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Rejoice, lesbians: ‘bed death’ isn’t actually a thing
A new survey of 8,000 lesbians disproves some nagging myths in the lesbian community.
This article contains sexually explicit material.
In a same-sex relationship with a woman and not getting enough action? Don’t diagnose your partnership with lesbian bed death just yet—survey data has now proven without a doubt that it doesn’t exist.
“Lesbian bed death,” or LBD, is a term that’s often used to describe when a lesbian relationship goes through a sexual dry spell. The term dates back to 1983, when sociologist Pepper Schwartz used it to describe sexless states in lesbian relationships in her book American Couples.
Schwartz’s methodology was criticized by researchers who said her sample population was small and her data didn’t account for the range of lesbian sexual activity, instead focusing exclusively on penetration. Other critics said that frequency shouldn’t matter when surveys have shown that lesbians have sex for much longer periods of time and are happier with their sex lives than straight women.
“It is safe to say that if sex research questions focused on longevity instead of the number of sexual acts,” wrote sex therapist Suzanne Iasenza in a 2001 article challenging the idea of LBD, “lesbians would be the winners.”
Lesbians don’t just have sex for longer periods of time—they also get more out of it. A study published by Indiana University in 2014 showed that lesbians have more orgasms than straight or bisexual women. (Hey, straight guys: get it together.)
No matter how many times people have written off lesbian bed death as a myth, though, the cliché is as deeply entrenched in lesbian culture as potlucks, Subarus, and softball. As you read this, a lesbian couple somewhere is celebrating a two-year anniversary and bemoaning the inclement approach of bed death. It’s a specter in our bedrooms, and we just can’t seem to shake the idea.
The cliché is as deeply entrenched in lesbian culture as potlucks, Subarus, and softball.
Thank goddess, then, for the 2015 Autostraddle Lesbian Sex Survey (“for lady types who sleep with lady types”). In-depth and accurate data about lesbian sex is surprisingly hard to find—despite how much the world loves watching women fuck each other on Pornhub, not as many people are interested in pinpointing exactly how often real-life couples get it on.
Autostraddle got a staggering 8,566 responses to its survey, mostly from women under age 36. That’s important to note, because the more frequently conducted Kinsey survey of heterosexual married couples shows that sex generally declines in relationships after age 39.
A comparison of the Autostraddle data with the Kinsey data shows that monogamous lesbian couples have sex as much or more as married hetero couples. 35.6 percent of monogamous lesbians reported getting it on “multiple times per week,” compared with 35.2 percent of married couples (age 25-29) and 28.7 percent of partnered straight couples in the same age range.
Monogamous lesbian couples have sex as much or more as married hetero couples.
“Lesbian Bed Death is the greatest disservice we ever did to our community. We really screwed ourselves with that one, but not in a good way,” said Felice Newman, sex coach and author of The Whole Lesbian Sex Book, in an interview with the Daily Dot. “Because in fact the statistics don’t vary that much. If you’re straight or you’re gay, long term relationships can be challenging when it comes to sex.”
Newman was impressed with the range of the Autostraddle study and said that previous research has often overlooked the frequency rates of sex in lesbian relationships. That could be partly to blame for the persistence of the LBD myth.
“I’ll be talking to a couple that isn’t having much sex, and it’s like they’ve resigned themselves to it because there’s an idea that Lesbian Bed Death is unavoidable,” Newman said, “Or they think it happens to everybody, so it’s normal. They’ll use it as a way to justify not doing anything about the problem.”
In fact, some women have used the LBD myth not only to justify dry spells, but also to pressure more libidinous partners into having less sex.
Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart, who writes for Slate’s Outward LGBT section, told the Daily Dot that one former partner raised the specter of LBD after only three months together.
“I’d never heard of Lesbian Bed Death until my ex-girlfriend Kris informed me that all lesbian couples stopped having sex after the three month mark,” said Urquhart. “But now it’s obvious that she just had a far lower libido than I did, and was trying to shame me for wanting sex regularly.”
“For the record, I’ve been with my wife four and a half years,” Urquhart said, “And we’ve yet to lose interest in physical intimacy. My relationship with Kris didn’t last past the three month mark, though.”
Now that the Autostraddle survey has confirmed the non-existence of LBD, lesbian couples who are having sexual problems no longer have a crutch to lean on. So what do you do if your shared sex life has lost its spark?
Newman said communication is key—not just communicating with your partner, but also by having open and honest conversations about sex in society in general.
“If you want to have more sex, get good at talking about it,” Newman told the Daily Dot. “That doesn’t just mean talking with your primary partner, it means talking with your friends. So often after people get married and settle down, they stop having input in terms of sexuality—they stop watching porn, they don’t go to the sex toy store, they’re just between the sheets. Anything that exists in a vacuum tends to wither.”
It’s also important that people of all orientations learn to identify what they want in bed, without caving to the pressure of stereotypes. One interesting finding of the Autostraddle survey was that while only about 3 percent of respondents reported having sex once a day or more, a full 35 percent reported wanting to have every day or multiple times a day.
Why the discrepancy? Sexologist Isadora Alman, whose “Ask Isadora” syndicated column ran for more than 20 years in alternative weeklies like the Village Voice and San Francisco Bay Guardian, told the Daily Dot that people have a tendency to inflate sexual goals beyond what’s realistic.
“There’s an idea that we ought to be having more sex,” Alman said. “I have found that when people report they’d like to have more sex, than they actually have the opportunity to do so, they still end up about where they are. You have to look at what happens when life doesn’t get in the way—like when they’re on vacation. Life gets in the way. Most of us don’t have the stamina or the time.”
Alman said that surveys can be a somewhat unreliable method of tracking real data about sexual frequency because of discrepancies in what counts as sex and because “people lie about their sex lives.”
At least one segment of the lesbian population isn’t inflating sex numbers: single women. According to the Autostraddle survey findings, single lesbians are not getting much action at all. Nearly half reported having sex “less than once a month.”
“Single women need to be having sex,” said Newman, “That means women have to create communities and a context for having sex that is not about looking for ‘the one’ and at the same time is supportive and respectful and fun. We don’t have enough of a sexual culture among lesbians.”
“We don’t have enough of a sexual culture among lesbians.”
By “sexual culture,” Newman means ways for single lesbians to get freaky without attaching a U-Haul to the encounter. While gay men have bathhouses, bars, and Grindr, lesbians lack options for one-night stands or fleeting hookups. For lesbians interested in digital dating, there’s no proven alternative to hookup apps like Hinge or Tinder.
But being open to temporary, even anonymous, sexual encounters can be challenging for many women. Women suffer sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse at much higher rates than men, and safety can be a higher priority than a quick orgasm with no strings attached. In addition, women don’t grow up learning to be aggressive when it comes to initiating sex, and often receive messages in childhood that wanting sex is dirty or bad.
Newman said that even though women aren’t always taught to be sexual go-getters, they can train themselves to want sex more—whether single or in a relationship with another woman.
“Libido is not a measurable substance like the blood in your body. Libido isn’t a thing, it’s an idea,” Newman said, “It’s about desire. And desire can be supported, intensified, and increased. You can decide to read some erotica and get turned on. You can decide whether to go for a run or to fuck your girlfriend.”
Photo via LesMedia/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)
Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.