feature art: Autostraddle
Welcome to The Gay B C’s of Sex! Each month I’ll define a different sex-related term that’s used within the queer community. I’ll craft these definitions with help from queer archives, pop culture, interviews and more. Keep in mind that terminology — especially when it comes to sex — varies widely across communities, and no single definition or article can encapsulate every individual’s experience with these terms. Use this column as a jumping off point for your own reflection and conversation in the comments.
“Lesbian bed death” sounds like a perfect name for a goth punk band, and it is, in fact, the name of a UK-based goth punk band. But I’m not talking about music. I’m talking about this:
lesbian bed death (n.) – the idea that lesbian couples experience a sharp decline in sexual activity over the course of a relationship
“Have you ever heard of lesbian bed death? I read about it online. It’s when two lesbians date for long enough, they become like sisters. And Blaine and I are like an old married couple — a fabulous old married couple like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward — but I don’t think we’ve had an unscheduled makeout session in, like, a month.” — Kurt in Season 3, Episode 17 of Glee (2012)
If you’re a lesbian or if you align with the lesbian community in some way, you might fear lesbian bed death. Maybe you feel like the reputation of lesbian sex rests upon your strong, lesbian (or lesbian-adjacent) shoulders and therefore YOU MUST HUMP A LEG AT LEAST ONCE A DAY FOR THE CAUSE! Let’s cut to the chase: “bed death” doesn’t only happen in lesbian relationships. Most relationships — regardless of the genders and orientations of the people involved — experience “bed death,” or, to use gentler terms, a temporary or longer-term decrease in sexual activity at some point.
Between 1978 and 1979, social psychologist Philip Blumstein and sociologist Pepper Schwartz — more recently known as a relationship expert on the reality series Married at First Sight — mailed out relationship surveys to couples in major US cities. 12,000 couples volunteered to fill out their questionnaires, including 788 lesbian couples. In 1983, Blumstein and Schwartz published their findings in American Couples: Money, Work, Sex.
The research duo concluded that lesbian couples (in this case, they meant cisgender women in relationships with other cisgender women) have sex less frequently than the other types of couples they studied (heterosexual married couples, heterosexual cohabitating couples and gay male couples) and that lesbian couples’ sexual activity decreases over the course of their relationships.
This particular study has been criticized over the years due to a number of factors, including its methodology (the survey questions weren’t written with a lesbian audience in mind) and its skewed sample (the respondents were primarily white and affluent). Despite the study’s problems, it seems like Blumstein and Schwartz were onto something. Further studies have also found that lesbians have sex less often than people of other orientations. But the idea that lesbian couples experience waning desire over time — well, that’s true for most couples in long-term relationships, and it was also true for the heterosexual and gay couples that Blumstein and Schwartz surveyed.
At this point, you’re probably wondering where the public got the idea that lesbians in particular experience this big, terrible thing called “lesbian bed death,” and buddy, I wish I could tell you. I can’t even tell you where the term came from — because apparently, NOBODY KNOWS!
While Blumstein and Schwartz seem to have introduced the concept of lesbian bed death, they never used the term in their book. The three women who are most commonly credited with coining “lesbian bed death” include: Lesbian Sex author Joann Loulan, lesbian comedian Kate Clinton and, of course, Dr. Pepper Schwartz. When Dr. Michele O’Mara was writing her PhD dissertation on lesbian sexuality, she asked all three of these women if they had brought the term “lesbian bed death” into the public sphere. Loulan denied it, Clinton denied it and Schwartz said, “Sadly, I have no memory about it — so I can’t deny or confirm!”
Even though its origins are mysterious, the term “lesbian bed death” continues to loom in the queer (and straight) imagination. Why? Well, it’s catchy. And it sounds scary. But if you’re having less sex with a long-term partner, that’s not necessarily a bad thing — especially if you’re a queer person. Blumstein and Schwartz acknowledged that the quantity of sex in a relationship probably isn’t as important as the quality of sex in a relationship, and at this point, multiple studies have shown that lesbians engage in some top-notch boot knockin’ — even when they’re not having sex that often. Queer people probably don’t need to look at studies to believe that, but as long as we’re still wearing our Lesbian Sweater Vests, let’s get into it:
Research shows that lesbians have sex for much longer periods of time than people of other orientations, and in this 2017 study, 86 percent of lesbians reported that the usually or always orgasm during sex, compared to 65 percent of straight women. From what I can tell, these studies only surveyed cisgender women who are lesbians, but I’m confident that many trans and non-binary lesbians have similarly long and luxurious sex sessions. It should also be noted that the number of orgasms or the length of a sex session are not the universal markers of sex quality — we all know that people define “good sex” in different ways, right?
If you’re reading this article because you’re in a total panic about lesbian bed death, remember this: it is normal for sex to ebb and flow in a relationship. And it doesn’t matter how often you and your partner(s) have sex or how long your sex lasts — as long as you and your partner(s) are happy with the amount of sex you’re having. And if you’re not having much sex, that doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed. There are lots of reasons why you might experience “lesbian bed death” (or any kind of “bed death”). Maybe you tend to have sex for long periods of time, and you don’t always have the energy for a three-hour romp. Maybe you and/or your partner(s) fall somewhere under the asexual umbrella, and you’re not desiring sex very often or at all. Maybe one or more partners in your relationship are experiencing a lower sex drive due to physical or mental illness, aging, stress, conflict, body image struggles, sexual trauma, the state of the world, etc. Maybe you’re raising kids or you started a new job, and you just don’t have the privacy or time to bang right now. That’s normal, and if you and your partner(s) are okay with that, then you don’t have to change a thing.
If, however, you’re not happy with the lack of sex in your relationship, you’re not alone, and that’s something you should address with your partner(s). Having sexual needs is a normal and valid thing! Here at Autostraddle, we’ve received a LOT of questions for our You Need Help column and our A+ advice box about how to have sex after experiencing sexual trauma, how to deal with mismatched sex drives, how to initiate more sex with a long-term partner and more. If you’re not sure how to talk to your partner about sex, check out Autostraddle’s advice articles or submit a question of your own — our writers consistently offer excellent feedback.