This is a dissertation by Michele O'Mara, PhD on the topic of Sexual Frequency andRelationship Satisfaction Among Lesbians. Tap here to read the entire dissertation in a pdf format.
SEXUAL BEHAVIORS OF LESBIANS
This chapter will explore the sexual behaviors of lesbians. Included in this chapter is an introduction of the sexual response cycle and the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey results for the following: the rate of masturbation, the frequency and quantity of orgasms, the time spent engaged in sexual encounters between women, and the specific sexual behaviors in which lesbians most commonly engage. Lastly, this chapter will take a more detailed look at lesbians who are engaging in sex outside of their relationship.
Human Sexual Response Cycle
According to Shere Hite, “Sex is intimate physical contact for pleasure, to share pleasure with another person (or just alone). You can have sex to orgasm, or not to orgasm, genital sex, or just physical intimacy—whatever seems right to you. There is never any reason to think the ‘goal’ must be intercourse, and to try to make what you feel fit into that context. There is no standard of sexual performance ‘out there’ against which you must measure yourself; you aren’t ruled by ‘hormones’ or ‘biology.’ You are free to explore and discover your own sexuality, to learn or unlearn anything you want, and to make physical relations with other people, of either sex, anything you like” (2004, 417).
The one thing sexual activity has in common, regardless of the gender of participants or the sexual behaviors of choice, is the physiological reaction to effective sexual stimulation. In a scientific study based primarily on direct observation and physical measurement of sexual arousal, William Masters and Virginia Johnson created the Human Sexual Response Cycle in 1966. The sexual response cycle is a series of stages used to describe the physiological reaction to sexual stimuli for both males and females. For the purposes of this paper, the discussion will be limited to women only. The sexual response cycle is divided into four distinct phases, which are the excitement phase, the plateau phase, the orgasmic phase, and the resolution phase (Masters and Johnson 1966).
During the excitement phase, the body begins to react to erotic stimuli that arouse the senses. This can be a scent, a visual impression, physical contact, a fantasy, or a sound. For women, the first evidence of response to sexual tension in the breast is nipple erection. The vagina begins to secrete fluid, and blood flow increases in the vagina, causing the genital tissue to become engorged. This is called vasocongestion. Once engorged, the clitoris becomes very sensitive and retracts underneath the clitoral hood (Masters and Johnson, 1966).
The second stage is the plateau stage. This stage is marked by a period of increased sexual excitement. All of the symptoms present in stage one are now intensified. Heart rate increases, muscle tension multiplies, muscle spasms may occur, blood pressure rises, and breathing becomes heavier. The first third of the vagina may tighten and vaginal lubrication increases. This stage brings a woman to the brink of an orgasm.
The third stage of the cycle is the orgasm. This is when a woman experiences a single orgasm or multiple orgasms. The authors reported that there is a wide variety reported in both the intensity and duration of the female orgasmic experience (Masters and Johnson 1966). This stage is marked by a spasmodic response to the extreme engorgement of the genitals. According to Loulan, “From three to fifteen contractions occur, 4/5 of a second apart, releasing the fluid and blood from the engorged tissues” (1984, 40). The contractions are involuntary and rhythmic. The muscles involved in these contractions extend well beyond the visible areas of the genitals, which creates an internalized feeling of pleasure that is not limited to the areas of the vulva or vagina. These contractions, combined with the sudden release of sexual tension, produce the pleasure commonly associated with having an orgasm.
According to Masters and Johnson, resolution is the final stage. This is the body’s effort to return to its pre-aroused state. The blood and fluids are redistributed throughout the body, and the affected nerves and muscles relax.
The Human Sexual Response Cycle is not without its critics. Sex educator Beverly Whipple suggested that women do not necessarily move from one phase of the cycle to the next in a linear fashion as indicated by Masters and Johnson. For example, women can experience orgasm in the absence of desire, or they can experience desire without orgasm (Whipple 2002). Rosemary Basson also rejected the linear focus. She proposed that female sexual desire is more responsive than spontaneous. Basson suggested that a woman is most likely to respond to sexual stimuli in her environment, rather than to experience a spontaneous stirring of her own libido (Basson 2001).
According to Linda Ohl, “There is variation in an individual’s sexual response cycle. Some women do not feel fully satisfied if all phases of sexual response are not experienced, while others may typically bypass phases” (Ohl 2007, 57). She explained that in some cases, women may not have adequate lubrication but they “may be able to proceed to orgasm without notable physical changes of the excitement and plateau phases.” Ohl also pointed out that many women do not reach the orgasm phase, such as those who experience anorgasmia. Yet these women may still be satisfied. “Sexual satisfaction is a subjective term and is solely determined by each individual. For many, feelings of closeness, bonding, touching, and intimacy are enough” (Ohl 2007, 57).
One of the most notable critics of the human sexual response cycle is Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan. Trained as a psychiatrist and neurologist, Dr. Kaplan rejected its characteristically exclusive focus on physiology. Accordingly, Dr. Kaplan revised Masters and Johnson’s sexual response cycle to include the psychology of sex. Kaplan’s triphasic model of the sexual response cycle includes the following stages: desire, excitement, and orgasm.
In Kaplan’s model, the first stage is desire. This idea added a whole new dimension to the study of sexuality. Suddenly sex was about more than just the body, it was also about the mind. Kaplan explained that by “examining the current sexual experiences of 2,109 patients and couples with chief complaints of deficient sexual desire [she] came to the conclusion that the pathological decrease of these patients’ libido is essentially an expression of the normal regulation of sexual motivation gone awry” (Kaplan 1995, 3-4). Kaplan proposed the idea that, much like hunger or thirst, our sexual desire “is regulated by CNS [central nervous system] control mechanisms” (1995, 4). Kaplan viewed desire as the intersection between a woman’s environmental stimulus and her brain’s interpretations of this stimulus. She believed that how a woman interprets her environmental stimulus will lead to either the initiation of desire or the inhibition of desire.
The second stage in Kaplan’s model is excitement, and is similar to the corresponding stage created by Master and Johnson. The emphasis in the excitement stage is on the body’s physical process of arousal, and describes the same characteristics laid out in the Master’s and Johnson’s vision of excitement and plateau phases.
The last stage in Kaplan’s triphasic model is orgasm. This reflects the same characteristics as outlined in the Master and Johnson model for both the orgasm and the resolution phases, though Kaplan did not believe an orgasm needs to happen in every sexual interaction.
Loulan also participated in the discussion about the Human Sexual Response Cycle. She criticized Kaplan for “making anti-lesbian and anti-homosexual remarks,” but she did agree that Kaplan “has made an important contribution to the sex research field” (Loulan 1984, 40). Loulan was not content with the sexual response cycle despite the improvements made by Kaplan. After working for years with many lesbians, Loulan devised her own sexual response cycle.
There are five stages to Loulan’s cycle with two possible outcomes: pleasure or shutdown. The first stage in Loulan’s model is willingness. This is what separates Loulan’s cycle from Kaplan and Masters and Johnson. Loulan believed that “You do not have to feel desire or be excited to have sex.” She proposed that “You only have to have the willingness to have sex” (1984, 42). Ultimately, Loulan believed that the goal of any sexual experience is pleasure, and that the only requirement for pleasure is willingness.
Stage two of her model is desire. This is defined by Loulan as “wanting to have sex because it feels good and you are attracted to someone” (1984, 43). She further separated desire into three categories: intellectual, emotional, and physical.
Stage three is excitement. This stage is similar to the Masters and Johnson or Kaplan models, and involves the physical changes associated with physiological arousal. Stage three may also include an emotional component. Loulan stated that “the emotional part of this stage is that of feeling more and more overwhelmed, and connecting deeply to this other person” (1984, 44). The emotional component of this stage is a variation that occurs for some, but not all, women.
Stage four is engorgement. This is described as a process similar to the plateau phase of Masters and Johnson. Stage five is orgasm, which is also defined similarly to Masters and Johnson’s and Kaplan’s orgasm stage. Loulan stated, “This is not the only reason to have sex.” Adding to this she stated, “Neither of you could have an orgasm and both could experience extreme pleasure from the experience” (1984, 45).
The final stage is pleasure, which Loulan said “is the purpose of sexuality” (1984, 44). The stages in Loulan’s cycle are all interchangeable, circular, avoidable and repeatable. There is no linear progression through the cycle, and there are no assumptions that all of the stages will be experienced. At any stage in this process a woman can terminate the cycle, in which case she will experience a shutdown of pleasure. Beyond these experiences, she will ultimately return to a resting state which completes Loulan’s Sexual Response Cycle.
Figure 2. Loulan’s Sexual Response Cycle
The Sexual Behavior of Lesbians
Question number seven on the Lesbian Sex: Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey (also referred to as Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey) asks, “How common are the following sexual behaviors with your current or most recent female partner?” The list of behaviors to choose from was compiled from reading lesbian sex books, particularly focusing on contemporary books by Felice Newman, Wendy Caster, and Jayme Waxman. From these books, the following behaviors were presented as choices for question number seven: kissing, finger sex, foreplay, oral sex, penetration/vibrator, humping, multiple orgasms, mutual masturbation, use of erotica/porn, anal sex, fisting, phone/internet sex, adding a third person and S&M/bondage. Women were asked to identify whether or not they engaged in each behavior. The options were, “I do this regularly when I have sex,” “I do this sometimes when I have sex,” I do this rarely when I have sex,” “I have done this at least once before,” and “I have never done this.”
In the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, the most common sexual behaviors reported were kissing, finger sex and foreplay. Eighty-two percent or more of all lesbians responded with “I do this regularly when I have sex” (Figure 3). This suggests that among the top three behaviors identified by lesbians as sex, clitoral stimulation / finger penetration (finger sex) is the most commonly utilized sexual technique among lesbians. Participant responses also revealed that the majority of lesbians engage in foreplay, and they also kiss while having sex.
Loulan reported similar findings in research she published in 1987. Loulan surveyed 1,566 lesbians between 1985 and 1987. Her findings reported that ninety-one percent of lesbians include kissing in their usual, frequent or constant sexual practices (Loulan 1987). According to Schwartz and Blumenstein, “Kissing occurs usually, though not always, when couples have sex. It is most consistently present among lesbians and least present among gay men” (1983, 225). The statistics on lesbians kissing in American Couples reported that ninety-five percent of the time lesbians have sex also involves kissing. This is nearly identical to the findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study where ninety-three percent of participants reported kissing during sex.
Loulan’s survey separated responses by receptive behaviors (behaviors performed on her) and expressive behaviors (behaviors directed to her partner). The findings between the receptive and expressive behaviors in her study were similar. The averages of these behaviors closely related to the findings in the current research with a few exceptions. Loulan’s study reported finger sex occurring eighty-three percent of the time, and the current research reported this eighty-four percent of the time. Ninety-three percent of respondents in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey reported kissing regularly, and Loulan found that ninety-one percent engaged in kissing as a usual sexual practice.
Penetrative sex with a vibrator or dildo has increased in popularity among lesbians over the last thirty years. Sixty-three percent of lesbians surveyed in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey reported having regular penetrative sex (which is a category separate from “finger sex” and infers the use of a dildo or vibrator). Loulan’s survey separated vibrator use from dildo use. Fifteen to sixteen percent of lesbians reported using a vibrator regularly, but only nine to ten percent of women inserted a dildo in her partner’s vagina during sex. Combined, this is a total of twenty-five percent, which falls significantly short of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey findings, which indicate that sixty-three percent of lesbians engage in penetrative sex.
In a 1995 survey conducted by the gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate, forty-three percent of the 13,000 lesbians that completed the questionnaire reported the use of a handheld dildo during sex with a partner within five years previous (Advocate 1995). This is higher than was reported in 1987 and lower than the sixty-three percent of lesbians who currently report the use of penetration and use of vibrator. This information supports the idea that penetrative sex for lesbians has become more widely practiced over the last few decades.
According to Harris and Sisely, “For most women foreplay is not just something you do before ‘really’ making love, it is a major part of really making love. All the caressing, whispering, stroking, kissing, undressing, close embraces, fingers-through-hair, breast stimulation, and what-you-will form more than a prelude to genital contact. They combine to orchestrate a series of climaxes that are totally enjoyable in and of themselves” (1976, 100). Based on the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey findings, it appears that foreplay continues to play a significant role in lesbian sex. Eighty-two percent of lesbians surveyed reported that foreplay is a consistent part of their sexual activity.
According to Martin and Lyon, in 1972 the three most common techniques used in lesbian lovemaking were mutual masturbation, cunnilingus, and tribadism. In the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey, oral sex occurred “regularly” when having sex for fifty-eight percent of survey respondents, and “sometimes” for twenty-eight percent of survey participants. This compares to Loulan’s study which showed an average of sixty-nine percent of women having engaged in oral sex within five years at the time of the survey. This does not indicate the regularity of this activity, however. Ninety-eight percent of the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey respondents report having engaged in oral sex at least once in their history of sexual activity. This is a more accurate comparison to Loulan’s study and suggests there has been a significant increase in oral sex among lesbians since 1987.
Schwartz and Blumenstein inquired about the frequency of oral sex among lesbians in their research, as well. Their studies revealed that twelve percent of the time, lesbians reported having oral sex “always.” Twenty-seven percent of the time, they reported having oral sex “usually” (1983, 236). This suggests that in the 1980s, lesbians were commonly engaging in oral sex about forty-percent of the time. Today lesbians report having oral sex regularly fifty-eight percent of the time, which suggests an increase in the incidence of oral sex among lesbians over the last three decades.
Figure 3. Common Sexual Activities Among Lesbians
Percentage of lesbians regularly engaging in these activities when sexual
Phone / Internet Sex
Adding Third Person
S&M / Bondage
|At least once|
Percentage that lesbians engage in these sexual activities at the frequency noted
Kinsey defined masturbation as “deliberate self-stimulation which effects sexual arousal” (Kinsey 1953, 133). Betty Dodson, the author of Liberating Masturbation, has been credited for encouraging women to take sexual pleasure into their own hands, so to speak. She developed a slide show called “Creating an Aesthetic for the Female Genitals,” a traveling show displaying the beauty of women’s genitals for women’s enjoyment. According to Dodson, “Masturbation is our primary sex life. It is the sexual base. Everything we do beyond that is simply how we choose to socialize our sex life” (Dodson 1972, 8). Equally enthusiastic about masturbation is Jayme Waxman, who said, “Masturbation is like breakfast for your body, an essential component for a balanced and satisfied life” (Waxman 2007, 11).
There do not appear to be any strong trends among lesbians who masturbate, except for the fact that most do engage in this behavior. Only seven out of 478 (1.5%) women surveyed have never masturbated. There is a fairly even distribution of lesbians who masturbate at a frequency between multiple times a week to once a month. A minority of lesbians masturbate daily or multiple times per day. Seventy-six percent of all lesbians surveyed masturbate at least once per month.
Masturbation rates reported in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey are slightly lower than those from the Advocate’s 1995 study. The Advocate reported that lesbians masturbate an average of five times within a thirty-day period. The average rate of masturbation among participants in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey is three to four times a month. The Advocate’s rate for those who do not masturbate was slightly higher (twenty-percent) than those in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction Survey (fourteen-percent).
In 1987, Loulan’s research revealed that the majority of lesbians (sixty-percent) were masturbating two to ten times per month (1987). This is an average of once weekly, which is also slightly higher than the findings in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study. The research conducted by Shere Hite simply reported that eighty-two percent of women, not specifically lesbians, masturbated. Eighty-nine percent of the women in Loulan’s survey reported masturbating. Study findings by this researcher revealed that eighty-five percent of the lesbians in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction study reported masturbating.
Figure 4. Frequency of Masturbation Among Lesbians
According to Solot and Miller, authors of I (Heart) Female Orgasm, “a female orgasm is just a series of involuntary muscular contractions. You can’t control how an orgasm feels, just as you can’t exactly control the sensation of a sneeze. During an orgasm, women can often feel the muscles contract in their vagina, uterus, and anus and sometimes in other parts of their body, like their hands and feet” (2007, 14).
The female orgasm has been widely misunderstood for quite some time. Sigmund Freud, the creator of psychoanalysis, is responsible for much of the confusion about female orgasms. In 1905, Freud suggested that a clitoral orgasm was purely an adolescent phenomenon that evolves into a vaginal orgasm upon the proper maturity of a woman. This belief was perpetuated for many years, leading women to believe that an orgasm would naturally occur through vaginal penetration without any clitoral stimulation (Orgasm 2012). Fortunately, Kinsey discovered the errors of Freud’s ways through scientific inquiry. Namely, Kinsey discovered that there is no such thing as a vaginal orgasm. In fact, the second two-thirds of the vagina is so absent of sensation, it can be operated on without any anesthesia. While there are nerve endings at the entrance of the vagina that are capable of creating feelings of pleasure, the orgasmic credit now goes where it rightfully belongs, which is to the clitoris.
Eighty-four percent of the women in the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey reported having at least one orgasm during their last sexual encounter with another woman. Half of these women had more than one orgasm. Orgasm rates among women in the 1950s were reported by Kinsey to occur between seventy and seventy-seven percent of the time during marital sex. Rates of orgasm for lesbians are not delineated. Kinsey does report, however, that only fourteen percent of the females in his sample regularly responded with multiple orgasm (Kinsey 1953).
Table 8. Lesbian Orgasms
|Orgasm at last sexual encounter|
Percentage of Women
|No Orgasm, Previous Orgasm Though|
|Never Had Orgasm With Her|
|Unsure If Ever Had Orgasm|
|Never Had Sex With Woman|
Orgasms during last sexual encounter with another woman
Open Relationships Among Lesbians
An open relationship is defined as an agreement between both partners that sex outside of the relationship is acceptable according to the terms they set forth. This is not a form of infidelity or cheating. When a partner cheats or is unfaithful, she is disregarding a partnership agreement. An open relationship is not immune from infidelity, however. Most open relationships involve stated agreements about the terms or rules, so infidelity can occur if these rules are violated.
The guidelines for an open relationship are established by each couple and vary from relationship to relationship. Some partners prefer that non-partner sex occurs only when one or the other is out of town. Some couples agree that mutual friends are off limits for non-partner sex. Other couples request that non-partner play is limited to one or two episodes with the same person to avoid fostering a deeper emotional attachment with the non-partner. There are many transmutations of the open relationship. The agreements established in an open relationship are as important to uphold as the agreement to be faithful is in a closed relationship.
Open relationships are not common among lesbians. According to Betty Berzon, author of Permanent Partners, “women are programmed to prefer a loving context for their sexual expression.” She added, “It’s likely that the sex will not be casual and that there will be emotional involvement because that’s the way women usually function” (Berzon 1990, 210-211).
A search for resources on the topic of open relationships for lesbians reveals only two books that are accessible to interested couples. The first is Lesbian Polyfidelity: A Pleasure Guide for the Woman Whose Heart Is Open to Multiple, Concurrent Sexualoves, or How to Keep Non-Monogamy Safe, Sane by Celeste West. Clearly an advocate of multiple partner relationships, West offers advice on how to address common pitfalls of open relationships, such as jealousy. The other book is The Lesbian Polyamory Reader: Open Relationships, Non-Monogamy, and Casual Sex, published by Marcia Munson and Judith Stelboum in 1999. This is a series of short articles and essays written by or about lesbians in open relationships. Common issues that surface for couples who engage in open relationships are discussed in this book, such as jealousy, living arrangements, boundaries, and relational agreements. It is surprising to find there are two books specific to lesbians in open relationships. This is a sparsely-addressed topic, and few lesbians report involvement in open relationships.
In the Frequency vs. Satisfaction survey, five percent of the participants had a stated agreement to open their relationship to outside parties. Six percent had not discussed the topic at all, and seventy-four percent had explicit agreements to not have sex with others.
In 1988, Steve Bryant and Demian conducted a large survey of gay men and lesbians with the intent to develop an accurate portrait of gay men and lesbians in America. The survey responses included 706 lesbian couples (56%) and 560 male couples (44%). The sexual agreements between lesbian couples revealed that ninety-one percent of women reported a closed relationship, compared to sixty-three percent of gay men. Seven percent of lesbians indicated they had agreed on some exceptions to monogamy, and three percent reported having an open relationship (Bryant and Demian 1988).
On the topic of open relationships, Betty Dodson said, “Very few couples will ever consider abandoning monogamy and dealing with the emotional chaos that results from feelings of jealousy. However, I’d like to remind women that monogamy was invented to ensure a man’s paternity by sexually controlling our behavior” (1974, 58). Findings by Schwartz and Blumenstein support Dodson’s theory about married women and monogamy. Of all partner types (husbands, wives, male cohabitators, female cohabitators, gay men, and lesbians), wives are the least likely to engage in any instance(s) of non-monogamy. Lesbians are the second least likely to engage in non-monogamy.
In general, “fewer women have sex outside their relationships than men do” (Schwartz and Blumenstein 1983, 272). Schwartz and Blumenstein sum this up well when they talk about how lesbians “still find it hard to get over traditional inhibitions about female sexuality and to revise customary sexual values.” Plus, “…it’s difficult to find partners who feel the same way, and the desire to free themselves from past roles does not necessarily imply emotional readiness for the actual event” (Schwartz and Blumstein 1983, 305).
Figure 5. Open Relationships Among Lesbians
In summary, this chapter offers updated insights about the sexual behaviors of lesbians. Foreplay and kissing during sex continue to be the staples in the sexual diet of lesbians. Penetrative sex with a vibrator/dildo and oral sex, however, have increased in popularity over the last three decades. The rate of masturbation among lesbians allows for roughly three to four instances of this activity per month, which is slightly lower than rates found in earlier studies. The majority of lesbians (eighty-four percent) are experiencing orgasms when they have sex. The most common technique used by lesbians during sex is clitoral stimulation (finger sex), followed by penetrative sex, and oral sex is the least common. Having established what lesbians are doing sexually, Chapter Six will turn its focus to the frequency with which lesbians are having sex.