Lesbian bed death
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Lesbian bed death is a concept in which lesbian couples in committed relationships have less sex than any other type of couple, and generally experience less sexual intimacy the longer the relationship lasts. It may also be defined as a drop-off in sexual activity two years into a long-term lesbian relationship.
The concept is based on 1983 research by social psychologist Philip Blumstein and sociologist Pepper Schwartz, published in American Couples: Money, Work, Sex, which found that lesbian couples reported lower numbers when asked "About how often during the last year have you and your partner had sex relations?" The idea has been criticized for the methodology of the research and because sexual activity decreases for all long-term couples regardless of sexual orientation. Subsequently, researchers have regarded it as a popular myth.
Origin of the term
Pepper Schwartz is credited as coining the term lesbian bed death. Psychologist and sex therapist Suzanne Iasenza believes that it was first publicly uttered by Jade McLeughlin during a speech at a 1987 NGLTF rally at George Washington University.
Blumstein and Schwartz's findings
In the early 1980s, Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz conducted a survey on American relationships, sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation and the National Science Foundation. The questionnaire covered various aspects of their relationship such as work, sex, children, finances, and decision-making. Initially 12,000 volunteer couples, including 788 lesbian couples, filled out questionnaires. Of these, 300 couples in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York were selected for a more in-depth interview. The findings were published in 1983 as American Couple: Money, Work, Sex. Among the results, Blumstein and Schwartz concluded that lesbian couples in committed relationships have less sex than any other type of couple (heterosexual married, heterosexual co-habitating or gay male) and that they generally experience less sexual intimacy the longer the relationship lasts.
This was based on responses to the question "About how often during the last year have you and your partner had sex relations?" The results signified less sexual activity than their counterparts. Only about one-third of lesbians in relationships of 2 years or longer had sex once a week or more; 47% of lesbians in long-term relationships had sex once a month or less, and among heterosexual married couples, only 15% had sex once a week or less. They also reported that lesbians seemed to be more limited in the range of their sexual techniques than did other couples, and that lesbian couples are less sexual as couples and as individuals than anyone else.
Other findings and criticism
In her New York Times review of American Couple, Carol Tavris suggested potential bias in the Blumstein and Schwartz survey results, as most of the respondents were typically white, affluent, liberal, and well-educated. Lesbian feminist theorist Marilyn Frye also criticized the study. Frye questioned the methodology of the survey format, feeling that the survey question is too ambiguous when applied to the sexual behavior of lesbian couples. She indicated that the survey's comparison is not accurate because the focus on sexual activity back then was on whether or not a penis was inserted and if "sex relations" is interpreted too narrowly, this ambiguity could account for the finding of a statistically low frequency of sexual behavior among lesbian couples. Frye stated, "...What 85 percent of long-term, married couples do more than once a month takes on average 8 minutes to do... What we (lesbians) do that, on average, we do considerably less frequently, takes, on the average, considerably more than 8 minutes to do. Maybe about 30 minutes at least."
Lesbian couples are expected to seek sex less frequently than heterosexual or gay male couples. Scholar Waguih William IsHak stated that although lesbian bed death lacks scientific evidence, empirical data has suggested "that women ha[ve] less sexual desire than men and are more submissive in sexual interactions." A 2006 a German study concluded that the female libido greatly diminishes once a woman is in a secure relationship.
With regard to women's overall sexual behavior and sexual satisfaction, Masters and Johnson's 1979 study on lesbian sexual practices concluded that lesbian sexual behaviors more often have qualities associated with sexual satisfaction than their heterosexual counterparts, focusing on more full-body sexual contact rather than genital-focused contact, less preoccupation or anxiety about achieving orgasm, more sexual assertiveness and communication about sexual needs, longer lasting sexual encounters and greater satisfaction with the overall quality of one's sexual life. 2004 research by Margaret Nichols found slightly less sexual behavior among lesbians than heterosexual women, but that both were sexually active approximately once a week. Several studies have indicated that lesbians have orgasms more often and more easily in sexual interactions than heterosexual women do, while a 2009 Journal of Sex Research study found that women in same-sex relationships enjoyed identical sexual desire, sexual communication, sexual satisfaction, and satisfaction with orgasm as their heterosexual counterparts. 2014 research by Blair and Pukall reported that women in same-sex relationships have similar levels of overall sexual satisfaction as their heterosexual counterparts, and slightly lower levels of sexual frequency, but also that women in same-sex relationships spend significantly longer amounts of time on individual sexual encounters, often spending upwards of two hours on an individual encounter.
Researchers Cohen and Byers stated that the majority of the lesbian bed research is old (by more than 20 years) and that its survey question "how often do you have sex?" is phallocentric and therefore the respondents were unlikely to include behaviors such as genital touching, oral-genital contact, and non-genital activities (such as kissing and whole-body contact) in their answers. In their 2014 study of the concept, approximately 600 women in long-term same-sex relationships were included. Three quarters had engaged in one or more genitally-based sexual activities at least once a week during the past month, and 88% of the women reported daily non-genital sexual activity. Both heterosexual and female same-sex couples had a decrease in frequency of genital contact, while non-genital contact had not decreased. The women in same-sex relationships also reported being sexually satisfied.
Suzanne Iasenza described the lesbian bed death concept as a "notorious drop-off in sexual activity about two years into long-term lesbian relationships." Reviewing the literature on topic, she argued that the concept should end because it relies on gender socialization theory, lacks definitional clarity and empirical validity, and because all long-term couples experience a decline in sexual frequency as the years go on. She also stated that a 1995 Advocate Survey of Lesbian Sexuality and Relationships showed that lesbian women had more enjoyable sex than most American women, but that this data did not receive the same attention as Schwartz's study.
Society and culture
Following the Blumstein and Schwartz survey, many 1980s books and articles by lesbian practitioners were written about lesbian sexuality, by well-known clinicians such as Marny Hall, JoAnn Loulan and Marge Nichols, dealing with inhibited sexual desire, lack of sexual initiation and low sexual self-esteem in regards to lesbian sexuality. Nichols said that the impact "of these studies on the perception of lesbians, notably by lesbians themselves, was enormous: in a word, lesbians came to be seen as less sexual than other women." The term lesbian bed death was well-established by the early 1990s in the gay and lesbian community, and was the subject of jokes, dismay, and intense debate. Nichols stated explanations for lesbian bed death consisted of inhibited sexual desire as a result of internalized homophobia and "the idea of 'merging' or 'fusion' in lesbian couples (Burch, 1987). The 'urge to merge' was already stronger in women than in men, so two women in a relationship would result in an overly close connection, one so familiar that sex would come to resemble incest, thus inhibiting its expression."
Numerous writers have called lesbian bed death a myth, including Nikki Dowling of TheFrisky.com, Winnie McCroy of The Village Voice, Dana Heller, Suzanne Iasenza, psychologist Zoë Peterson, and lesbian author Felice Newman. Dowling argued that the definition of sexual activity back in the 1980s was mainly limited to penile-vaginal sex, and that this has affected lesbians' definition of sex since some wonder if two women having sex is a valid act. She surmised that lesbian bed death, "is probably only sticking around" due to lesbophobia. McCroy stated, "Although [Schwartz's] methodology and results were later challenged, the idea of lesbian bed death has taken on a life of its own, with damaging results." Dowling also cited a widespread negative effect of the concept, stating that numerous websites claiming they can cure lesbian bed death started to crop up. McCroy argued that all couples get tired of "marathon sex." Sex educator and author Tristan Taormino stated that sex gets old regardless of a couple's sexual orientation. Iasenza said, "Read heterosexual sex therapist David Schnarch's work if you don't believe heterosexual couples grapple with similar issues."
Newman stated, "Lesbian Bed Death is the greatest disservice we ever did to our community. [...] 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."
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- McCroy, Winnie (June 22, 2010). "The Myth of Lesbian Bed Death". The Village Voice. Retrieved February 20, 2011.
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'before the term "lesbian bed death" was publicly uttered for the first time at a political rally in 1987'
- John D'Emilio (2014). In a New Century: Essays on Queer History, Politics, and Community Life. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 16–17.
'I can't remember much about the specific content of the presentations (except for Jade McLeughlin's use of the memorable phrase "lesbian bed death")'
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- Blair, Karen; Pukall, Caroline (2014). "Can Less Be More? Comparing Duration vs. Frequency of Sexual Encounters in Same-Sex and Mixed-Sex Relationships" (PDF). Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. University of Toronto Press. 23 (2): 123–136. doi:10.3138/cjhs.2393.
- Iasenza S (2000). "Lesbian Sexuality Post-Stonewall to Post-Modernism: Putting the 'Lesbian Bed Death' Concept to Bed". Journal of Sex Education and Therapy. 25 (1): 59–69. doi:10.1080/01614576.2000.11074330.
- Dowling, Nikki (February 25, 2010). "Girl On Girl: Lesbian Bed Death Is A Big, Fat Myth". The Frisky (website). TheFrisky.com. Retrieved February 20, 2011.
- O'Hara, Mary Emily (April 7, 2015). "Rejoice, lesbians: 'bed death' isn't actually a thing". The Daily Dot. Retrieved July 4, 2018.