a lot of work, in almost mint condition…only thing is, it only has three wheels!!! If you’re OK to just sit behind the wheel and enjoy the view from there, then you’re good, stay in the relationship…however…if you ever want to take it out on the road for a drive, then you’re sunk, and eventually, unhappy. (Author unknown 2011)
The remaining survey respondents (55%) reported that sex has not been a contributor to their relationship ending.
Though the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey does not examine the reasons for terminating a relationship, it is interesting to note that according to Schwartz and Blumstein, “lesbians had the highest breakup rate of all [their] couples” (1983, 207). Schwartz and Blumstein observed that when lesbian couples do not pool their finances, it “often indicates that couples have not given up their independence,” and consequently “may never have visualized the relationship lasting into the indefinite future” (1983, 309). They also noticed, “Among the lesbian couples, the person more likely to leave is the more powerful partner…the person who does less housework.” They also suggest that lesbians do not like having too much control, and “women in general do not like to feel superior to their partners” (1983, 316).
The only significant mention made by Schwartz and Blumstein about sex as a cause for relationships ending is related to lesbians in open relationships who engage in sex outside of their relationship. The observation they made was that lesbians were not comfortable with casual sex, and when they had sex outside of their relationship, they risked falling in love. Schwartz and Blumstein stated, “the woman who has had the outside sex is more likely to choose to terminate the relationship.” Ultimately, they concluded, “People who have sex infrequently are just as likely to have a long-lasting relationship as those who have sex often” (Schwartz and Blumstein 1983, 312). This appears consistent with the findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. While sex is certainly relevant in relationships among lesbians, the lack of sexual frequency does not appear to be a significant contributor to lesbian relationships ending.
Figure 13. Sex as the Cause for Lesbian Relationships Ending
Percentage of lesbians who have had a relationship end because of issues with sex
Figure 14. Explanation for How Sex Caused the Relationship to End for Lesbians
Question number eight on 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 offered an open-ended field to provide the exact number. Question nine on the survey asked, “In the last six months, how many times would you have liked to have sex with your partner?” Respondents were offered another open-ended field for their responses. The difference between the amount of sex reported and the amount of sex desired was calculated to determine how many women in the sample want more, less, or the same amount of sex than was occurring in their current relationship (Figure 15).
Based on the information provided by respondents of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey regarding the importance of sexual frequency (of which only fifty-three percent rated as important), this researcher was surprised to learn that seventy-four percent of lesbians in this sample desired more sex. This finding resulted in a significant discrepancy between the reported lack of importance placed on sexual frequency and the large number of lesbians who indicated a desire for more sex. What motivates a woman to state that sexual frequency is not important, and then to state that she wants more sex? This researcher has three theories that address this phenomenon.
The first theory is that lesbians do value greater sexual frequency in their relationship, but when compared to the emotional and intellectual connection, the lack of sexual frequency is forgiven. Thus, they may have concluded something that might have sounded like this: “Yes, I want more sex, but no, it’s not that important when compared to the other characteristics listed.” Consequently, if a lesbian is in a relationship that is meeting her emotional and intellectual needs, she may be more forgiving of lower rates of sexual frequency.
The second theory is that lesbians view sexual frequency as an indicator of a strong emotional connection. If the most prized commodity in a lesbian relationship is an emotional connection, perhaps lesbians perceive infrequent sexual activity as a sign of trouble, or fear that this means there is something “wrong.” It is interesting to note that lesbians do not identify sexual frequency as important when asked directly on the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey. However, when sexual frequency is low, lesbians from the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey indicate that this is a problem. Is the problem that they desire more sex, or is the problem that they desire the emotional connection and relationship security that they believe accompanies more frequent sex?
This researcher theorizes that lesbians may view an increase in sexual activity as an indication of greater emotional connection, and therefore of greater relationship health. Accordingly, this could explain why a lesbian would respond to one question saying, “sexual frequency is not important,” and respond to another question with “I want sex more frequently.” Perhaps both are true, that there is a cognitive wish for more sex in an effort to maintain or improve emotional connection, but that this impulse may not stem from her physical desire for more sex.
According to Lisa Diamond, author of Sexual Fluidity, “Many women report feeling emotionally attracted to other women before being physically attracted to them” (2008, 50). Diamond also discusses the discrepancy between a woman’s sexual arousal and her awareness of this arousal, stating “sometimes women are physically aroused without knowing it, and sometimes their subjective feelings of desire are not matched by genital arousal” (2008, 102). This would suggest that lesbians experience inconsistencies in their ability to decode their own arousal and attraction, sometimes feeling attracted but not aroused, or being aroused but not desirous. Given the inconsistencies surrounding female sexuality and the apparent disconnection between cognitive and physical arousal for women in general, it seems plausible that lesbians could cognitively want greater sexual frequency to gain the unconscious desire for greater emotional connection.
It is a common experience for this researcher to work with lesbian couples who present in counseling because of concerns they have about infrequent sex in their relationship. Upon further examination, often what these women desire is a return to the way they felt during the early months of their relationship when they were first getting to know one another, which happen to coincide with more frequent sex for most couples of all pairings.
This researcher hypothesizes that what lesbians want more of is the exciting, feel-good experience that accompanies the early stage of their relationship, when their attraction is new and novel. This early feel-good experience, which is discussed in greater detail in Chapter Nine, also happens to coincide with more frequent sex. Thus, when lesbians think about the comparative euphoria of their early relationship, it makes sense that they try to recapture those positive feelings by having more sex, especially if, like all couple pairings, they were significantly more sexually active at the start of their relationship. Consequently, the desire for more sex reported by lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey may not accurately address the desire for more sex, but instead targets the desire for a stronger emotional connection and greater relationship security. Perhaps lesbians perceive they will experience greater emotional satisfaction through an increase in sexual frequency, whether their body desires the physical contact or not.
The third theory is that lesbians may believe that a “healthy” woman should want more sex because of messages such as lesbian bed death, which result in lesbians feeling damaged or somehow sexually inadequate. Suppose the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey had asked respondents how many minutes per day she exercised. Imagine that the response was “an average of five minutes of exercise per day.” Most people know that experts recommend greater amounts of daily exercise for optimal health. Then when asked how many minutes per day she wants to exercise, what if seventy-four percent stated that they wanted to exercise thirty minutes per day?
Does this mean that they genuinely want to exercise thirty minutes per day, or does it mean that they have provided what they thought was the “right” or “healthy” answer? Or maybe, as suggested in the second theory, they are interested in the benefits of exercise (fitness, prevention of ill-health), or the benefits of sex (emotional connection, closeness, pleasure, and relationship security), but the desire to engage in either is just not strong enough to motivate action. Perhaps she feels “fit enough” already, or adequately “emotionally close” already, and does not feel the need to expend the extra energy.
This researcher had a therapy client who reported she had not had sex with her partner of three years for over a year. The client admitted that she was the one rejecting advances by her partner, and she was also resisting interacting with her partner in a more sensual way. Though their interactions were loving and playful, they were not sensual or sexual, which my client admitted was in an effort to avoid sex. When asked what her ideal sex life looked like, this client stated that she would like to have sex once or twice per week. Surprised by the obvious discrepancy between what her behavior suggested that she wanted and what her stated goal was, this researcher asked her to explain. She indicated that she felt that weekly sex was “normal,” and that for their sex life to be healthy, it seemed as if they should have sex at least weekly.
This researcher is inclined to think that a combination of the above theories helps explain the discrepancy between the high level of desire for sex and the low value placed on sexual frequency. It seems logical that if emotional connection is the most highly esteemed characteristic of a lesbian relationship, that women who associate an emotional connection with sex will desire greater levels of sex. It also seems logical that women may not desire greater levels of sex, because if the majority of lesbians (74%) reported wanting more sex, then why are they not having more? Do they want more, or do they think they should want more, or is it a combination of both? More research is needed on this topic.
Figure 15. Desired Change in Sexual Frequency Among Lesbians
In summary, based on what lesbians think (rather than what they do), a balanced relationship with a strong emotional connection, and a strong intellectual connection, is most important. In the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, sexual frequency was most valued by lesbians who were partnered for three to five years, and we have learned that lesbians spend a more than average length of time when they have sex. Seventy-nine percent of lesbians engaged in sexual sessions that lasted thirty minutes or longer. Childless lesbians who live together placed the greatest importance on sexual frequency (59%). Less than a third of the lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey reported that sex was the cause of their relationships ending. Of those who did attribute sex as the cause for their relationships ending, only twenty-eight percent indicated that it was due to discrepancies in desired sexual frequency. In an effort to explore the relationship between sexual frequency and relationship satisfaction in greater detail, the next chapter will explore the actual changes in sexual frequency over the course of lesbian relationships.