DEAR DR. JENN,
My girlfriend and I have been together a little over two years. We started off hot and heavy, it was the best sex of my life. We live together, and over the last year, the passion has really been waning. I miss the days when we used to tear each other’s clothes off, but I am just not motivated like I used to be. I’m exhausted after a day of work. Our friends joke that we have fallen victim the dreaded "lesbian bed death.” What should we do? —RIP Us
Lesbian bed death is a term coined by sociologist Pepper Schwartz based on research she did with fellow sociologist Philip Blumstein for the Russell Sage and National Science Foundations. They had 12,000 volunteer couples, including 788 lesbian couples, fille out questionnaires about different aspects of their relationship, which included sex. Of these couples, 300 were selected for more in-depth interviews and the findings were published in a 1983 report called American Couple: Money, Work, Sex. The couples in the survey were asked: "About how often during the last year have you and your partner had sex relations?” Based on the responses, researchers determined that lesbian couples have less sex than other types of couples.
There are many flaws in the study that have done a disservice to the lesbian community. First of all, the wording of the question has an inherent heterosexual bias. There is no consensual criteria that that defines "sex relations” for people of all sexualities. For one couple, general contact may meet the definition; for another an orgasm may be required; some may consider oral sex to meet the definition, while others don't. I suspect that many of the gay couples who filled out the questionnaire may not have given their own sexual activity recognition because of the phrasing of the question or their own biases. Second, the population in the survey were predominately white, affluent, liberal and well educated — far from a representative sample.
As sexuality educator Ericka Hart points out, "Given that we live in an incredibly homophobic society, folks have to consider what lesbians are up against systemically in a world that never sees them. Add to that intersections of race, class, gender identity (not all lesbians identify as cisgender women), disability, and now you are navigating a high level of marginalization.”
Third, the study looked at quantity over quality when it comes to sexual activity, which is to say lesbians were not having the most frequent sex — but did anyone ask if they were getting each other off every single time? In a study published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, researchers found that lesbian couples spent more time on individual sexual encounters than heterosexual couples or men in same-sex relationships. They are more likely to have an orgasm during a sexual encounter than their hetero girlfriends. Some studies show gay women have an easier time getting aroused and report being more sexually satisfied than their straight counterparts. The infamous "bed death" study did not take any of these factors into account. But that is not to say their finding is pure fiction.
While I have seen many lesbian couples in my private practice who have struggled to keep the flames of desire or alive, I have seen just as many heterosexual couples (and gay men) in long-term relationships struggle with the same issues.
It is important not to patholagize the decrease in libido. As Ericka Hart points out, "No therapist or educator gets to decide what is a lot or a little sex for an individual — the individual and the couple gets to decide what is a lot or a little for their personal and romantic relationship. The patholagizing comes in when the question is if an arbitrary decrease in sexual activity is worrisome.” Which is to say, if you and your partner have settled into a more staid lifestyle that involves great sex, just less ferociously — and, yes, less frequently — than when you were hot and heavy in the beginning: That's only a "problem" if you think it's a problem.
All couples have to work to keep the flames of desire alive. This is not a sign of failing relationship or a problem in itself. But, given that you are saying you would like to change this, there are some things you can do.
1. Take good care of yourself. You mentioned that you are exhausted. Making sure you get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and exercise regularly is an important part of having the energy to tend to your sexual relationship.
2. Talk to your partner and get on the same page. Complacency is the greatest enemy of an exciting sex life. All couples, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, have to work over the long term to maintain a sexual connection and to keep things fresh. Make sure that you both share the same goals for your romantic future.
3. Carve out time for sex. Create a life that includes sensual time together. Set limits on the outside world — technology, children, in-laws, houseguests, friends, work, household chores, and the like — to protect your erotic space together. Make sex a priority.
4. Get yourself hot. Research shows that for many women, the urge to be sexual does not precede feeling aroused, it follows it. For people who follow this arousal pattern, they are unlikely to feel sexual stimulation or have sexual thoughts out of the blue. They do not experience sexuality starting with desire, moving to arousal, achieve an orgasm and then resolution. They start with arousal. It can be helpful to get your juices flowing with some erotica, porn, sexual images, or fantasies. Don’t put the burden on your partner to do all the work to get you in the mood.
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5. Hold off on masturbation. If you have already been fed, you are not likely to be hungry. Try to have your sexual meals with your partner more often than not, at least for a while, so you can reconnect sexually.
6. Initiate sex, even when you don’t feel like it. I often tell couples in my practice, after a few years together if you only have sex when both of you are in the same sexual mood and have desire at the exact same time, you are not going to have much sex. Part of being a great partner is showing up for your lover and being of service. Some call this "maintenance sex." I call it an act of love that can connect you and bond you and enhances your intimate life together.
7. Experiment. Clearly from your history, you two know how to get each other off. But when was the last time you tried something new? Make a commitment to try something new every week — a toy, a position, a technique, sex in a different room, lingerie, share a fantasy you have never talked about. Shake things up and create novelty.
8. Ask the questions. All too often, long term couples think they know everything about one another when it comes to the bedroom. I created a sexual inventory questionnaire for couples to ask each other in my book The Relationship Fix: Dr. Jenn's 6-Step Guide to Improving Communication, Connection & Intimacy. The questionnaire takes the pressure off of couples to try to come up with new things to ask each other, and covers a wide variety of categories. I’ve never had a couple do the questionnaire with each other and not learn something that enhances their sex life.