"What does a lesbian bring on a second date?" asks stand-up comic, and Broadway actress Lea DeLaria, who often bases jokes on her experience as a gay woman. "A U-Haul."
That's because on the first date, she says, they fall madly in love. On the second, they move in. Six months later, they stop having sex.
Some comics have called this phenomenon "lesbian bed death." While the phrase is politically incorrect in the extreme, many lesbians report that their experiences bear out the stereotype.
"It happens all the time," said a 34-year-old Santa Monica lesbian who claims the no-sex lament is a regular topic among gay couples she knows. "I have friends who didn't have sex for 10 years. When two women are together, you start to merge and become like sisters. It just becomes a little sisterhood."
The dwindling libidos of lesbian couples is supported by studies that show they have sex less frequently than heterosexual or homosexual male couples. "Lesbian couples started out having sex less [often] than gay male couples, heterosexual married couples and heterosexual cohabitants," said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist and co-author of an eight-year study (1983-1991) that compared the intimacy of 12,000 people, including lesbian, homosexual and heterosexual couples. "And at every stage of the relationship, they [lesbians] had less sex."
Theories abound as to why, and about how the road to sexual estrangement is different from that experienced by other kinds of couples.
Schwartz chalks it up to basic man-woman differences. Women are socially trained to wait for partners to initiate sex (many lesbians in Schwartz's study reported not liking "always initiating sex"), so each woman may be waiting for the other to make a move.
For heterosexual couples, where there may be discord or distance, said Schwartz, sex is often a bridge to intimacy.
But there may be no need for a bridge to intimacy in lesbian relationships because, as DeLaria noted, "a lesbian couple is so busy emoting and emoting that no one is thinking about sex." Their comparatively less libidinous life may have to do with the way women bond (read: by emoting) as compared with the way women bond with men (i.e., through sex).
"A lot of women get intimacy without [sex]," said JoAnn Loulan, a lesbian and sex therapist in Portola, Calif., who recommends to gay women couples that they schedule sex, just as many therapists suggest to heterosexual couples with diminishing sex lives. "What drives lesbians' sexual relationships is love," said Loulan. "In a lesbian relationship, you can have that love filled up by going to the kids' soccer game together or by snuggling, holding hands or by having a deep conversation."
But as DeLaria put it: "To have 'lesbian bed death,' you both have to be dead." Which is to say, the person whose sex drive is still alive and kicking stands a chance at reviving her lover's.
And even if incompatibility leads to a breakup, said DeLaria, that doesn't mean the relationship is over: "Lesbians always keep their exes with them until death because they have created this emotional bond, and they can't let go of it. But pretty soon, you can create your own softball team."
Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.