By now you’ve probably heard about “the new female Viagra”: Flibanserin, marketed under the name Addyi, promising to deliver sexual desire in pill form. The pharmaceutical company had a clever marketing slogan: Women deserve equal treatment for sexual issues. Who could argue with that? And could this be the magic pill that moves two women from “bed death” to vibrant, sustainable sexual intimacy?
I doubt it. For one thing, it’s not one pill–it’s one pill every day, indefinitely, with potential side effects like nausea, fainting, and dangerous interactions with alcohol. The clinical research data, available online, suggests miniscule effectiveness. The cost, however, is not miniscule; some estimate $400/month. In contrast, Viagra involves about $15 per pill, one pill per occasion, in and out of the system in a few hours. This seriously does not sound like “equal treatment for women’s sexual issues.”
But what bothers me most is how this disempowers women. We’re being asked to alter our own brain chemistry so we can approach sex more like adolescent males, all about hormones and genital stirrings. That’s just not how sexuality works for most women. We’re much more likely to say “Sex feels great–once we get started!” And getting started is all about being intentional, taking charge of ourselves, honoring our female way being sexual.
When I did my first survey of lesbian sexual patterns, I found a group of lesbian partners who were sexually active after many years of living together. They were a minority, about 20% of the total sample. What was their secret? They were incredibly intentional about their sexual relationships. They set aside time and space for each other, engaged in behaviors that were physically relaxing, and tuned into erotic fantasies. They were deliberate about getting themselves “in the mood.” And they were a joy to talk with, because they felt so good about themselves and each other.
I’ve heard many women ask “Why should I have to do all this planning and deliberation–shouldn’t sex happen spontaneously, if the chemistry is right?” So let’s just dissect that idea of spontaneity.
When you first start dating someone, nothing is spontaneous.
You plan dates in great detail, with excited anticipation. You choose flattering clothes, romantic restaurants with dim lights, music with a subtle, sexual beat, fun activities, and lots of getting-to-know-you conversations. You sit close so you can accidentally touch each other. Sometimes you change the sheets before you go out, just in case you have a chance to bring her home for some “spontaneous” lovemaking.
When you think about it, those datings behaviors are a form of foreplay– behaviors that help build positive anticipation and build momentum for sexual connection. This kind of real-life, extended, intentional foreplay really works! That’s the secret that long-term lesbian lovers understand, that the way to sustain sexual intimacy is to sustain foreplay. Not hormones or magic pills–it’s all about the foreplay!
So why is it so hard for us to keep practicing foreplay after we’re settled into a loving, long-term commitment to another woman?
Being intentional about sex goes against the grain of everything we learned as women about sexuality, and leaves us vulnerable to guilt or shame. Guilt, for deliberately choosing to plan sexual encounters, indulge in sexual fantasies, and focus on pleasure just because it feels good. Shame, for acknowledging (a) that you want sex and (b) you want it with another woman. Making an overture and getting pushed away feels bad enough; getting rejected by another woman can feel humiliating. It cuts to the core of our self-esteem as women who love other women. It’s much safer to pretend that sex might “just happen” than to step out on a limb, express sexual intentions, and hope for the best.
Choosing to be long-term lesbian lovers takes courage. Together, couples need to push back on the antisexual, anti-female, anti-lesbian biases that permeate our sexual culture. Separately, individuals have to face fears, challenge entrenched beliefs, and get realistic about sex. And collectively, we need to affirm the sexual energy that led us to come out in the first place. Celebrating sexuality is a team effort, and deserves some applause.
If you have doubts about whether it’s worth the effort, think about the times you’ve felt real passion–that blend of love and sexual excitement that connects you to another person, and to yourself, in the deepest way possible. Those experiences didn’t happen because of hormones. You created them, with your attention and your behaviors and your intentional decisions to foster sexuality in your life. You created the passionate experiences that bring joy and pride and wonderful connection between women who love each other. It was you, not your hormones, who made this happen.
And that’s my problem with the search for magic pills to restore sexual intimacy for women. The message of the magic pill is that if you just tinker with the right combo of neurotransmitters, you can get yourself to enjoy your sexuality—but you don’t get to take credit for it, because it wasn’t you, it was the pill.