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What Can Lesbians Teach Us About Female Libido?

Two women kiss at the Madrid Gay Pride Festival on July 5, 2013.
Two women kiss at the Madrid Gay Pride Festival on July 5, 2013. Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Sex in long-term relationships is often presented as a conflict between reluctant wives and their horny husbands. But looking at sex amongst lesbians in long-term relationships exposes a different story about female sexuality and libido. Historically, lesbians have been subjected to studies that seem to confirm our gendered understanding of sex between straight couples: That is, if women don’t really like sex as much as men, lesbians must have way less of it than straight couples or gay men.

Enter sociologist Pepper Schwartz. In her iconic 1983 book American Couples, she introduced the term “Lesbian Bed Death” and suggested that lesbians have less sex than any other type of couple. Researchers were quick to criticize Schwartz’s small sample population and exclusive focus on penetration. As lesbian feminist scholar Marilyn Frye has pointed out, the low numbers Schwartz reported didn’t account for the various ways lesbians have sex and didn’t take into consideration the duration of time lesbians are intimate. But the study’s takeaway, which seems to confirm a gendered understanding of sex (men love it, women less so), has become something of an accepted eventuality in the lesbian community and has been repeatedly cited in writing on women and sex.

But recent studies have complicated this understanding. Autostraddle just released the results of its own survey on the subject — “How Often Do Queer Women Have Sex?” — after surveying 8,566 lesbian women. The comprehensive survey showed that monogamous lesbians are having sex as much (if not more than) their straight counterparts. It’s not always easy to compare this data, because places like the Kinsey Institute still focus only on penetrative sex, and when you pair that with the fact that fewer lesbians formalize their relationships through marriage, a one-to-one equivalence is elusive. But still, data shows that 35.6 percent of monogamous lesbian couples are having sex “multiple times per week,” while 35.2 percent of married, straight couples are having sex at similar rates. Contradicting the notion that marriage is the death knell of regular sex, married straight people are having more sex than their unmarried but monogamous counterparts, amongst whom only 28.7 percent are having sex multiple times per week.

To break it down, monogamous lesbian couples (married or not) are having amounts of sex comparable to their straight, married counterparts and more sex than their straight, unmarried counterparts. Critics of Schwartz have pointed out another complication that applies here too — lesbians tend to have sex for longer periods of time, so even if they have sex the same amount of times per week as straight people do, they’re still having more sex.

Moving beyond times per week, more nuanced studies show that lesbian couples are having higher-quality sex than their straight counterparts. As the Daily Dot writer Mary Emily O’Hara points out, a number of studies on lesbian sex demonstrate that lesbians have more orgasms than straight or bisexual women and that they find sex more enjoyable overall.

So, data on lesbian sex would seem to show that women aren’t innately prone to dislike sex, want less of it, or find it less enjoyable. But if women can enjoy sex as much as their male counterparts, why don’t they?

Efforts to unpack dissatisfaction amongst straight women in long-term relationships expose a problem that can’t be solved by a little blue pill. Recent conversations about a female version of Viagra have presented the drug as a solution to the horny husband/reluctant wife dichotomy. But for a large number of women, the problem isn’t an inability to get aroused, but rather, a disinterest in sex with their particular partner. “For many women, the cause of their sexual malaise appears to be monogamy itself,” Daniel Berger wrote in a New York Times Magazine piece on female libido.

Berger sites a German study of 2,500 subjects — “one of the few systematic comparisons of female and male desire at progressive stages of committed relationships” — which found that women and men start out with equal lust for one another. But for women who’ve been with their partners between one year and four, a decrease in lust begins. Their male partner’s level of lust seems to remain stable.

Higher enjoyment of sex amongst lesbians suggests that men need to do a better job learning how to please their partners. Maintaining sexual intimacy in long-term relationships is a challenge no matter how you identify — but maybe instead of just chalking up disinterest in sex to female sexuality, it’s time to reexamine monogamy amongst straight couples.

What Can Lesbians Teach Us About Female Libido?