Um, Is Lesbian Bed Death A Real Thing?

Illustrated by Vero Romero
When I think back to my first same-sex relationship, there are a few stereotypes about lesbians which I realised early on are pretty much baseless. 
Firstly, even if you own a vulva, everyone is pretty much inept when first faced with someone else’s. This is only cemented by the brutal lack of LGBTQIA+ sex education – or even basic acknowledgement of the clitoris, let alone pleasure for cis women and trans women – in schools. 
Secondly, those who pander to the stereotype of women being incredible communicators have clearly never endured a night of the silent treatment or a blazing row over who was supposed to take the bins out. And then there’s the notion that one woman somehow takes on the role of a 'man' in a lesbian relationship to take those bins out in the first place. 
There is, however, one hackneyed cliche that I feared might be true: lesbian bed death. Just like jokes about the "urge to merge" aka moving in together after one date, lesbian bed death is a concept that many women and people who identify as women who date women and people who identify as women deal with day in, day out. "Oh," they say, giggling, "soon you won’t be getting any at all." 
This tired, worn joke – that we don’t like sex, that we feign headaches to get out of it and have to be pressured into doing it at all – is so familiar to cis women, isn't it? I don’t know about you but that’s not my experience or the experience of any of the women I know. So where did the idea of lesbian bed death even come from?
Let’s go back to the 1980s when this term was coined by the sociologists Pepper Schwartz and Philip Blumstein while researching sex for their book, American Couples: Money, Work, Sex. Schwartz concluded that lesbians have less sex than straight or gay couples and, with that, lesbian bed death (or LBD) became a thing. 

The term lesbian bed death was coined by the sociologists Pepper Schwartz and Philip Blumstein in their book, American Couples: Money, Work, Sex. Schwartz concluded that lesbians have less sex than straight or gay couples and, with that, lesbian bed death became a thing. 

There are plenty of issues with Schwartz and Blumstein’s book, namely that its authors posited their small research sample as being representative of all lesbian couples. Something else to consider is that back then, lesbian sex was harder to define. Internalised misogyny led to a lot of women assuming that what they were doing wasn’t necessarily sex, because sex meant penetration. On top of this, the study only measured the quantity of sex, not the quality – which, as we all know, tells you nothing.
Why, then, has the shaky concept of lesbian bed death persisted? A huge reason has to be the fact that, predictably, there is little reliable research into the sexual experiences of lesbians. With this in mind, it would be easy to disregard lesbian bed death as a homophobic, anti-women myth. But to do so would make those who do experience it feel even more isolated. 
I know this myself. Despite being worried about my sex life, I have shied away from addressing the subject of lesbian bed death, for fear of being told I was reinforcing a problematic idea. 
"We’ve been together for two years and everyone jokes about lesbian bed death. I love my girlfriend more than anything. We’re both just so busy and when we climb into bed after work – it’s honestly the last thing on my mind," says 24-year-old Emily. "I don’t think she’s unhappy. But we haven’t really spoken about it – maybe we should?"
Talking about sex – having it and not having it – is key to any relationship. But, says 23-year-old Lily, giving oxygen to the idea of lesbian bed death is problematic. 
"It’s obviously a trope of lesbian relationships that women don’t have a sex drive or any sort of libido – so, obviously, LBD is inevitable," she tells me. "This, I think, is patriarchal nonsense. But I think we need to acknowledge that female sexuality is different. Sex with your partner is different when you’re in a f/f relationship."  
I sat down with Tabitha Bast, a psychosexual therapist experienced in LGBTQIA+ relationships, to get her thoughts. "The first thing to say is all long-term relationships, statistically, will see a decrease in sexual desire," she explains. "And a relationship with two women can have nuances that a heterosexual relationship doesn’t – for example, if you’re two cis women, that’s two menstrual cycles. It’s common to feel less sexy around your period and with two cycles to manage, this can present a challenge." 
There’s also a theory, popularised by Emily Nagoski, a women’s sexual health expert and author of Come As You Are, that there are two core types of sex drive. "The first is spontaneous sex drive – this is pretty much as it sounds: you see someone that you’re attracted to and you want to have sex," Emily explains. "The second is a responsive sex drive – where you feel sexy once you start to engage in kissing or touching. The latter, a responsive sex drive, is more common in females, so it means that sex needs to be initiated before either party feels turned on."

The third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) found that 51% of women had experienced sexual difficulties in the last year. So why has this notion that women who have sex with women are more likely to suffer stuck?

Emily also notes that "sex with a woman is different. A study from 2016 highlighted that while lesbian couples may have sex less often, they do have sex for far longer. As well as this, they can actually experience more orgasms than a straight couple. So we also need to highlight the quality of sex, rather than just the quantity." 
Ultimately, regardless of sexual orientation or gender, shame and guilt around how much sex we are having seems universal. In truth, there’s no 'set amount' of sex that we should be having. But this can become an issue when one partner’s sex drive is far higher than the other's. Tabitha talks about the challenges this presents for both parties. "They both feel awful. If you’re the initiator, you can feel shame – it’s a predatory feeling. But being the rejector is just as bad. The guilt that comes with turning down your partner can be just as problematic."
Perhaps, then, lesbian bed death isn't a thing. It’s just a questionable name for something we all face at some point in our monogamous romantic relationships with sexual partners: the decline of desire. When real life sets in, with all its takeaways, boxsets and working late, the thrill of tearing off your significant other's clothes often wanes. 
Tabitha suggests that the best way to deal with this is firstly to accept that you are two different people with different feelings. "Communication is the best way to address it. Treat it with curiosity – it doesn’t have to be a heavy conversation – and use prompts. For example, if you’ve watched a TV show with a sex scene, ask: 'Did that turn you on?' Introduce feedback as part of your after-sex routine and talk about the parts you enjoyed." 
Another important area of consideration is our hormones. Some women take birth control even in a same-sex relationship to manage their periods or acne. This, too, can affect libido. 
And of course, hormones can disproportionately affect trans women. "Since being on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) I feel far more comfortable in my own body. But my libido seems to shut down," says 29-year-old Harmony. "I’ve only been with my girlfriend a year, but it’s hard to get myself to a place where I feel sexy."  
Trans women can experience a huge mix of side effects from HRT, as well as the pressure of societal transphobia, which can cause anxiety. 
"There have been positive and negative changes to taking HRT. I was told that there would be an effect but they couldn’t say how I would be affected," adds Beth, who is a trans woman and has been on HRT since 2015. "Transphobia and anxiety has definitely affected my libido. I was afraid to be intimate with people for fear of them responding negatively." While Beth now has a loving partner, she adds that there is a "level of internalised transphobia. Men are perceived as sex-crazed individuals and I was afraid to embrace my own sexual desires in case I seemed 'less female'."
Internalised transphobia and anxiety can certainly have a negative effect on sex drive, explains Tabitha. "As a therapist, I obviously recommend that all of these issues can be addressed in therapy. Especially ones that relate to how we feel about ourselves. Therapy is a safe space to discuss these issues and give these feelings the time and respect that they deserve to be treated with." It’s not just verbal communication which is important here. Touch communication matters, too. 
So where do we stand on lesbian bed death? While there’s clearly some truth to the trope, it’s relevant to all couples. Lack of sex cannot and should not be defined as a symptom of queerness. Indeed, the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) found that 51% of women had experienced sexual difficulties in the last year, with 11% of women saying that they were distressed or worried about their sex life. So why has this notion that women who have sex with women are more likely to suffer stuck?
In the end, reducing the experiences of lesbians, of cis women and trans women, to an oversimplified trope only exposes the continued lack of research and investment in queer sexual studies or even into menstrual cycles, birth control and hormonal changes. It’s 2024: let’s fund that research, amplify women's voices and leave lesbian bed death in the ‘80s, where it belongs.
For support and advice on coming out, visit Stonewall.
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