“Lesbians love love,” Felice Newman said to me over the phone one beautiful August morning. “But we also wanna fuck!”
The conversation, which came at the beginning of an interview I conducted with her about her paramount book, The Whole Lesbian Sex Book: A Passionate Guide for All of Us, was in response to the question, “Where did the book originate from? Where did you get the idea?” Felice graciously explained that the book was born from a lack of information—many books were being written about the voracity of the gay male sexual appetite, while lesbians and other Sapphic-identifying folks were left with softer representations and stereotypes. Ever heard the joke about lesbians bringing U-hauls to the second date? The average lesbian character has been historically portrayed as having a smorgasboard of desexualized characteristics: she drives a Subaru, she plays softball, she loves cats, she has passionate and dramatic love affairs, and she never, ever has sex. Ok, so the last one is debatable. If you’ve ever watched Better Than Chocolate, or The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, or if you’ve read the Beebo Brinker chronicles by Ann Bannon, then you know that lesbians have historically gotten down plenty
However, the reckless abandonment that peppers the gay male narrative and paints a landscape of a wildly lascivious and promiscuous lifestyle simply does not exist for female-identified lesbians. Au contraire. While lustful men are forever having hot fulfilling sex in public restrooms, parks, sex parties, or anywhere else they can, lesbians are busy planning potlucks or losing their minds over their friends’ babies. And if a supposed total and utter dedication to domesticity weren’t dreadful enough*, lesbians also have to contend with the absolutely appalling idea of Lesbian Bed Death. If you’ve been lucky enough to live in this world for an unquantifiable amount of time without being confronted with the term Lesbian Bed Death, then consider yourself a pop-cultural unicorn. Not to be confused with the UK based Gothic Punk band, Lesbian Bed Death is a term that was coined in 1983 by Washington University sociologist Pepper Schwartz in her book American Couples. The term is used to describe lesbians in long-term committed monogamous partnerships who have ceased having sex with one another or finding one another sexually compelling.
“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.”
This finding was based off of a survey conducted by Schwartz in the late 70s-early 80s, in which couples were asked about the frequency with which they had intercourse with one another. Of all of the couples presented in the study, lesbian couples were having sex with the least amount of frequency. What the study fails to show, and what has indeed been proven in conclusive studies since, is that context is an important determining factor in demonstrating sexual activity. Tristan Taormino, author of Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, stated that sex between partners gets old no matter what the orientation of the people involved may be. Indeed, what is the difference between the bedroom habits of straight couples, gay male couples, and lesbian couples? At the risk of sounding gender-reductionist, I challenge the concept of Lesbian Bed Death as an outdated idea that posits women as asexual creatures who are companionship-driven creatures with absolutely no sex drive whatsoever. Schwartz’ study (as well as the sexless portrayal of lesbian couples in popular culture) promotes a binaried misogyny that represents Sapphic women as overdramatic commitment-holics afraid of their own bodies and desires.
In June of 2010, the Village Voice ran a more compelling and multifaceted article that critiqued the age-old myth of LBD, with insight from lesbian icon Jenny Shimizu, who stated that bed death is not exclusively lesbian, and “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.” Though I believe that problems with intimacy are all-inclusive, and worthy of a deeper discussion, I have to shake my head at how, even during today’s political climate of increasing queer visibility, study, and discourse, we still continue to see practices that favor the male sex drive over the female: bath houses, for example, are mostly exclusively for queer men, leather shops and clubs (such as Mr. S Leather in San Francisco) pander primarily to masculinity, and female sexuality is all but ignored in the media. Perhaps instead of focusing on how women are consistently doing everything wrong, we can focus on the wild nuances of lesbian sexuality, the carnality of Sapphic desire, and the inherent intimacy issues in all relationships across the board.