On April 17, lesbian and bisexual women and transgender men and women of all sexual orientations packed the Sorenson Unity Center’s auditorium for discussions about sexual satisfaction, the phenomenon known as “lesbian bed death,” and, of course, the proper care of sex toys.
Held in conjunction with sWerve, a civic and social group for local lesbians, the first ever Queer Sex Ed began with a presentation by Jordan Rullo on sexual satisfaction — a concept that many in the audience found difficult to define when asked.
“Sexual satisfaction is more than what you’re doing in the bedroom,” explained Rullo, a doctoral candidate in the University of Utah’s Clinical Psychology program who is specializing in sex research and therapy. “It’s things you do throughout the day. It’s the spiritual, the emotional.”
“No one has the same definition of sexual satisfaction, so what floats Michelle Turpin’s boat is going to be different than what floats Jennifer Nuttall’s boat,” she said, drawing laughter from all, including the women mentioned.
Rullo explained sexual satisfaction as the balance between sexual rewards and sexual costs, a concept researchers have dubbed exchange theory. Noting again that rewards differ with each individual, Rullo cited orgasms, gentleness and feeling safe and comfortable with a partner as rewards and feeling used or vulnerable during sex and having sex when not in the mood as costs.
For people to be sexually satisfied, Rullo said they must meet four criteria: having more rewards than costs in their relationships; having rewards and costs that closely match those of their partners; having rewards and costs that match up with expectations; and having these three things remain consistent over time.
“One of the best way to give your partner sexual rewards is to learn their lovemap — your partner’s entire body and their mind, their likes and dislikes, the part that is off limits and on limits, the part that is rough or smooth or soft versus hard,” she said.
Rullo encouraged partners to consider sex as emotional and spiritual and to talk to each other respectfully and empathically about their needs, even if doing so made them feel vulnerable. She also stressed having realistic expectations about sex—for example, not seeing orgasms as the ultimate goal or thinking that sex had to be spontaneous to be good.
“If you think sex should be a great perform every time and if it’s not you assume it’s a failure or your partner’s falling out of love with you, then you’ll be sexually dissatisfied,” she said.
Lesbian bed death is the name given to the controversial idea that two women in a long term relationship have sex infrequently or not at all. Lisa Diamond, researcher and associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, discussed the data and theories in support of and against the existence of this phenomenon.
“It’s something I feel like the [gay and lesbian] community and research community has a lot of cross talk about,” she said. “I would love to try and bring some of your own concerns back to the sex researchers, because I feel if we don’t do research that is viewed as important and relative to the community, then what the hell are we doing?”
Diamond described some of the problems in the concept of lesbian bed death, the fact that past studies which have been conducted by straight researchers.
“But it still remains the case that even if you broaden the definition of sexual activity, you do in fact find same-sex female couples reporting a decline in the initiation of sexual activity compared to other groups,” said Diamond.
Sex researchers have come up with two conflicting ideas to explain the decline, she continued. The first is that lesbian bed death is the result of applying male models of sexuality to female sexuality.
“Some feminist sex therapists say if they’re happy with [not having sex], then who cares?” said Diamond.
However, Diamond noted that some researchers have also said that lesbian bed death may be the result of cultural conditioning, which “has told women from an early age that we’re not as sexual as men and that we’re more cuddly and lovey.”
“And culture still has internalized homophobia, so feminists say [researchers] may be upholding another male model by saying it’s OK because that’s what women do,” she continued. “Those are both as far as I’m concerned, really plausible arguments.”
Next, Rose Ellen Epstein, Lilian Rodriguez and Bonnie Owens conducted a workshop about safer sex techniques they billed as “not your mother’s sex.”
“It’s fun and sexy to have safer sex,” said Epstein, Transgender Youth Program Coordinator at the Utah Pride Center. She explained that women can get sexually transmitted infections from having sex with other women, often because they or their partners may not have been tested because they have no visible symptoms. Another problem, she said, is that many doctors may tell women who have sex with women that they don’t need to be tested for STIs.
Epstein then noted several barrier methods available to women who have sex with women and transgender people of both sexes. These included latex gloves, internal (or “female”) condoms, dental dams and non-microwavable saran wrap. She encouraged the audience to also use water-based lube rather than silicone-based lubes, which can damage sex toys, or household products like oil and Vaseline, which tend to break down latex.
Rodriguez, the Center’s HIV Program Coordinator, and Owens, a former Center employee and graduate student, then demonstrated the correct use of these barriers and how to talk to a partner about using them. The audience laughed and cheered as Owens wrapped a diaper of saran wrap over Rodriguez’ jeans and as Rodriguez used her lips to slide a condom up Owens’ dildo. Along the way, the two gave additional tips such as checking the expiration dates on dental dams and condoms, making sure barriers are not sticky or brittle, and always using condoms on sex toys—many of which are made of silicone and cannot be entirely cleaned. They also told participants not to reuse any barrier or leave female condoms in longer than eight hours.
Dental dams and male and female condoms are available at the Utah Pride Center.
After the skit the three fielded a number of questions from the audience, including alternatives to latex-based gloves, and whether flavored lubes break down saran wrap (Epstein said they don’t, but glycerin-based lubes can cause yeast infections if used internally).
“One of the hardest things we hear is about having commitment” to using barriers, said Owens, noting that many women feel too embarrassed to ask or back down if their partner objects to a barrier. “It’s sticking to those commitments and being able to negotiate with your partner.”
The day concluded with a sex toy demonstration by Trei Herd of environmentally-friendly Earth Erotics. It was followed by sWerve’s annual Tie One On speed dating party.