We all know the old joke: What does a lesbian bring to a second date? (A U-Haul, of course.) In the popular imagination, lesbians use their beds for reading, sipping herbal tea, and hanging with their cats. In other words, anything but sex. But where did this idea of “lesbian bed death” come from? Thank sociologist Pepper Schwartz, who, in her 1983 book American Couples, asserted that lesbians have less sex and intimacy than other couples. Although her methodology and results were later challenged, the idea of lesbian bed death has taken on a life of its own, with damaging results.
Despite the shibboleth that women’s sexuality is something wild that has to be controlled, and the stereotype of lesbians as the asexual mirror-image of horndog gay men, the truth lies somewhere in between: Lesbians who have been sleeping together for decades manage to keep their love lives spicy. Besides, the lesbians who are in long-term relationships would argue that all couples get tired of marathon sex.
“In the beginning, you’d rather have sex than eat or go to work,” says comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer, who has been with wife Jennifer for six years. “But then it has to slow down, or we wouldn’t have a workforce. It becomes more about setting a date for sex as opposed to letting it fall by the wayside. That’s why you see so many people break up: The sex got monotonous or needed work, and neither knew how to do it. Sex in our culture is based strictly on the intensity of the beginning. Nobody talks about the middle or later.”
Lesbian icon Jenny Shimizu is a model and actress known for a wild past that includes liaisons with Madonna, Angelina Jolie, and Ione Skye. Shimizu still sizzles for Susi, her partner of almost two years, but she acknowledges that lesbian bed death “can happen to any couple. It has to do with lack of communication, holding onto resentments, and not taking care of the needs of the other.”
Even sex educator and author Tristan Taormino—as sex-positive as anyone—concedes that sex gets old regardless of a couple’s sexual orientation. Besides, lesbians are different—just not in the way Schwartz believes. Married women go for younger guys, while their husbands turn to pros. Just turn to the politics, sports, or entertainment pages of any newspaper: Gay men have a whole cornucopia of choices, from sex parties to leather clubs to outdoor cruising spots. And lesbians? We rarely stray outside of long-term relationships to find sexual satisfaction.
Taormino dismisses white-hot sex as another unachievable goal brought to you by porn, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue. “People think they’ll be making dinner, and catch each other’s eye and say, ‘Let the water boil over—we’re going to fuck right here on the kitchen floor,’ ” she says. “But that’s a TV commercial. That’s not real life.”
Lesbians seem to favor intimacy over hanging from the chandeliers. That’s not to say this intimacy precludes passion. Characterizing lesbians as stuck in “Boston marriages” is just one more way the mainstream straight community “preserves their sense of being the normal people who have normal sex,” says Dana Heller, incoming chair of the English Department at Old Dominion University, who has written extensively on gender issues, “and that normal sex in a monogamous coupled relationship should never end.”
The myth, she adds, serves to appease those heterosexuals who are experiencing “straight panic” over LGBT visibility and power: “Increasingly, the country is coming to recognize that there is not a big divide between gay or straight relationships—except what’s inscribed in our legal system.”
What does make it harder for lesbians is that, until very recently, we haven’t had role models with that mixture of tenderness and passion that heterosexuals take for granted. “It is difficult to see a healthy lesbian relationship that is hot,” points out comedian Kate Clinton, who has been with activist Urvashi Vaid since 1991.
For lesbians together for decades, like comedian Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, it takes work to keep the flame going. So how do they do it? “We wear costumes!” Tomlin deadpans.
Costumes, role play . . . whatever playfulness you need to keep a relationship alive is OK, according to erotica writer and editor Rachel Kramer Bussel, who says, “You have to ask about your partner’s fantasies.”
While many gay men see three-ways as part of the marriage, lesbians have a lot more trouble negotiating nonmonogamy. “That’s an option for people, and I think some women do it,” Taormino says, “but others don’t have the models.”
Bussel is big on going as a pair to burlesque shows, strip clubs, or even sex parties. “Even if you are not opening up your relationship, you are adding a visual voyeurism element to it,” she says. Here in New York, lesbians have a citywide playroom of choices to ramp up their sex lives, including classes and events at sex emporia like Toys in Babeland, Lesbian Sex Mafia play parties, or sharing online porn at home at JuicyPinkBox.com.
So, sorry, Pepper, but lesbians have just as much—or as little—sex as any couple in a long-term relationship. Which is to say, not nearly as much as they used to, but a lot more than your study maintained. “We must let go of those rigid ideas of what makes a healthy, functional, successful relationship,” Taormino says. “Every person has different needs and wants, and what works for one is not going to work for others. We need to talk openly about our sexual desires, practices, needs, and fantasies rather than continuing to let this bizarre myth rule our sex lives.”