IT WAS over twenty years ago that a major sex study disclosed what was then a rather startling finding: lesbian couples engaged in sexual activity significantly less frequently than did both heterosexual and gay male couples (Blumberg and Schwartz, 1983). This study was followed by a spate of others that documented the lives of lesbian couples whose genital sexual contact had over time become nonexistent. One large survey found that 78 percent of her 1,500 lesbian respondents were currently celibate (Loulan, 1984). Historian Lillian Faderman traced the historical precedents for what she called “romantic friendships”—intimate, non-genital relationships between two women—going back to the 19th century.
The impact of these studies on the perception of lesbians, notably by lesbians themselves, was enormous: in a word, lesbians came to be seen as less sexual than other women. By the beginning of the 1990’s, the term “lesbian bed death” had become well-established in the gay community as a source of jokes, consternation, and intense debate. Two explanations for the phenomenon were commonly advanced. First, inhibited sexual desire was seen as a result of “internalized homophobia”—the acceptance of society’s anti-gay attitudes—and a concomitant shame and disgust with sex. Alternatively, “hyperfemale” behavior was seen as a function of the “unmitigated female sexuality” of a lesbian couple. Two women together were theorized to be less sexual than a heterosexual couple because of the absence of a “male force” to drive sexual contact. A large body of research emerged indicating gender differences such as lower libido in women, lower rates of sexual activity in general, and less assertiveness around sexuality (see Peplau’s 2003 summary).
Another version of this explanation was the idea of “merging” or “fusion” in lesbian couples (Burch, 1987). The “urge to merge” was already stronger in women than in men, so two women in a relationship would result in an overly close connection, one so familiar that sex would come to resemble incest, thus inhibiting its expression. This formulation was elaborated by one researcher in the following way (Hall, 2001): “Lesbians, went our refrain, hadn’t escaped female conditioning. The result—a relentless focus on nurturing—would increase exponentially when two women coupled. This forfeiture of individuality … created a relational greenhouse effect which suffocated passion.”
Another aspect of lesbian sexuality that has been of interest to gender and sex researchers is that of sexual fluidity. By the end of the 1980’s a new phenomenon had emerged in the gay and lesbian subculture: a bisexual movement led by women, many of whom had formerly identified as lesbian. Bisexual women declared that they were not “afraid to be gay,” not “in transition,” and not “confused about their sexuality.” They maintained that their sexual orientation was tied less to gender than to characteristics of the person or the relationship. Because there appeared to be no parallel in the experience of gay men, some sexologists began to speculate that women had an inherently more fluid sexuality than men.