Updated: May 22
During the past few years, we’ve had a lot of time to ourselves–that’s led to sexual awakenings for some, and sexual disasters for others. In a world where we find ourselves struggling to sustain our relationships with family, our health, and our bank accounts, our intimate relationships often take the backburner. While seemingly a less imminent threat, the effect they have on overall wellbeing is monumental.
While I’ve been confident in my identity as a lesbian for years now, I’ve witnessed the rise and falls of many of my loved ones’ love lives. Sexuality is a maze, and takes a ridiculous amount of exploration and wrong turns to get to where you belong. That being said, all of this sexual discovery has led to a certain term appearing more and more on my radar: lesbian bed death, and ultimately, bedroom pressure.
Before we do a deep dive into this stereotype and the nuances that come with it, it’s necessary to understand the two ends of the spectrum that wlw (woman-loving-woman) relationships are often subjected to. The first is hypersexualization: we see this in the porn industry, where lesbian and bisexual women are reduced to a fetish for the pleasure of men. An article I had written prior delved into this much deeper, but it was through that research that I was exposed to an entirely different perspective.
While people are beginning to recognize fetishizing queer women as an issue, the complete opposite is harmful as well: infantilization. The word itself refers to treating an adult the way you would a child, and is a common theme in all aspects of misogyny. The Madonna-whore complex outlines this in simpler terms, a concept explaining how women can only be viewed as a sex object or the epitome of pure. Infantilization refers to the latter, and is rampant when speaking about any woman regardless of sexuality. Take a relationship with two women together and they reach a state of complete perplexity; some men just can’t fathom a sexual relationship where they’re not part of the equation, combatting the thought by asserting the false image of lesbians having no sex lives at all. These are the men who look at two women in wedding dresses and say, “They must be great friends! Where are the grooms?”
There’s this idea that a sweaty handhold between two women is peak promiscuity, and while it might not seem detrimental on the surface it holds a lot of significance; this infantilization can be traced back to the founding of the lesbian bed death stereotype. The term “bed death” on its own is a descriptor for couples who have little to no sex, but the addition of “lesbian” to the phrase can be attributed to sociologist Pepper Shwartz. She and her partner Philip Blumstein conducted research on the amount of sex had in long-term relationships from an array of demographics, including sexualities. Their findings? Lesbians have the least amount of sex: hence, lesbian bed death was born.
The results of Shwartz and Blumstein’s study have been challenged and are regarded as controversial, but time and time again similar studies have reached the same consensus. Of course, there’s an endless list of reasons as to why this is.
From hormones to menopause, if lesbians statistically having less sex isn’t that outrageous, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing either–then why do we feel like we’re doing something wrong?
I spoke with Licensed Clinical Social Worker and human sexuality expert Kathy G. Slaughter to get some answers. While she started out as a trauma therapist a decade prior, it took years grappling with her own before recognizing sex therapy as a calling. She now has her own practice in Indianapolis called Soaring Heart Counseling. “Being in Indianapolis, being in a queer, kink, non-monogamy affirming practice is a big deal. There’s not that many of us…the only people being public about it is me.”
Kathy works with countless LGBTQ clients dealing with topics like religious trauma, shame, and sexuality, but she affirms that her advice can be applied regardless of sexual orientation, as “queer problems are human problems.”
There are so many factors that go into why we feel pressured in the bedroom.
“People socialized as men or people who have sex with women often struggle with performance anxiety, typically for the more active partner,” Kathy shares. There are issues specific to LGBTQ couples as well, since we have “this really defined ‘dude-is-the-initiator’ script in our culture” so “when you’re talking about two queer people…who’s supposed to be the initiator?”
One component of bedroom pressure is trauma history–Kathy points out how “if there’s a woman in the bedroom, theres a one in three chance there’s a sexual trauma survivor in the room.” This can make a person “prone to trauma trigger reactions’’ and “can show up even years after [the initial trauma], particularly if there are other stressors in their life at the time.” COVID-19 has been a cause of stress for everyone, but for those who are already experiencing mental health issues it can amplify pre-existing symptoms into something unmanageable.
“Our lives got forcibly slowed down in 2020, creating a context where a lot of people’s trauma started to surface,” Kathy explains. “People in my profession are seeing demand like we’ve never seen in the 15 years I’ve been in the field.”
Even without elements like trauma and LGBTQ stereotypes, difficulties can arise just from societal expectations we feel obligated to adhere to. Kathy expresses how “I think in general our over-arching cultural script is that sex is this magnetic, natural, freeflowing thing, and if the connection is right and you’re erotically into this person, then you’re going to magically align somewhere between making out and grabbing eachothers genitals.” This is a total myth, and she continues by saying it “leads to a lot of us being ill-equipped to assert ourselves in erotic contexts–even if you are someone who’s able to recognize ‘I really enjoy being touched in this way and not that way’ you might still feel hung up about actually saying that to your partner.”
So the big question: How do we know how much sex is enough sex?
“Enough sex is however much or little you personally want—because everybody has their own sex drive,” Kathy says. She compares human sexuality to a spectrum, ranging from a limited or nonexistent sex drive all the way to people who identify as hypersexual, with the thought of getting laid always on their mind. In the middle of this wide range is “everyone in between,” making it that much more important to have a conversation with your partner. “How much sex do you typically want to be having?” Kathy asks, “because pushing beyond your own personal interest level is going to fail.”
If you’re questioning whether your relationship has enough sex, what you actually need to assess is whether your sex life is impacting the relationship.
If you aren’t seeing any conflict after only having sex a couple times a month, all that means is you and your partner have a lower interest in sex. Now, a different scenario would be if “you’re in a place where there’s a constant, unaddressable sexual tension, or sexual encounters that fall apart, or your partner says you’re not having enough sexual intimacy–those are the signs you’re not having enough sex.” A problem only arises when you or your partner aren’t getting what they want, alongside evidence that a lack of sex is significantly straining your relationship in other areas.
It’s easy to get caught up in others’ lives and experiences, and the society we live in makes us predisposed to a seemingly limitless cycle of comparison and competition. So many other activities are able to fulfill the intimacy requirement in a relationship–sex shouldn’t be an end all be all. “A lot of us develop a habit of getting emotional comfort and support through sex, because it’s often in the prelude or postlude that in our society we’re most likely to slow down and be fully present with somebody.” Kathy defines intimacy as “into me, you see,” and describes how it’s really about “being seen, dropping our defenses, and being vulnerable without fear with someone else.” Of course you can seek this through sex, but just sitting down with your partner to share thoughts and feelings can achieve the same kind of connection.
The only thing that matters is good communication, something much easier to focus on once you stop equating the worth of a relationship to an Instagram feed. There’s no right or wrong way to have sex so long as you do what is right for you and your partner. Have it once a week! Or once a day! Once a month if that suits you fancy, or go back to once an hour if you change your mind. You do you–and your partner–any way you all please.
| Sources: Huot, Chelsae R. “Language as a Social Reality: The Effects of the Infantilization of Women.”UNIScholarworks. University of Northern Iowa, 2013. https://scholarworks.uni.edu/cgi/ viewcontent.cgi?article=1076&context=etd. “Lesbian Bed Death.” LGBT Foundation - Home. Accessed April 7, 2022. https://lgbt.foundation/who-we-help/women/sexual-health/lesbian-bed-death