If you’re a lesbian or queer womxn gearing up for your next U-Haul – now quickened thanks to the coronavirus lockdown – there’s probably one worry at the back of your mind that you can’t quite let go off. This time it’s not your ex but Lesbian Bed Death, a phenomenon which everyone in your queer friendship group is probably solemnly warning you about, even as you and your partner Google “sex swings” to the tune of Cara Delevingne and Ashley Benson in their golden era.
Despite sounding like a particularly gruesome PornHub video title, or the perfect name for a goth metal band, Lesbian Bed Death (or LBD) is altogether more pedestrian than it first seems. Originally coined by sexologists Pepper Schwartz and Phillip Blumstein in their 1983 book American Couples, it boils down to the idea that lesbians and queer womxn in monogamous, longterm relationships are basically friends without the benefits and are having less sex than any other type of couple.
A remarkable feat when you consider that lesbians are having 21 percent more orgasms than straight womxn — even if we don’t shag often, we must shag well — LBD has resonated with the sapphic imagination, launching a thousand self-help articles and even the occasional self-help book. Besides the fact that academics have since criticised Schwartz and Blumstein’s findings (surprise, their ideas were a massive generalisation of lesbians’ sex lives), it’s hard not to be a little pissed off by the term. Namely, the notion that sex lives without a cis man at the centre are ultimately doomed.
Regardless of this context, lesbians and queer womxn continue to invest in the concept of LBD. Could there be some truth in it based on lived experience? According to Keva, 22, yes, there could. “Lesbians spend loads and loads of time with each other, more than straight couples, and it becomes like a speed-forward relationship to an elderly couple who just hang out all the time,” she says. “It feels like the sex just kind of gets to be not ‘sexy sex’, more just masturbating with someone else with you. At least that’s what it’s been like for me.”
Heather, 25, has also had an encounter with Lesbian Bed Death but, rather than the dwindling desire Keva describes, they fell foul to a sudden sexual blackout. “I was dating a girl for a while and about a year into our relationship we didn't sleep together at all. Probably for about two months, I couldn’t bring myself to shag her,” they remember.
With Heather, this sexual drought wasn’t due to overfamiliarity but really just signalled the beginning of the end for the relationship. “She was spending all her money on taking drugs and I think after a period of time I didn’t find her hot, which transferred to the bedroom. Her lack of passion for life was just really emotionally draining.”
Keva and Heather both report different, equally damning forms of LBD but whether it’s overexposure to your romantic partner taking its toll or, as Heather puts it; “becoming so comfortable around someone that you don't actually have the balls to break up with them” — they both agree that there’s real-life correlation to the term after all. But what’s the professional prognosis?
Lesbian counsellor Leah Davidson has worked with queer individuals and couples for over 30 years and, sadly, she has some bad news about lesbian bed death. From her point of view, it is very much a real issue. But why? “The reason [lessening sexual activity] is more frequent in lesbian relationships is due to women being more programmed to merge — that old joke about bringing the U-Haul on the second date — so we quickly become best friends or like family and lose that separateness and mystery that is such an essential part of desire,” Leah explains.
However, that’s not to say that lesbians are totally alone here. Leah explains that couples of all genders and sexualities experience a similar sexual decline, even if lesbians bear the brunt of it. “It’s definitely a wider phenomenon and it happens in all long-term relationships due to lack of individuation and separateness. Desire needs distance and mystery in order to survive and flourish.”
So what does this all mean? All in all, it’s healthy to be sceptical of concepts like Lesbian Bed Death which, applied to the lesbian community from cis het people on the outside, run the danger of legitimising tired tropes about sexless lesbians. But the very fact that we’re still talking and writing about LBD over 30 years later suggests that it, sadly, strikes a chord. Rather than ignoring that LBD exists at all, we can hopefully start working to find sensitive solutions to problems that are prevalent in the lesbian community — rather than comparing ourselves to the heteronormative mould. Oh, and for the love of Cate Blanchett, let’s all try and cultivate some hobbies outside of our relationships.