Let's start with frequency and duration. A major study in the 80s found that lesbian couples had sex less often than straight couples or gay male couples. This result has been confirmed by other studies, giving rise to the persistent meme of "lesbian bed death," the idea that sex inevitably fades out to nothing for gay women in long-term relationships.
Of course, the truth is that declining sexual frequency happens in all kinds of relationships and is one of the top sexual complaints in straight marriages. You only have to read the heartbreaking messages posted on websites like Reddit's /r/deadbedrooms to appreciate how painful and frustrating it can be, regardless of sexual orientation.
But does sex really die more often for gay women? Apparently not. Gay women have sex less often than other couples, but they don't have more completely sexless relationships and may actually have fewer. Instead it looks like gay women spend more total time on sex than other couples do, but they divide it up into fewer, longer episodes. So a lesbian couple might have sex for 90 minutes twice a week, for a total of three hours a week. And a comparable straight couple might have sex three times a week for 30 minutes each, for a total of 1.5 hours a week. Or they might have sex six times a week for 10 minutes each, for a total of one hour a week.
The information on the differences in frequency and duration comes from a lovely bit of research by Karen L. Blair and Caroline F. Pukall, reported in a paper called The Tortoise and the Hare: Sexual Orientation & Gender Differences in the Duration of Sexual Activity within Same-Sex and Mixed-Sex Relationships. It turns out that straight couples in their study were far more likely to have sexual encounters of under 30 minutes - in many cases way under. On the other hand, compared with other couples, lesbian couples were far more likely to have encounters that were longer than 30 minutes, longer than an hour, and longer than two hours. In fact, almost 10% of their encounters lasted two hours or longer!
But what about orgasms and satisfaction? For orgasms, the difference is clear: lesbian women have orgasms much more often than straight women do. They also have multiple orgasms much more often. Yet all couples report similar levels of sexual satisfaction regardless of sexual orientation. What's up with that?
Dr. Margaret Nichols wrote a nice article about the implications of Blair and Pukall's paper and other related research, called The Truth About ‘Lesbian Bed Death’: It’s Complicated. In it, she discusses the apparent contradiction:
All participants in [Blair and Pukall's] study reported similar levels of sexual satisfaction, regardless of their orientation, and other comparison studies have shown a similar result. This is an interesting finding, considering that heterosexual women report fewer orgasms than lesbians, and that a common complaint of heterosexual women is that their partners do not spend enough time on foreplay. Do heterosexual women trade consistent orgasm for frequency? Do they care?
The neuroscientist Sari van Anders ... provided a clue to the last question. Van Anders ... found that heterosexual women did not expect orgasm during sex, while lesbians took having an orgasm in partnered sex for granted. Perhaps our expectations are shaped by our experiences, and “satisfaction” may have more to do with what we think is realistic than what is ideal.She comments further on what we can learn from this about women's needs:
To go a little deeper, if we throw out ‘frequency’ as the sole or even most important measure of sexual health, we see differences in sexual style that vary by sexual orientation but also by gender, and contrasting these dimensions gives us new insights. Lesbian sexuality could be thought of as what women do when they construct sexual scripts without male influence, while the sexual styles of women who have sex with men reflect how sex is constructed when there is a need to balance both male and female sexual styles. Lesbians construct sex as less frequent but more prolonged, intense, and orgasmic. Heterosexual women are content with fewer orgasms and more frequent genital encounters. Many heterosexual women dream of what in heterosexual terms is called “foreplay” but for lesbians is a routine part of sex—a lot of touching and oral genital contact.
Lesbian Sex? Or Just Good Sex?Regular readers of this blog will have guessed immediately why I find this interesting, because tantric sex looks much more like an exaggerated version of lesbian sex than it looks like typical straight sex. Furthermore, this research explains a great deal about why tantric sex is perceived as vastly superior to "normal" sex by every woman I have known who has had experience with both.
I'm willing to stick my neck out a bit on this. I think heterosexual women are reporting that their relationships are sexually satisfying because most of them don't know any better. They are comparing the sex they are having with their current partners with the even less adequate sex they have had with other men in the past. But, if my interviews with tantric couples are any indication, that's a pitifully low standard.
Think about women like Marla, who was married and divorced before having her first orgasm ever at 35. This is how she described what went wrong in her first marriage:
We married young and we were both eager for sex, we both enjoyed it. I had never had an orgasm, I wasn't even really sure they existed. I halfway thought that women having orgasms was just a myth! But I enjoyed the intimacy and I liked making him happy and that was fine at first. However, that's not much motivation after the first thousand times.
He was an "every day" kind of guy, so we had sex every night unless I was sick or had a period. So figure at least 20-25 times a month, maybe 250 times a year, 1000 times in four years, and every single time was exactly the same.
Not much kissing, no cuddles, no real foreplay, and he gave up trying to give me an orgasm after the first year, so it was thrust and finish as quickly as possible, roll off, and go to sleep. I got pregnant the fourth year and we had two kids, and when the kids got bigger it was back to sex every night. And at some point I stopped feeling like this had anything to do with me. It was like he was using me as a spittoon or toilet. So I started saying no. And the more we fought about it, the more I said no, until there finally wasn't any marriage left.The sex in her second marriage almost slid into oblivion too, before she and Cabot discovered tantra:
In spite of all my years of marriage, I’d never had an orgasm with a man. I thought I was liberated because I had a vibrator! When we got to the point where Cab could give me an orgasm with his fingers and tongue, I felt reborn. So this is what married sex is supposed to be like! And of course, it can be so much more than that, but by now we were hooked.Or think of Lita's description of sex before she met Jack:
I was married for five years, and I had several long-term relationships after that before I met Jack, and in all that time I mostly just had orgasms either solo or from oral sex. For me, that was more like relieving tension than actually doing something pleasurable. I mean, it felt good, but the pleasure was from getting rid of the built up tension.
My first husband got pretty upset that I usually couldn’t come when he did, so I started to do the whole Harry Met Sally routine just to make him feel better. But that was a big mistake, because then he figured he didn’t need to do anything for me. So I was the kind of married woman who waited for her husband to leave the house and then got a vibrator out. Which is pretty sad. Unfortunately, it didn’t get any better with anyone else until I met Jack.These are just two of more than 50 women I interviewed for this project who all said essentially the same thing. I can also include my own early sexual experiences in this, which I would describe (now) as having been totally unsatisfactory before I met Z and we learned tantra together. If you had asked me or any of these women at the time of those earlier relationships, most of us would have said we were satisfied, but looking back now, none of us would rate the sex we were having before tantra as even minimally adequate.
Why Duration Matters So Much for WomenWe know from other studies and from a huge amount of anecdotal data that there is at least a modest inverse relationship between average frequency and average duration. (Duration in these cases is being measured from the start of kissing or other intimate contact to the end of after-sex cuddles, if any.) Couples who have sex every night generally spend less time on each encounter than couples who have sex half as often, and so on, probably because most people are fairly busy and are essentially budgeting a limited amount of time for sex. But Blair and Pukall's paper is the first solid data that I have seen about how the tradeoff between duration and frequency is different when men are not involved and women can suit themselves.
It's not that the result is a surprise. We know that straight women complain a lot about insufficient foreplay, insufficient oral and manual sex, and the lack of orgasms. We also know that most women take at least 20-30 minutes to get fully aroused, even under favorable conditions, yet the average sexual encounter lasts less than 20 minutes for straight couples who have been together for more than a year. By the time she's even close to being fully aroused, it's already over.
What happens in lesbian relationships is that, without that male urgency, the women gravitate toward longer, slower, more sensual sex, with plenty of time to get aroused. And then, once they're both fully aroused, it makes sense for them to make maximum use of that investment of time by having lots of sensual pleasure and lots of intense orgasms.
What tantra has done for many of us is to create a way to ensure that longer, slower, more intensely orgasmic sex can be great for men too. And the evidence for this, aside from the straight men who already enthusiastically practice tantra, is the popularity of tantric sex among gay men as well.
Lack of Duration and the Loss of Libido
All of this is important because it lets us suggest some lessons for straight couples who are struggling with dwindling or mismatched libidos.
Let's look at three common cases:
Ace wants sex daily, or at least several times a week. His wife Bev used to be okay with that, but between kids, job stress, financial problems, and the humdrum of married life, she feels like her sex drive is vanishing. She now says yes to duty sex once a week, but her lack of enthusiasm makes Ace feel frustrated, abandoned, and lonely.
Ed and Flo are exactly the opposite. Flo is still lusty, but Ed would rather watch porn or sleep than have sex. When he tries, he often has ED. He's bewildered and defensive about his loss of masculine energy, while Flo feels rejected, unloved, and undesirable, and her self-esteem has plummeted.
Max and Nan used to have sex two or three times a week, but after five years it's now down to less than once a month; they say they still love each other and they're both concerned that there's no real passion even when they do have sex. They talk about trying bondage or swinging or something else to spice things up, but mostly they're just bored and drifting.
If we assume for the moment that none of these problems are caused by mental or physical illnesses, or by medications, alcohol, or other drugs, we can say several things that are probably true:
First, it's very likely that all six people were used to an adrenaline style of sex, in which the risks and thrills of the chase, of sex with a near-stranger or a romantic love-object created intense excitement about having sex. This leads to a style of sex that is fast, forceful, and focused on vaginal intercourse. And of course this doesn't work in an environment where there's no mystery about the other person and no uncertainty, at least for the person with lower libido. The thrill of adrenaline sex inevitably goes away with time and familiarity.
The second guess we can make is that the sex they're having isn't very good, and probably never was. It's too short to satisfy the women sexually or to provide much of an oxytocin burst for either partner, so it's emotionally unsatisfying for everyone. And the awareness that it's unsatisfying for the women undercuts the men's sense of self, their virility and masculine pride.
Ace and Flo have reacted to the lack of satisfying sex by desperately wanting more sex than their partners are willing to have, and by feeling rejected when their partners say no. Bev and Nan have repeatedly experienced partial arousal that didn't lead to anything good, and have reacted by just shutting down and avoiding something that used to be pleasurable and is now unpleasant. Ed and Max are, at some level, aware that they are not able to fully satisfy their wives - Flo because she always seems to want more and Nan because she seems so unresponsive - so they have shut down as well.
And third, no matter how much in love each couple may have been at one time, the intensity of that bond is slowly withering away because it is not being reinforced by sustained periods of loving, intimate, physical contact. It's also a safe bet that none of these couples indulge in a lot of affectionate nonsexual physical contact either, which makes the amount and quality of the time spent having sex even more important.
Because over the long run, the real problem here is the lack of nurture for the pair-bond holding each couple together. Close, affectionate, sustained mutual attention and physical contact releases oxytocin, and oxytocin remodels the brain in response and then maintains those neural connections. And this is vital for staying in love and staying bonded together as a couple.
Oxytocin RevisitedMaybe I should expand on that.
Part 1 of the oxytocin puzzle is the way your brain identifies people. There are parts of the brain whose primary responsibility is identifying other people and linking their identities to memories and emotions. There is, believe it or not, a "Brad Pitt neuron" in your brain, that fires whenever you recognize a photo of Brad Pitt. And the links to that neuron determine your immediate emotional response to the image, as well as your recall of basic facts about him that you have tucked away. In fact, just reading his name does the same thing, so that neuron fired when you read this paragraph.
The same is true for everyone else you know by name and/or sight, including of course your partner, your parents and siblings, and your children if you have any.
Part 2 of the puzzle is the way oxytocin changes the links to those recognition neurons. Understanding how this works begins with motherhood. Oxytocin floods a pregnant woman's system in order to trigger labor and delivery. When a mother holds her baby for the first time after a vaginal delivery, she is therefore in a state of oxytocin saturation, which is intensely pleasurable. The pleasure helps cancel out the memory of the pain of childbirth and the flood of oxytocin also jumpstarts the process of wiring her to brain to adore her baby.
Additional oxytocin is released in both her brain and her baby's brain whenever she holds or nurses the baby, particularly when they gaze into each other's eyes. This produces a wave of pleasure for both of them, but it also literally rewires their brains, stimulating the neurons in the brain that recognize the child (or the mother, in the case of the child) and linking those recognition neurons into the deep emotional centers that drive primitive circuits connected to safety and protection.
In a remarkably short time, the mother's deepest survival instincts will be cross-wired with her mental image of her baby, and she will work as hard to feed the baby and fight as fiercely to protect the baby as she would to feed and protect herself. And the baby will soon fear separation from its mother more than anything else.
I've said "mother," but of course the same thing can happen with a baby and anyone who cares for it and feels responsible for it. Mothers who experience labor get a head start with the wave of oxytocin in childbirth, but that's not essential, and women who have had cesareans, as well as fathers and grandparents and adoptive parents and others, have experienced just how powerful that bonding process can be in a few short weeks.
And, because we're human, and our mating instincts have hijacked the same oxytocin-based bonding circuitry, the exact same thing can happen between lovers. The rewiring of those neurons can happen so fast that it feels like being caught in an emotional tornado. Or it can happen slowly and gradually and sneak up on you. But when it happens, you feel bound to your loved one at a completely irrational level, and the thought of losing that person is terrifying.
But the bond needs to be maintained. Glial cells in the brain automatically prune axons that aren't used and weaken links that are not reinforced. If you no longer lose yourselves in each other's eyes, if you no longer devote yourselves unselfishly to each other's well being, and particularly if you don't have sustained, loving, physical contact with each other - in short, if you no longer experience regular surges of oxytocin while focusing on your partner - the bond slowly unravels.
And here's where the tradeoff between frequency and duration really matters. A couple having very brief, perfunctory sex with no preliminary "mushy stuff," little or no foreplay, no generosity toward or concern for the other person's pleasure or well-being - just "wham, bam, thank you ma'am" - is doing little or nothing to generate oxytocin or reinforce the bond between them, even if the sex happens every day.
If they take a little longer and there's at least a modicum of genuine affection being expressed, this might be adequate to sustain the bond, but it's vulnerable to any interruption or reduction in frequency. Over time, the normal ups and downs of life are likely to lead to dry spells that gradually erode the connection. And if either person comes to see it as having become just a habit, an empty mechanical act, even moderate frequency will fail to nourish the bond.
How We Got So Messed Up, and Why Tantric Sex HelpsAlmost all mammals make it very obvious when a female is fertile. Whether it's a monkey's rosy red rump or the scent of a female cat in heat, it signals ovulation and tells males in the vicinity it's time for sex. Full breasts, on the other hand, are a fairly good signal that a female is not available, because - with one exception - mammalian breasts are only full when females are in late pregnancy or are nursing infants.
Only in humans are those two signals both unavailable. Even the women themselves don't know when they are ovulating. And full breasts say nothing at all about infertility. They develop before a girl is fertile and remain visible throughout her life, so a glance at her profile gives no clue to whether she might be pregnant, nursing, post-menopausal, or actually fertile.
Our ancestors evolved a lot of strange things in the process of becoming human, and these are two of the strangest. Both exist to trick us into having sex throughout the year, without regard to the woman's fertility. Why? So we can use sex to co-opt this mother-child bonding mechanism for the purpose of keeping couples together. As a result, we have sex indecently often by mammalian standards. We even have sex when we're pregnant, when we're nursing, and when we're far too old to ovulate.
A female tiger might have sex 12 times in her life, if she's lucky enough to live that long. A woman can have sex 12 times a month and still feel sexually deprived. If there were a Guinness record for most sex acts in a human lifetime, it would be well up in five figures. No other species comes close. Sex is hugely important to humans, but not primarily for the purpose of getting pregnant. The evolutionary reason for 99% of the sex we have is to bond couples together.
And this whole incredible redesign of our species evolved in an environment in which our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, living in small bands. There were no TVs, electric lights, smartphones, or iPads. There was no entertainment or music unless you made it yourself. There was no porn except eavesdropping on the couple next door. There were just long, leisurely nights to be filled with long, leisurely sex. So this is what we're designed to do, and this is more or less what we need to do to sustain those bonds.
There is still the thrill of fast sex in dangerous situations. There's still the crazy emotional uncertainty of romance. But once we choose each other and fall in love, if we don't make the transition to the kind of sex appropriate for maintaining the pair bond during those long, leisurely nights, the love and the sexual attraction are both going to fade.
Let's go back to what Dr. Nichols said:
Lesbians construct sex as less frequent but more prolonged, intense, and orgasmic. Heterosexual women are content with fewer orgasms and more frequent genital encounters. Many heterosexual women dream of what in heterosexual terms is called “foreplay” but for lesbians is a routine part of sex—a lot of touching and oral genital contact.In tantric sex, whether it's for gay or straight lovers, we take this to an extreme. We "construct" sex as "prolonged, intense, and orgasmic" with "a lot of touching and oral genital contact." And we make a high art of it and do it for hours whenever we can spare the time, in part because we don't just want it to be better for women, we want it to be better for everyone involved.
For men in straight couples, in particular, this has a triple benefit:
First, greatly increasing and prolonging the arousal in a lingam massage can easily produce an orgasm for the man that is far stronger and more all-encompassing than anything possible from normal sex, a significant incentive.
Second, all that oxytocin that accumulates during a long tantric session produces waves of euphoria for everyone involved.
And third, most men get a great deal of self-validation from their own perceived skill as a lover. Any man who discovers that he has the power to guide his lover to a long series of maximal orgasms, leaving her speechless or babbling incoherently every time, will know, deep in his soul, that he is a master at something that is profoundly important to the masculine identity.
Now all we have to do is get the message across: men, if you want your marriages to last, you need to learn to make love like a lesbian, only better!
Ace & Bev; Ed & Flo; Max & NanCould learning tantra really rescue those three marriages? Possibly, but it would be hard, because all of the couples have reached the point where they have already done serious damage to their relationships. However, if we could rewind the clock a few years, learning tantra before the situation got so serious would have given all three couples a much better chance. Or rewind it to nearer the beginning and teach them three simple rules:
- Make love like you mean it, every single time.
- Make enough time for good sex. Never spend less than an hour with your full attention on each other if you can possibly help it.
- Make sure sex is fun and rewarding for both people.
Tantra is a magnificent way to do all three, but tantra isn't necessary. Many couples have spent half a century together and are still deeply in love and still having good sex because they have followed those simple rules from the start.
Faust's Dream, by Luis Ricardo Falero
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons