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Is Lesbian Bed Death Inevitable? We Think Not.

Is Lesbian Bed Death Inevitable? We Think Not.

Many years ago a young woman came to my office for consultation about a very specific question.  She asked “Do you think lesbian bed death is inevitable?”  Her story was sadly familiar.  She had been living with her partner for 12 years, the past 5 without sex.  She was unhappy about this, but her partner just said it was “normal for lesbians” to stop having sex. Then she began an affair with another woman, and her primary relationship crashed and burned.  She felt sad, guilty, and confused.   If asexuality is inevitable anyway, perhaps she should have accepted what she had—but she didn’t want to resign herself to a life without sex. This is why she was asking what was normal for lesbians.

As an openly lesbian therapist in private practice, I’ve heard this woman’s story many times, and it’s always painful. It is true that many lesbian couples do not have an active sex life with each other, and “desire discrepancy” conflicts are extremely common.  However, I was glad to tell her that some long-term lesbian couples do sustain sexual intimacy.

What were they doing differently?  What can other lesbian couples learn from them about how to sustain sexual intimacy, if they want to?  Instead of focusing on lesbian pathology, what can we learn from women who are pleased with their sexual relationships?

Interviews with these couples reveal one common theme: They seem very realistic about how female sexual desire really works.  They understand how to create sexual desire intentionally, instead of waiting for “spontaneous” urges to have sex.  They set aside time for sex, and they pay attention to their activities prior to a planned sexual encounter.  In other words, they practice an extended form of foreplay, which gradually builds positive anticipation and arousal.

In contrast, the women who were having sex only rarely, or never, didn’t schedule time for sex—and seemed surprised when asked about that.  As one woman said,  “Scheduling?  That would make it too awkward…Sex should happen spontaneously!”

When I do workshops for lesbian couples, we start with talking about our memories of the early days of a romantic relationship when sex felt so spontaneous.  It was actually incredibly intentional: the careful planning of fun dates, preening and grooming, setting the stage, clearing out distractions, focusing on shared pleasure, whispering sweet nothings, indulging in erotic fantasies, delightfully anticipating sex. A tremendous amount of effort and attention went into creating those romantic nights of sexual desire.  It’s funny, and fun, to remember. And it makes a good point: Sex was never that spontaneous!

It seems to be helpful to emphasize a lengthy form of foreplay, instead of sex itself.  In my intimacy workshops we talk about activities to engage in at the day before a potential sexual encounter, lightly called “24-hour foreplay.” For example, planning an activity that’s different from the normal routine, and that both partners enjoy, is a step toward increasing emotional connection and erotic possibilities.  Asking a partner if she’d like to go out to a romantic dinner is less intimidating that asking if she wants to make love.  Shifting the focus from sex to foreplay can be a subtle, positive way to ease into a sexual mood.

Being intentional about sex also means being vulnerable to feeling shame, because it’s acknowledging want.  There’s nothing like extending a hand and getting slapped away.  It feels humiliating.  Interpretations of sexual rejection are rife with self-deprecation: she doesn’t want me because I’m not attractive…not a good lover…not exciting enough…she wants someone else.  Thoughts like this cut to the core of self-esteem.  It’s much safe to pretend that sex might “just happen” than to step out on a limb and hope for the best.

Fortunately, the rewards are usually worth the risks: increased intimacy, shared pleasure, and validation of the life energy that has certainly changed our lives.

Glenda Corwin, Ph.D is a clinical psychologist who specializes in lesbian sexual issues. She is the author of Sexual Intimacy for Women: A Guide for Same Sex Couples (Seal Press, 2010). Dr. Corwin writes for the Huffington Post: Gay Voices, Epochalips.com, as well as her own blog on www.DrGlendaCorwin.com. She presents frequently at professional conferences, and is a regular guest on Barb Elgin’s LesbianLoveTalk radio program.

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