The Art of Sexual Intimacy
Dr. Glenda Corwin turns “lesbian bed death” into lovin’ lesbian sex.
Dr. Glenda Corwin wants you to start having sex on purpose.
In 1983, lesbian public enemy No. 1 Pepper Schwartz coined the term “lesbian bed death” in her book American Couples, and we’ve been hopelessly fighting against or passively caving in to our sexless fate ever since—according to surveys by both Schwartz and Corwin, only 20 percent of lesbian couples living together for 10 years or more are officially “sexually active.”
“The term lesbian bed death,” explains Dr. Corwin, “was used to describe research findings that lesbian couples are less sexually active than their gay male or heterosexual cohorts, and suggested that we are inevitably doomed to give up on sexual intimacy.” Nearly 30 years after American Couples was published, Dr. Corwin tells us that it’s time to start rethinking the whole subject of what we do together in bed. In her new book, Sexual Intimacy for Women: A Guide for Same-Sex Couples, Dr. Corwin, a sexual intimacy psychologist, busts common myths associated with lesbian sex life (no, lesbian sex isn't all floral metaphors and mutual masturbation!) and describes ways to overcome the common hurdles to lasting lesbian loving (hello: body image issues, age, stress!). Dr. Corwin shows us not only how to resuscitate our dying lesbian bed, but also how we can keep it alive and well for years to come.
First, it’s time to get real about what our sex lives are and are not. Dr. Corwin tells us that the first step is to let go of some unrealistic expectations. The belief that our initial sexual passion can last us through an entire decades-long relationship is a damaging one, says Dr. Corwin, but the biggest hurdle to a long-term sexual relationship is the notion that sex can and should always be spontaneous. “The Myth of Spontaneity is the biggest stumbling block,” she explains. “We cling to this notion that sex should happen spontaneously, without having to really pay attention and make some effort. What else do we approach that way? Hardly anything. If you want to be physically fit, you go exercise. If you want a close family life, you spend time with your family. If you want a sexually intimate relationship, you need to be intentional about it, and stop relying on a nonexistent impulse to drive this.”
Too often, Dr. Corwin says, we women complacently sit around waiting for spontaneous desire to strike, when, as women in a same-sex relationship, sexual spontaneity is simply against our nature. In Sexual Intimacy for Women, Dr. Corwin discusses the difference between the “spontaneous desire” model—a male-centric pattern of arousal that puts a certain body part first and the brain second—and the female-centric “responsive desire” model. “We may joke about which part of the body is leading the charge, but in reality, for us, it’s usually the brain,” she writes. “The physiological responses of arousal, such as lubrication and clitoral engorgement, often happen after sexual contact begins.” We’ve been conditioned to believe that all our sex lives should follow the male-centric pattern of sexual spontaneity to such a point that when sex doesn’t happen this way, many of us passively accept it as the inevitable lesbian bed death. Turns out, Pepper Schwartz had it all wrong—our sex lives are not paltrier than those of gay men or heterosexual couples, they simply look different.
So, what does this mean for our sex lives? It means that, unlike gay male and heterosexual couples, we lesbians need to get busy planning how we’re going to get busy. “A majority of sexually satisfied women say they don’t feel much spontaneous desire...the response in ‘responsive desire’ is first felt by you, and later by your partner. Instead of waiting around passively for spontaneous desire to strike, it’s entirely possible to actively set the stage in which sexual desire and arousal can flourish.”
In order to do this, Dr. Corwin says, it’s essential that we get intentional about our sex lives. “When you intentionally stir up sexual feelings in yourself, by choosing to focus on things that turn you on, you’re creating responsive desire,” she says. “In other words, your sexual arousal is in response to your own thoughts and behaviors, the things you do to get yourself in a sexual mood.” Though the effortless, spontaneous sexual desire you felt when you first met your sweetie isn’t going to magically reappear, we can re-create it if we choose to get intentional. “Just think about how you acted when you first started seeing your partner,” Dr. Corwin suggests. “You probably spent a lot of time planning and preparing—where to go, what to do, what to wear, how to woo her—and you probably also had a lot of erotic fantasies about her, wondering how it would feel to kiss her, hold her, and more. All these thoughts and behaviors stir up a lot of sexual feelings, and then it feels spontaneous. That’s what you can do now, intentionally, to put energy back into your sex life.”
Of course, no one said getting intentional about your sex life would be easy. “It’s easy for two women to slide into old roles where both learned to react, not to initiate, so now no one wants to go first,” she says. This, combined with the increased risks of rejection and shame, can make the idea of initiating purposeful sex awfully scary. “It feels terrible to reach out and get turned down,” Dr. Corwin admits. “Being blatant about wanting sex can also bring feelings of shame, like, you’re not supposed to think about it—it should just happen.” However, Dr. Corwin tells us to push through our fears and actively disrupt the routine ease of sexless complacency. As lesbians in long-term relationships, she warns, we’ll need to choose between intentional sex or no sex—which seems like no choice at all, since the potential damages from the no-sex option include “shutting down emotionally, looking around for someone else to get sexual with, settling into low-grade dissatisfaction with each other, or blowing up the relationship.”
Next to The Myth of Spontaneity, another major misconception about the sex life of lesbians is the idea that we need to be pawing at each other’s clothes every day in order to be deemed sexually active. It’s a validating relief to hear the lesbian sexual intimacy doctor herself say, “The romantic and sexual intensity of a new relationship can’t go on forever. That’s inevitable and probably fortunate...we can’t spend all that time being charming and attentive when we have to run our jobs and households and the rest of life.” When asked what curve readers would be most relieved to learn from her book, Dr. Corwin says, “Most women are surprised to learn that if you’re having sex as little as twice a month you’re still considered sexually active by sex therapists and researchers. Lesbians assume that ‘normal’ couples have sex much more often than that. This is usually a big relief, because twice a month is not such a daunting goal!”
DR CORWIN’S SECRETS TO LONGLASTING INTIMACY
1. Communication: Talk often and freely about your sexual feelings and listen actively and nonjudgmentally while she talks about hers. Just talking about sex can deepen trust, intimacy and love.
2. 24-Hour Foreplay: Recreate the conditions of limerence (the feeling of being in love) that you had at the beginning of your relationship, e.g. set aside time to be together, take special care of your appearance, create a sensual atmosphere. It’s not about planning sex, it’s about planning foreplay.
3. Ignite Your Erotic Imagination: Research shows that 85 [ercent of women fantasize some of the time during sex with a partner, and those who fantasize more enjoy sex more. Bring your secret fantasy life into the bedroom. Your private erotic thoughts will make you feel more sexual and help create a connection between you and your partner.
4. Orgasm: Take Your Time: Don’t worry that you’re taking too long. Faking orgasm can widen the gulf between you and your partner. Think of regular masturbation as regular orgasm practice and a time when you can discover what feels best to you, then share these discoveries with your partner.
Sexual Intimacy: A Guide for Same-Sex Couples (Seal Press) is out now.