Over two decades ago, Kim Chernin and Renate Stendhal co-wrote a book, “Sex and Other Sacred Games,” a story loosely based on their years-long correspondence after they met by chance in the 1980s at a Parisian café. Through their letters, the two characters—one a polyamorous feminist lesbian, the other a heterosexual femme fatale—explore feminism and female sexuality.
This month Ms. Stendhal and Ms. Chernin, both counselors and writing consultants who have Ph.D.s in spiritual psychology and moved from the East Bay to Point Reyes Station about eight years ago, published their third co-authored book, “Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit.”
Where their first book expounded at length on female sexuality, “Lesbian Marriage” is short and to the point: a toolkit to keep sex alive and healthy. Where the former started at the beginning of a bond, the latter offers guidance on how to grapple with a long-term relationship when the honeymoon phase wears off, when couples might not even remember the last time they were intimate.
Back in the ‘80s, it took some time for Ms. Chernin—who herself had once been polyamorous—to convince Ms. Stendhal, a cultural journalist living in Paris, to not only give up Europe for Berkeley but to leave behind four lovers and become monogamous.
Ms. Stendhal had lived the monogamous life before. But after a few failed long-term relationships, and during the explosion of the feminist movement, she came to believe that those relationships were “sexually doomed.”
“We were living in the historical moment then, too, because that moment was: every woman loves every woman, so let’s have as much love and sex as we can imagine and everyone I knew lived like that,” Ms. Stendhal said in her friendly German accent, surrounded by the bountiful flowers and shrubs she and Ms. Chernin planted around their home, where brambles used to grow. “So I told Kim at first, ‘Are you kidding? Monogamy? Marriage? We will be dying of boredom after two years.’ She said, ‘You’ll never be bored with me.’ And that was such a challenge.”
The new book comes at another historical moment, when same-sex marriage is being legalized at a rapid-fire pace. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage; the most recent to come into the fold is Pennsylvania, where a district court overturned a 1996 same-sex marriage ban just last week. Judges in another 11 states have issued decisions in favor of same-sex marriage that have been stayed pending appeal. Every state with a ban, except North Dakota, has been sued, and a lawsuit there is forthcoming.
Years ago, the couple decided against getting married when San Francisco issued licenses in 2004. At the time they felt marriage too conventional an institution. But now, Ms. Stendhal said, perhaps it is marriage that can become less conventional as it expands to a new community. Though Ms. Stendhal and Ms. Chernin have been together 28 years and had their own private ceremony at a hot springs in New Mexico, the couple ultimately decided to take part in the revolutionary moment: last fall, they tied the knot.
But as anyone who has been in a long-term relationship—same-sex or opposite-sex, a marriage or another kind of partnership—maintaining a sexual spark can be difficult. Sex can become routine or fall away altogether.
There is even a term for it: lesbian bed death. “But even though we call it lesbian bed death, we all know… that bed death is in every relationship,” Ms. Stendhal said. “After two years the honeymoon phase is over, people return to a normal state of sanity… Obviously you can’t maintain this extraordinary state of being in love, but people expect it: forever after, just like that. The bed death is this big dread everybody has going into a long-term, committed, monogamous relationship.”
But the book, as they write in the introduction, is not a guidebook on new positions or tantric exercises.
Its 12 chapters each address a different challenge encountered by couples that can underlie or exacerbate sexual problems. Ms. Chernin and Ms. Stendhal draw from their own experiences, as well as problems they have heard about from friends and those they have counseled professionally.
The problems they list in the book could be faced by any couple: technology interferes with the time we give to our partner, grudges and petty fighting stifle intimacy, sex drives stall, one partner becomes frustrated over the other’s failure to orgasm, affairs threaten to end the relationship itself. But the challenges are filtered through the lens of the lesbian experience, and the strategies for dealing with them break out of the traditional rigidity that marriage has historically imposed.
The habits of roles can constrain any relationship, for instance—but, Ms. Stendhal said, “Roles probably come up more in lesbian or gay relationships, because in heterosexual relationships they are supposed to be set, although of course we know they are not.”
That chapter recreates a conversation between two of their friends, Maria and Lee; Maria was the dominant one and she wanted to switch up roles, but Lee had trouble embodying the aggressor. The toolkit at the end of that chapter advises couples to “practice if you want to learn another role” and “find your failures funny,” but also reminds couples that role-switching isn’t necessary if each partner is happy and sexually fulfilled.
Through the other 11 chapters, the authors offer a number of helpful do’s and don’ts for couples confronting problems that interfere with sex. Be honest, but remember that honesty doesn’t have to be brutal; it can be tender, too. Listen. Maintain privacy. Laugh. Recognize grudges. Fight when necessary, but have strategies to prevent escalation. Unplug your electronics. Fantasize; share your fantasies. Remember that toys are your friends. Don’t let culture define what turns you on or satisfies you, and discard the notion that orgasm is the only authentic sign of sexual pleasure.
“Passion has to come with pain, we are taught, and sex is hottest when painful longing is released for a brief moment of ravishment—a one night stand, a conquest without consequence, an adventure for adventure’s sake,” they write. But with the right person, with honesty and open lines of communication, the myth that only new partners can excite us is false. Long-term relationships allow us to be more honest, and to develop a greater intimacy. In fact, they conclude, “Marriage is an excellent place for carnal knowledge.”
Visit lesbiansexsurvival.com to learn more about “Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit” and purchase the book. The authors are also available to present at local book clubs; send a request through the contact form on their website.