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Is it Anti-Feminist for a Lesbian to Initiate Sex?

08 Sep Posted by in Dr. Glenda Corwin | Comments Off on Is it Anti-Feminist for a Lesbian to Initiate Sex?
Is it Anti-Feminist for a Lesbian to Initiate Sex?

What’s a very common refrain you hear when you ask a lesbian about her sex life? “Once we get started, I love it!”

Actually, you hear a version of that about a lot of things, not just sex. “I didn’t want to go to that party, but once I got there I had a great time.” “I was afraid to talk to her, but once I asked her a couple questions we had a great conversation.” “I didn’t want to go for a run, but once I got into it I got that rush.” “I dreaded that paperwork, but once I got started I zipped right through it and felt great afterwards.”

A slightly more scientific term for this is “initiating behavior.” Supposedly there’s an organ in the limbic system of your brain that’s responsible for initiating behaviors. As you might expect, said organ appears to be inactive when you’re depressed; i.e., you know starting some activity would probably make you feel better, but you just don’t have the energy for it, so you don’t go and then you feel a little worse. It’s a vicious cycle. And it does seem that for many women, sexuality has been depressed in the literal sense—pressed down, not flourishing, not giving pleasure to yourself or anyone else.

If only there were an app for that! Or a pill!  It’s true that antidepressants can make you feel better, and sometimes make it easier to start something new, but there’s something about a simple act of will. Like, I will do this, even if I don’t feel like it, because I know I’ll feel better once I get started.

But, when it comes to initiating sex, often other beliefs prevail. I don’t want to have to talk myself into having sex! That sounds forced, contrived, awkward.  Having sex when you don’t want to—isn’t that a boundary violation?  I want to have sexual desire, but I don’t so I’m not going to make myself do it just to please my partner. How anti-feminist!

med911007There’s a lot of truth in those statements. Yes, it does feel awkward to be intentional about sex–to set aside time, deliberately try to get yourself in the mood, consciously focus and ignore distractions.  And it is a boundary violation to be coerced into sex if that’s not part of the package you signed up for.

But therein lies the problem.  Many lesbians do sign up for the package of a committed, monogamous relationship that includes sexual intimacy. That’s how most couples get started. Initiation wasn’t a problem then—it was a thrill. Maybe one person did more of the pursuing, but the other wasn’t distancing—she was responding with passion and love and it was wonderful phase.

So when the initial thrills subside, it doesn’t seem right to just decide you changed your mind about sex, you’re okay with celibacy even though you expect monogamy. Ideally, this is when both of you decide you’re going to practice good teamwork, where you both agree on the goal and work out the strategies to get there. And this is when you just can’t avoid dealing with initiation problems.

These problems are expressed two ways: (1) I’m afraid to initiate sex, I feel too shy, or (2) I shouldn’t have to, that’s not my role.

The first one is easier to deal with. It’s okay to feel shy about sex, and if you talk to your partner about why it’s hard to talk to her about this, it will get easier. Plus, most of us are pretty kind and understanding and are not going to give anyone a hard time about sexual shyness. In fact, it might even be a refreshing change from over-confident bluster. The magic isn’t in a pill—it’s in the paradox that talking about fears makes them get smaller.

The “I shouldn’t have to” statement is a little more complicated. Why shouldn’t you? I mean, if your partner likes the role of always initiating, and you don’t, that’s perfect! But if she doesn’t, that’s not fair. If you both agree that sexual intimacy is important, it would behoove both of you to take equal responsibility for making it happen. To expect her to do all the heavy lifting is a bit, well, entitled.

To be fair to women who don’t want to initiate—we were trained that way. Our goal was to attract male attention, to nurture male self-esteem so they would want us and give us protection. In that framework, initiation isn’t a problem for women…let the men do it! And so much female self-esteem is wrapped up in being successfully attractive. It’s no wonder that it’s hard to flip the switch and experience life on the other side of the initiation divide.

Ironically, one thing many lesbians have missed out on is the opportunity to be sexually rejected and thereby get desensitized to it. Realistically, most people don’t get what they want every time—but that’s not a good reason to quit trying! Of course, if you’re always trying and always getting rejected, it would be good to explore how you’re going about things. But for most of us, it’s a matter of coming to terms with the fact that none of us are totally desirable all of the time. If your partner doesn’t want you tonight she may want you this weekend, so try not to dive into a pit of blame or shame…just try again later, or talk about it, and try to improve your teamwork.

And always remember—you’ll probably like it, once you get started.

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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,, as well as her own blog on She presents frequently at professional conferences, and is a regular guest on Barb Elgin’s LesbianLoveTalk radio program.

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