Biological Effects on the Body: Menopause
There is very little research on how lesbian and bisexual women respond to the process of menopause. There is no reason to think the biological symptoms might be different, but there are psychological and cultural attitudes associated with menopause that might vary. Some authors suggest that lesbian and bisexual women have a more positive outlook about menopause because of less emphasis on youth and societal standards of beauty. Others suggest that female partners are more supportive and understanding about menopause than male partners. There are also potential challenges that arise when both women in a relationship are going through menopause (see the reading at the end of this section on “menopause squared”).
A woman is said to reach menopause when she has gone 12 months in a row without a menstrual period. The average age of menopause is 51, but the range is 40 to 60, and it’s a process rather than an event. When you are in the process, it’s called peri-menopause. Over the course of several years, the hormones associated with human reproduction begin to change. Estrogen and progesterone decrease and follicle-stimulating and luteinizing hormones increase. The main signs of this change are:
• In early peri-menopause, the menstrual cycle may actually get shorter so a woman may experience more frequent periods, sometimes with heavier flow.
• In later phases, the menstrual periods become irregular and hot flashes may occur. Some women also have cold flashes and night sweats. Hot flashes may continue for a very long time after menopause (about 15% of women have them for years after).
Other symptoms of menopause include vaginal drying (easy to treat with a little lube), weight gain (metabolism slows down even more), and bone loss. Some women at menopause age first show signs of metabolic syndrome. But the symptoms that most women report to be the biggest challenge of menopause are the hot flashes. Three-fourths of women have hot flashes and some are frequent and severe enough to require some treatment, because they can disrupt sleep. And when we don’t get enough sleep, we get irritable, have trouble remembering things, and are just plain unpleasant to be around! Hot flashes are made worse by smoking, feeling anxious, alcohol, and caffeine. So the best bet is to try to reduce those risk factors. Some women try herbal products to reduce hot flashes, but most of them do not work very well (soy, evening primrose, dong quai, gingseng, wild yams). The only one that seems to be effective for some women is black cohosh, but it can affect the liver, so take with caution. If the hot flashes are disrupting your life, talk to a health care provider about the use of low doses of estrogen. The decision to use hormones is a complicated one, so you must talk to a healthcare provider about your personal risk factors before making any decision. Menopause is a major transition time for women and signals the end of the reproductive years. For some women, there are major body image issues associated with this change that is a highly visible marker of aging.
• If you are not yet in menopause, how do you feel about it? How do you think your life will change, or not, because of menopause?
• If you are in the process or reached the milestone of menopause, how was the experience for you?
• How will or did your partner and close friends deal with menopause?
LESBIAN BED DEATH: MYTH OR FACT?
by Mickey Eliason
P.S. This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I hope you appreciate that there is a serious side to this issues.
You have probably been wondering, when are we going to get to address lesbian sexuality? What about lesbian bed death? Is this the fate of all long-term lesbian relationships? Do we go through all of the stress and strain of dating, just to find a long-term partner with whom we don’t have sex? Why not just stay single?
The term lesbian bed death is often attributed to a heterosexual sociologist, Pepper Schwartz, who did a study in the late 1970s and early 80s about American couples, including straight, gay male, and lesbian couples. She suggested that long-term lesbian couples had less sex than the other types of couples, and had less variety in their sex lives. Since when did dykes ever accept something someone outside of the community said about them? The fact that the term entered the lesbian lexicon and is still there suggests that there might be some truth to the concept. So let’s take a serious look at what we know about this phenomenon, and speculate on what factors have been proposed to cause it, if it truly exists.
First we have to address a complicated question. What is normal lesbian sex? To determine if couples are not having the right amount of sex, we have to figure out how much is the right amount. How often? How long? How much variety is necessary? What if one member of the couple is satisfied with their sex life, but the other is not? Do both have to be dissatisfied with their frequency of sex to call it lesbian bed death? None of these questions are easy to answer. For example, what if we try to measure how many times per month a lesbian couple has sex. What do we mean by sex? For example, say that Joan and Deirdre get into bed at 9 pm, do various things that result in three orgasms for Joan and two for Deirdre, take three pee breaks and one snack break around 1 am, finally falling asleep at 4 am. Was that one sexual encounter? This is hard to compare to the heterosexual couples in that earlier study who had sex twice a week, but the average duration of a sexual encounter was eight minutes. Have you ever heard of an eight minute sexual episode among lesbians? I haven’t. What if Babs and Quince have been fighting a lot lately, but are trying to repair their relationship. Babs is holding to on to some resentment, and Quince has been trying for an hour to bring her off with no luck. Do we count that as sex? So far, no lesbian sex expert has suggested a magic number of times or duration for normal lesbian sex. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the optimal sex life for a lesbian couple is twice a week, with a duration of one hour per sexual encounter, with both partners having an orgasm or feeling satisfied at the end. Schwartz’ research suggested that 47% of long-term lesbian couples had sex once a month or less, clearly not optimal according to my definition, so something must be going on. Let’s turn our attention to why nearly half of lesbians showed a significant decline in their frequency of sex. Here are some of the prevailing theories to explain lesbian bed death.
Possible Causes of Lesbian Bed Death
Our favorite lesbian sex expert of the 1970s, Joanne Loulan, proposed long ago that the tendency of lesbians to fuse or merge might be the culprit. She suggested that lesbians spend so much time cuddling and cooing at each other, and get so emotionally enmeshed that this kills the sex. This theory never made any sense to me. How can too much love and affection ruin sex? In fact, it seems like fused lesbian couples might be able to get by with half as much sex, as each one probably experiences the other’s orgasms. So I am going to dismiss this theory as illogical and improbable.
Leslie Lange, author of Dyke Drama, proposed that what we call lesbian bed death is actually just the second stage of a lesbian relationship. The first phase, the romance stage, involves sex marathons, adrenalin surges, long and tortuous phone conversations with painful physical longing when separated, and serious lack of sleep. The body eventually can not keep up the pace, and forces the couple into phase two, which Lange calls “lesbian sexual rejuvenation phase.” The tragedy is that most women do not recognize this physical need to recover, and break up before they can advance to phase three, which would entail a more moderate sex life. This explanation seems quite plausible, so we will keep it.
Another well-known lesbian pathology is the U-Haul Syndrome. Two women who mistake lust for love get into a relationship way too quickly, and soon discover major incompatibilities. Disillusioned with each other, they grow apart and are no longer attracted to each other. Sometimes they actually become repulsed by each other, making sex unlikely. Lots of lesbians suffer from U-Haul Syndrome, so this theory is also a possible explanation for lesbian bed death. The cause of this is unacknowledged or basic incompatibilities masked by physical attraction and romantic fantasy.
Another possibility is laziness. It takes work to stay actively involved in a relationship, initiate sex, try new sexual positions or activities, and romance one’s partner. It’s easier to develop a new crush and let that drive us sexually for a few months, and then start over. Crushes can be addictive, so we sometimes chase the high of the lust phase of relationships, relapsing every time the high starts to wear off. In addition, many long-term couples fall into habits and routines, and anything done the same way too many times can get boring. This factor, of course, is not unique to lesbians.
In some relationships, the members of the couple are highly involved in community events, child care, planning brunches and potlucks, organizing the book club, or running the volunteer dog rescue league. They have no time or energy left for sex. In fact, the more dyke drama that happens in a community and gets manifest in lesbian events, the more energy is drained from couples, and this affects relationships. In this case, the desire is not gone, just the energy to satisfy it. This is something entirely different than lesbian bed death.
Some lesbians become emotionally over-involved with their pets, particularly cats and dogs, and transfer all of their affection to the animals, leaving none for their partner. The partner may get groomed occasionally and taken for a walk, but there is no sex. A disproportionate number of lesbians are emotionally fused with their pets, and their partners generally suffer from neglect, particularly when their bed is overrun with animals. By the time the pet-fused lesbian has said goodnight to the eight cats in the bed, her partner has fallen asleep unsatisfied.
Finally, there is the lesbian process disorder theory. Our lives are so full and busy during the day that the only time we have to process the details of our relationship is in bed. This processing can take hours, starting with a comment such as “I wish you wouldn’t interrupt me when I’m talking on the phone to Joey (her ex).” This leads to the partner pointing out that she talks to Joey for three hours every evening, and that the partner feels neglected and jealous. Joey has now been brought into the bedroom along with the jealous and hurtful feelings, factors that are not good for sexual arousal. Lesbian couples spend more time processing their relationship than any other segment of the population. In fact, they spend more time talking about their relationship to each other than heterosexual women spend talking to their therapists or gay best friends about relationships.
After careful consideration of these theories, I conclude that a decline in sexual activity can occur in long-term lesbian couples (any who have been together for a year or more), although it is no more prevalent in dykes than in heterosexual couples. The causes can be multi-faceted, but the biggest contributors are 1) U-Haul Syndrome; and 2) Lesbian Processing in bed. U-Haul Syndrome is a complex phenomenon that requires careful study and intervention, but the solution to the processing disorder is simple: NO PROCESSING IN THE BEDROOM, EVER, EVER!
Leslie Lange may be right about encouraging us dykes to refuse to label our declines in sex as lesbian bed death, and consider loss of sex as a sign of something else. We deal with the something else, and our relationships thrive. So the major solution to the problem might be, just say no to lesbian bed death.
Legal Documents that Lesbian/Bisexual Women Should Know About
Legal marriage gives couples most of the rights that are covered by these documents, but not every same-sex couple wants to marry. Here are some of the pros and cons of marriage to consider:
Why I should consider marriage
Financial reasons, like tax breaks
Legal reasons, like inheritance. One of the main reasons is to protect families with children.
Makes the relationship “legitimate” in the eyes of the state
It might be good for one’s mental health
Same-sex marriage is good for the economy and spawns a new career option: the gay wedding planner!
Why I should not consider marriage
For some couples, the tax breaks are small
Legal benefits can be obtained through other legal documents.
Does not guarantee success of a relationship: we don’t have a lot of data on whether marriage makes the relationship better or last longer
Not enough research to tell: any good relationship is good for one’s mental health
Same-sex marriage also means same-sex divorce; it’s harder to end a relationship if married
Some argue that marriage leads to deepening of “family values” thus is good for society. It also decreases likelihood of sexually transmitted infections. There are philosophical/political reasons to oppose marriage. Should government be involved in intimate relationships? Is the institution of marriage flawed? Should we work to change the system so that benefits are not tied to legal marriage or employment, but to human status? Why only two? What about relationships of 3 or more?
LGBTQ people have some unique legal challenges if they are unable or choose not to legally formalize their relationships in the state, national, or international arenas. Many of these forms can be downloaded and completed without the assistance of a lawyer, but an estate-planning specialist concentrating on LGBTQ issues is an excellent source of information and help. The following information has been adapted from National Center for Lesbian Rights and Rainbow Laws’ websites: (http://www.nclrights.org/site/DocServer/NCLR_LIFELINES.pdf?docID=521 and http://www.rainbowlaw.com/free.htm). If you choose legal marriage, you will automatically get some of these rights, but you will still want to consider having many of these documents.
Living will/medical directive. In every state, people can sign documents describing their wishes concerning life-prolonging medical care. Depending upon the state, this document may be called by any one of several different names including: living will, medical directive, health care directive, directive to physicians, or declaration regarding health care. This document contains directions to health care professionals about what the person wants done when they are no longer capable of making or communicating choices regarding life-prolonging and other medical care.
Durable power of attorney for health care/health care proxy. A durable power of attorney for health care (which is also sometimes called a “health care proxy”) allows a designated person to make medical decisions for another person in the event they are unable to do so. This is a very important document for LGBTQs since the person may not want their biological family making health care decisions on their behalf. Many couples choose someone other than their partner or spouse for this duty, because it may put considerable emotional burden on the significant other.
Hospital visitation authorization. A hospital visitation authorization allows the naming of specific individuals to visit them in the event individuals are no longer able to communicate their wishes.
Authorization for consent to medical treatment of minor. The medical treatment of a minor requires authorization by the legal parents. This form allows the legal parents to permit someone other than a child’s legal parents to authorize a doctor or other health care professional to provide medical services to a minor child. In states that do not recognize both parents in a same-sex couple as legal parents, this form is critical so that all parents and appropriate grandparents are able to consent to emergency medical treatment for the child. For couples who are about to have children, it is very important to complete this document before the birth mother goes into the hospital. While this form may not be legally binding, hospitals will usually honor the authorization.
Durable power of attorney for finances. A durable power of attorney for finances allows a designated person, the “agent,” to take care of finances when a person is not able to do so. A general power of attorney for finances authorizes this designated agent to control a broad range of financial matters, including paying medical bills, cashing checks, or receiving benefits.
Wills. A will is a legal document that allows a person to designate who will receive their property when they die. When someone dies without a will, their property is distributed to their legal heirs. With the exception of five states (CA, CT, HI, MA, and VT), a same-sex partner is NOT considered to be a legal heir and therefore is not legally entitled to inherit property when an individual dies without a will. This is true regardless of how long people have been with their partners and regardless of the quality of their relationship with their relatives.
Trusts. Another way to designate who and/or what charities will receive property upon death is through a revocable living trust. A living trust is similar to a will in that it allows one to say who should get what; it differs from a will in that property left by a will must go through the court probate process – which means that the will must be proven valid, and the person’s debts must be paid before the property is distributed. The probate process often takes about a year. With a living trust, this process is avoided and the property goes directly to the people and/or charities named in the trust. In some circumstances, transferring the property through a living trust rather than a will also helps to reduce or avoid some estate taxes.
Nomination of conservator or guardian for a minor. The care and custody of a child to another responsible adult in the event that the child’s legal parent dies or becomes physically or psychologically unable to care for the child can be problematic if a guardian for the child(ren) has not been legally named. This is especially challenging for the child(ren) when the birth mother dies without providing for her children’s future. Usually, a person who is appointed to be the child’s guardian is given physical custody of the child and authority to manage the child’s financial matters.
Elder guardian/conservator. If the time comes when LGBTQ elders are unable to manage their affairs, who will handle these matters? If someone has not been named through a durable power-of-attorney, advanced medical directive, and/or a trust then someone will have to seek to qualify as a guardian and/or conservator. A petition will have to be filed in the Circuit Court of the city or county of residence asking the Judge to appoint an individual to serve as a guardian and/or conservator. A guardian is appointed to be responsible for the person, that is, to take care of physical needs, medical treatment, medication and living arrangements. A conservator is appointed to attend to financial affairs, protect assets, pay bills, invest funds, and preserve resources of the LGBTQ elder. The best option is for LGBTQ elders to carefully plan for this eventuality and memorialize it in writing, yet hope that they can maintain control over their own environment and care.
Autopsy and disposition of remains. In the absence of written instructions, nearly every state gives relatives the right to control the disposition of a body, including funeral arrangements, upon death. As is true for wills and power of attorney for health care, with the exception of married spouses in Massachusetts and California, civil union spouses in Vermont and Connecticut, and reciprocal beneficiaries in Hawaii, this right to control disposition of remains is not provided automatically to a same-sex partner.