What Atlanta lesbians do
Vaginal sex with a woman (penetration with fingers, hands or objects): 98 percent
Fisted another woman: 30 percent
Been fisted: 23 percent
Vaginal sex with sex toys: 75 percent
Rubbed genitals with female partner: 97 percent
Oral sex with woman: 94 percent
Oral-anal contact: 46 percent
Vaginal sex with a man
Within the last year: 21 percent
More than a year ago: 58 percent
Never: 21 percent
What we call ourselves
All of the women had sex with women, but gave themselves different labels:
Lesbian: 62 percent
Bisexual: 15 percent
Gay: 9 percent
Queer: 7 percent
Other (responses include “dyke” and “transgender”): 4 percent
Straight: 3 percent
Source: 162 Atlanta women surveyed for “Lesbian Women and Sexual Health” by Kathleen Dolan (The Haworth Press, 2005). Dolan notes that the sample is representative, but not generalizable.
Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative
1530 DeKalb Ave. NE, Suite A
• LGBT-friendly physician list
• Lesbian Health Fund
Feminist Women’s Health Center
1924 Cliff Valley Way NE
• ‘Queer-friendly’ gynecological healthcare
• Chrysalis Project for lesbian and bi women
• Transgender Men’s Health Project: 678-852-2654
It’s the question we hear from straight people, gay men, and even lesbians who are just coming out: What is it that lesbians do in bed, anyway?
If you believe straight-male porn, we rub our impossibly large breasts on each other, run our long polished nails through our bleach-blond hair, and strike seductive poses while we wait for a man and his penis to arrive.
If you believe the myths about lesbian bed death, we lounge around in matching tie-dye t-shirts, eating granola and petting our dozens of cats until it’s time for the next folk music concert.
And if you believe the slang terms used to denigrate us, it’s all about oral sex (we’re muff divers and carpet munchers) or about wanting to be as masculine as possible (diesel dykes, bulldaggers).
So what is it that Atlanta lesbians really do? Actually, it’s all of that (except the waiting for a penis part) and more.
Sociologist Kathleen A. Dolan, a professor at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, surveyed 162 women from Atlanta for her 2005 book, “Lesbian Women and Sexual Health: The Social Construction of Risk and Susceptibility.” Participants represented a range of ages, educational and economic levels, and races. All self-selected to participate in her extensive surveys, and all have had sex with women.
But for many, the similarities end there — indicating the fluidity and complexity of not only lesbian sexual activities, but even the term “lesbian” itself.
Some women called themselves “bisexual” instead of “lesbian” because they had relationships with men even once in the distant past. Some women called themselves “lesbian” even though they still currently sometimes have sex with men.
“In our research, we tried to tease out what is identity and what is behavior, and how those don’t always add up and they change over time as well, for individuals and communities,” Dolan said this week.
The focus of Dolan’s research was lesbians’ real and perceived risk for HIV — a concern that grew out of her own life.
“I was just getting out of a 10-year relationship,” she said, “and I was clueless about my own personal risk as I was going back on the dating scene and I wanted to know what other women were doing.”
She found that despite the many myths and stereotypes about lesbian sexuality (or the lack thereof), her study subjects recounted a broad range of sexual behavior.
The largest group — 98 percent — reported sex involving some sort of vaginal penetration, while 97 percent said they “rubbed genitals” with female partners and 94 percent reported oral sex.
Still, stereotypes about what lesbians “do” persist, and they often contradict each other.
“Jennifer,” a 35-year-old lesbian who asked that her full name not be used, said she believes the biggest myth about lesbian sex “is that it has to include penetration or that there is always a male/masculine and female/feminine role.”
But “Cam,” who is 61 and also identifies as a lesbian, said the biggest myth she has heard “is that lesbians only have oral sex.”
And despite the fact that most of the women in Dolan’s sample said they engaged in some sort of vaginal penetration during sex, “Summer” said she has been surprised to encounter women who won’t do it — or at least will not be the receiving partner.
“There are a lot more lesbians who don’t like penetration of any kind than I would have thought when I first became sexually active,” said Summer, 37. “It seems it is sometimes a very sensitive subject and I’ve heard some people tell their partners ‘don’t even go there.’”
For Summer, the key to a satisfying sex life as a lesbian has been not to allow herself to be boxed in by rigid rules.
“In a very general sense, I’d say that there were acts I thought I would never be interested in, but once I was sexually active I found that my curiosity and comfort level with myself — and my partner— would lead me to be more open to new experiences,” she said. “I have never regretted pushing my own boundaries in that way.”
Staying healthy while sexually active can be a particular issue for lesbians, who may feel uncomfortable discussing their sexual behavior with mainstream health care professionals and may find it difficult to get information about their risks.
Lesbian attitudes toward safer sex are often wildly divergent, from women who believe they face no risks at all, to those who take excessive precautions that may be disproportionate to their actual level of risk.
“The extremes are because we don’t have enough information, so there is more for us to do and more for us to push researchers to do,” said Linda Ellis, executive director of the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative.
“Safer sex for lesbians is a relatively new and somewhat uncharted area,” Ellis said. “So we talk about common sense safety around the use of toys and dental dams and condoms when appropriate.”
Dolan’s research found that the vast majority of her respondents thought their chances of getting HIV were low (70 percent) or even non-existent (16 percent), although most had been tested for HIV, often when in jail or because of job requirements, pregnancy, or other reasons.
HIV transmission through lesbian sex has not been confirmed definitively through virus matching, she noted, although some possible cases have been reported. And lesbians may engage in other risk factors like sex with men, sex during menstruation, or IV drug use.
Lesbians also need to remember that sexual health isn’t just about HIV. Dolan’s book notes cases of female-to-female transmission of herpes and HPV.
Since HPV infection puts women at risk of developing cervical cancer, Ellis said the most important thing lesbians can do now to protect their sexual health is to get regular Pap smears.
ALHI offers a special fund to help low-income women pay for these kinds tests.
“Because of the Lesbian Health Fund, there is absolutely no reason for a woman in the Atlanta area to not get a Pap smear,” Ellis said. “The fund exists for that reason.”
The Feminist Women’s Health Center also offers a variety of services for lesbian and bisexual women, and female-to-male transgender men.
In addition to general gynecological services, the FWHC features the Chrysalis Project, a 10-year-old program offering workshops focused on “the emotional and physical health of young women ages 18 to 29 whose sexuality is outside the heterosexual norm.”
“Young lesbian, bisexual and questioning women need a safe space to explore both their burgeoning sexuality and their health care options,” said Janelle Yamarick, the Center’s community services director.
The Center’s services for transgender men grew out of a partnership with the annual Southern Comfort Conference. Now known as the Trans Health Initiative, it is offered throughout the year.
“We have provided specific training for our staff highlighting transgender health and issues surrounding sensitivity towards the community, but our health care approach has always been nonjudgmental and respectful, focused on empowering individuals in their health care decisions,” said Jac Camp, coordinator of the program.