Is Lesbian Sex “Real Sex”?

Portrait of two young women kissing

Photo by Sergey Sukhorukov/iStock/Thinkstock

Heterosexuals are simultaneously fascinated by and clueless about lesbian sex. “So, what do you do, exactly?” At some point in her life, pretty much any lesbian will be asked this question. Lurking behind this query is a host of assumptions about what constitutes “real sex” and what a “real woman” sexually desires. Sexual agency—the ability to make decisions about what you like to do sexually and then act upon them—has historically been denied to women. Many men (straight and gay) simply cannot imagine that real sex takes place without penetration with a penis. For this reason, lesbian sex has become a cultural marker, a stand-in, for the question “What actually counts as sex?”—for anyone.

There are many ways people, including straight people, have and enjoy sex. Lesbians do not need a penis to have penetrative sex. Some lesbians use dildos for penetration; others do not, preferring fingers, hands, fists, tongues. However, culturally, we refer to a very particular sexual act—penis in vagina—as, simply, sex. Consider the expression “losing your virginity.” This commonly means the first experience of heterosexual genital intercourse. This definition is so instilled in our culture as “sex” that many heterosexual teenagers do not consider oral sex and anal sex “real sex.” Even if they engage in these forms of sexual activity, they still understand themselves to be virgins. (This may be particularly true for women, who have been told that their virginity confirms their virtue.) Recall then-president Bill Clinton’s infamous assertion, during the scandal over Monica Lewinsky, that he “did not have sex with that woman.” Clinton’s hairsplitting legalism was made possible because the sex in question was oral sex. In this hierarchy of sexual acts, heterosexual genital intercourse sits at the top. Other body parts (such as the mouth and anus) and other sexual acts (such as oral sex, anal sex, manual sex, and masturbation) may be extremely pleasurable, but are seen only as warm-ups to the real thing.

This very limited definition of sex prevents people from recognizing lesbian sex as real sex. At best, what lesbians do is foreplay that can never reach completion on its own. Or, it is a turn-on for straight men and a staple of heterosexual pornography. A scene of two women kissing—increasingly common on mainstream television in shows such as Gossip Girl and Community—is often used to add titillation to an otherwise mundane plot. As long as the women involved are conventionally pretty and feminine, this lesbianism is safe and sexy for prime-time viewing. (Butch women, by contrast, are often seen as erotic turn-offs: unsexy imitations of real men.) In each of these scenarios, lesbian sex is something women do while they are waiting for a man to come along. The straight male viewer, the target audience for “lesbian” pornography, is invited to imagine himself into the scene, as the one who can complete the picture and turn the warm-up act into the real deal.

The problem here is not pornography or television. It is how one particular set of sexual fantasies is set up as a universal fantasy and reality. Sexual fantasies can be powerful and important, and pornography—like many other forms of representation—is a vehicle for sexual fantasizing. However, there is a potential problem when fantasy bodies and acts are accepted by large numbers of people to be the truth about what a lesbian is and what all women really want. This worldview is extremely narrow and limited. It does not acknowledge the diversity of ways women have sex with one another or the variety of female bodies.

Confusing pornography—or any depictions of sex in entertainment— with reality can lead straight as well as LGBT people to have unrealistic expectations of what sex looks like and feels like. As queer sex educator Tristan Taormino states, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the porn industry have all sold us ridiculously unrealistic images of flawless bodies and red-hot sex. Everyday life is much more complicated, but has a difficult time competing with a fantasy. The distorting effects of these fantasies do not shape all of us with equivalent force. Lesbians must contend with a male-centered view of what they would or should want if they met the right man. Bisexual and straight women also suffer when their sexuality is continuously placed in scenarios in which it exists only for heterosexual men’s pleasure. But the most dangerous implication of this myth is that the right man could show a lesbian what she really wants and turn her straight.

Many lesbians have had sex with men, either before they came out or while they were coming out. Sex with a man did not change or prevent their lesbianism. Some self-identified lesbians still have occasional sex with men, and this does not make them heterosexual or bisexual.

Nevertheless, the myth that sex with the right man could make a lesbian go straight persists and can take deadly form, such as “corrective” or “punitive rape.” Corrective rape is a violent sexual assault in which a person is targeted because of her sexual or gender nonconformity. The term came into use after the brutal gang rape and murder of openly lesbian South African soccer star Eudy Simelane, in 2008. South African LGBT activists began to track incidence of these crimes against lesbians and to organize against this violence both domestically and internationally. The problem is hardly confined to South Africa. Cases have been documented in Thailand, Zimbabwe, Canada, and the United States.

“Corrective” here suggests that the reason for a particular assault is the perpetrator’s desire to fix the victim’s “incorrect” identity. This is misleading. There is nothing to correct. Additionally, the violent assault is motivated as much, if not more, by the perpetrator’s rage at the target’s perceived sexual or gender deviance. It is a punishment for the victim’s transgressing accepted gender or sexual norms. The term “punitive rape” thus more accurately describes the larger social context of such assaults. In 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that they are “[p]art of a wider pattern of sexual violence” that “combine[s] a fundamental lack of respect for women, often amounting to misogyny, with deeply-entrenched homophobia.

Although their actions are extreme, the perpetrators of punitive rape are expressing views—about the naturalness of heterosexuality, for example, and men’s authority over women—held by many people. Most people who hold these beliefs do not rape lesbians. Nevertheless, this violence exists on a continuum with the everyday and, to many people, innocuous prejudices evident in such myths as lesbians do not have real sex.

This “innocuous” violence is embedded in the idea of virginity. Historically, the very idea of “virginity” emerged from the religious and social regulations of a marriage contract. Through marriage, a woman was exchanged as property from her father to her husband. Her chastity guaranteed that her property value was intact. The deeply entrenched belief that it takes a man for a woman to lose her virginity begins here. Women have long tried to assert their own sexual desires, but their voices are still not completely acknowledged in many places globally, including the United States.

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One of this myth’s ironies is that lesbians themselves have engaged in sometimes-pitched battles over a related question: what counts as real lesbian sex? This is not a disagreement over whether or not lesbians have real sex. These arguments are over the centrality of sex to lesbian identity and what constitutes the proper, correct kind of lesbian sex within lesbian feminist political communities.

These questions arose decades ago and are rooted in fights within the just-forming women’s movement of the early 1970s. Lesbians were very active in what has come to be known as “second-wave” feminism and fought for recognition of lesbian equality as a feature of sexual equality. But many straight feminists, such as National Organization for Women founder Betty Friedan, were leery of a close association with lesbianism. They worried that the “lavender menace” would discredit feminism.

In the midst of these battles, poet Adrienne Rich published her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Rich was responding powerfully to heterosexual feminists who ignored lesbians or who marginalized the lesbian experience. Rejecting mainstream culture’s obsession with girl-on-girl action, Rich de-emphasized genital sexuality and argued that intense same-sex bonds between women were the heart of lesbianism. Coining the term “lesbian continuum,” she described the multiple forms of nonheterosexual, independent, women-focused resistance that women have always undertaken to combat patriarchy. While this resistance included explicitly sexual ties between women, Rich believed that sex between women was not in and of itself feminist political resistance. Her elaboration of a lesbian continuum was a brilliant conceptual coup that converted lesbianism from a marginal position to a global narrative of women’s resistance.

Some feminists misconstrued the subtlety and context of Rich’s arguments. This led to a glorification of the desexualized lesbian. Woman-woman bonds were celebrated, while woman-woman sex was downplayed.

The sisterly ties imagined by Rich frayed very quickly. Disagreements among feminists over the politics of sexuality came to a head during the so-called feminist “sex wars” of the 1980s. Over the course of this decade, feminists—lesbian, bisexual, and straight— disagreed vehemently over sexual issues such as pornography, heterosexuality, butch/femme gender roles, and sadomasochism. After a decade of avoiding difficult sexual discussions, feminists found themselves embroiled in bitter debates over the borders between pleasure and danger and between politically correct and politically incorrect sex. Sex had become the defining issue for feminist politics.

During the sex wars, some aspects of lesbian sexual culture—mainly butch/femme gender roles and sadomasochism—were criticized for allegedly imitating heterosexuality. Many lesbians—such as Esther Newton, Joan Nestle, Amber Hollibaugh, and Cherrie Moraga—argued against this. They saw butch/femme as a distinctively lesbian way of transgressing and undermining gender and sexual norms.

Other lesbians made similar arguments for the transgressive potential of S/M to play with and rework power inequalities. In 1978, Gayle Rubin and Pat (now Patrick) Califia even founded the first lesbian-feminist organization dedicated to sadomasochism, Samois, which became instantly controversial, its members accused of eroticizing violence against women.

At the end of the 1980s, another battle in the lesbian sex wars erupted, this time over dildo use. The arguments took a by-now familiar form. Some lesbians claimed that dildos and strap-ons were authentically lesbian; others decried their use as male-identified.

The sex wars, for all their rancor, provided a very valuable, public airing of the enormous diversity that exists among lesbians when it comes to sexual identity, sexual pleasure, and, especially, gender identification. Some lesbians prefer a butch/femme dyad, others do not. Today, there is a far wider acknowledged spectrum of lesbian gender than traditional butch/femme roles. This is especially true for younger women coming out and exploring new identities: androgynous, boi, tomboy, girl-next-door, butch at the edge of trans, dandy, soccer mom. It is not simply that you cannot always tell a lesbian just by looking, but rather what a lesbian looks like does not tell you anything about the sexual roles or activities she prefers. Not every butch is a sexual top. Not every femme is a sexual bottom. There is no one way to be a lesbian and have sex with other women.

Despite all this variety in lesbian experience and self-presentation, lesbians still remain caught between two opposing mainstream stereotypes: the hypersexual (and hyperfeminine) lesbians of heterosexual entertainments and the asexual lesbians who bring a U-Haul to their second date. These opposing stereotypes of lesbian sexuality reflect the opposing sexual stereotypes placed on all women. They are either whores or virgins. But the implications of these stereotyping efforts go beyond female sexuality and lesbianism. If lesbians represent the most extreme form of female sexual passivity, gay men represent male sexuality at its most out of control and are even pathologized as sex addicts.

At least gay men—as men—are still imagined to be interested, albeit overly so, in sex. The myth of sexless lesbian couples—colorfully captured in the phrase “lesbian bed death”—is as demeaning as the media-fueled image of lesbians gone wild. In both instances, women’s sexuality is seen as something to be activated for straight men or it is no activity at all. Lesbians themselves joke about U-Hauls and lesbian bed death, but as an inside joke, not science.

The term “lesbian bed death” was coined by sociologists Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz in their 1983 book American Couples: Money, Work, Sex. Blumstein and Schwartz wrote that long-term lesbian couples have significantly less sex and intimacy than both gay male and heterosexual couples. Their data have since been widely challenged. In fact, all long-term couples seem to experience a decline in sexual frequency. Lesbian couples show no more marked a decline than others. Still, the end result of this idea is that a widespread sexual phenomenon has been denied—erased—by naming it as a uniquely lesbian experience. The myth of lesbian bed death refuses to die because it is simply a new version of the penis-centered logic propelling the myth that lesbian sex is not real sex.

This myth is also powerfully fueled by the sad reality that our culture is pretty terrible at talking about sex and sexual pleasure. There is little public or private acknowledgment that what we want to do sexually often changes across our lifetime and everyday circumstances. This should not be surprising. Bodies change over time, as do emotional and psychological needs, sometimes regularly. A preference for penetration becomes a preference for oral sex, or vice versa. A desire to be exclusively a top or a bottom becomes a desire to take turns. A preference for younger women may become an attraction to older women. Some women like to sleep together before dating or sleep together without ever dating. Different sexual cultures and identities—which may change generationally or be markedly different in urban, suburban, or rural settings—also give new meaning to sex acts.

A simple reality—the fact that when it comes to sex, people are different from each other, and can even differ from their own earlier selves—is obscured by people’s need to overgeneralize their own desires and discomforts. To paraphrase Gayle Rubin, one person’s most treasured erotic activity might be another person’s major turnoff. In our culture, almost all people lack a language to capture the full reality of their sex lives and fantasies. It just happens the way we want it, or it doesn’t. We’re satisfied, and then we’re not. This may be a version of turning lemons into lemonade, but sexual minorities—people whose sexual desires, identities, and practices differ from the norm—do a better job talking about sex, precisely because they are constantly asked to explain and justify their love and their lust to a wider culture and, even, to themselves. Lesbians know how to bring on the lemonade, with many twists. Whether in a long-term relationship, casual hookup, or one-night stand, lesbian sex can be as hot and throbbing or as boring and predictable as anyone else’s. Which is to say, very real.

Excerpted from “You Can Tell Just By Looking” And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People, by Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico (Beacon Press, 2013). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.