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The Myth of Spontaneity vs. Sustainable Sex

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When I first heard about "lesbian bed death" I was puzzled. What's the point in coming out if you're not going to have sex? Because let's face it -- being lesbian isn't just about having wonderful emotional connections with other women. It's about having sex with them. That's what gets us in trouble with the rest of the world. So how could we walk away from something we fought so hard to have?

At first I was overwhelmed, and a little depressed, about how many of my lesbian clients and friends were rarely -- if ever -- having sex with their partners. But when I started doing research on this subject, I found reason to hope. There's some evidence that a minority (maybe 20 percent) of long-term lesbian partners sustain sexual intimacy after 10 or 20 or more years together. Through surveys and interviews, I'm finding the secret of their success.

I expected this secret to be deep, or profound, or rooted in rich experiences, or at least complicated. This was not the case. Instead, I learned this: Sexually active women set aside time for sex. They put it on their calendars. In a word, they schedule.

But sadly, the majority of women, when asked about setting aside time for sex, say, "Oh no! Sex should be spontaneous! It would feel too awkward and contrived!" Therein lies the problem, the entrenched belief that sex should happen spontaneously, without having to plan or prepare. And this is how I discovered the all-time killer of sustainable sexuality: The Myth of Spontaneity. It's just not true -- think about it. How often does good sex happen spontaneously?

New lovers spend hours planning minute details of the next rendezvous. What to wear ("date panties," one woman suggests), where to go, what kind of ambience to create for a sexy scene. They change the sheets, just in case. Then they lock their doors, turn off communication devices, spend hours in bed. They turn toward each other, pay a lot of attention, think about each other all the time, fantasize about having sex again -- soon.

The clinical name for what's happening here is "foreplay," also known as "activities preceding the main event." So all that burst of sexual feeling that feels so spontaneous is really the result of intense, persistent, extended foreplay.

Once when I was talking about this in an intimacy workshop for lesbian couples, a woman said, "All that foreplay could take at least 24 hours!" She'd been hung up on the "sex should be spontaneous" theme -- until she started remembering the elaborate plans she used to make in early dating days. Incredible intentionality that led to "spontaneous" sexual excitement. And it definitely took more than 24 hours.

To me the good news about 24-hour foreplay is that it's good for your relationship, whether or not you have sex. What could be wrong with tuning in like this to yourself, and someone you love? At the very least you'll probably have a good 24 hours and feel more connected and in-the-present. At most you'll enjoy a sexual connection that will make you happy you planned your foreplay.

Like I said, this isn't complicated. Partners who stay sexually involved set aside time to be sexually involved. Partners who don't wind up not being sexual. But why is this so hard to get? Here's a couple examples of what I mean.

"Sally" told me she needed to do something special for her partner's birthday. They hadn't had sex in several months, because Sally was never in the mood. Now her partner was really upset. Sally had the idea of renting a cabin in the mountains for the birthday weekend. She went online to research the area. She found a rustic inn with a great view, a great restaurant, and even an outdoor music festival nearby. She made all the plans for the weekend, including arranging a pet-sitter and housekeeper and early getaway from work on a Friday afternoon.

When she came in after the weekend she was glowing. They'd held hands while hiking, had a romantic dinner, sat on the deck talking for hours, catching up on a year's worth of conversation about their careers and friends and life dreams.

Then they made love, and Sally was thrilled. "It was wonderful," she said. "It was so spontaneous!"

Spontaneous? After three weeks of planning? Really? I could hardly resist -- but I did, because this wasn't an "I told you so" moment.

And then once I was talking with "Tina" who told me she and her partner enjoyed sex so much, they didn't need to schedule it. Then she paused. "Well, the kids are always at their other mom's house on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so that's the only time we have to have sex. So maybe that is scheduling..." I agreed, and wondered again why something so obvious is so hard to acknowledge.

I guess it all stems from how we first learned about sex. We learned that men initiate, women respond, and we all get carried away by waves of testosterone (for men) and romantic passion (for women). We didn't learn about initiating sex, intentionally making time, and paying attention to details that make us feel more sexual. Some of us may have been told that sexual intimacy is a wonderful part of marriage. But that conversation wasn't about same-sex marriage. It was about "saving yourself for the man you love."

Those of us who love women need to say that sex is good with the woman you love, too. Sex adds a special bond of pleasure and emotional connection, and that's worth being intentional about. And foreplay is how we get there.

So now is that when I tell my partner I made reservations for a romantic dinner, she sometimes whispers "foreplay." Lucky for me she has a good sense of humor.