During the sex scene in Carol, my wife had to physically restrain me from jumping out of my seat and heckling the screen.
“That’s not how lesbians do it!” I managed to blurt as Cate Blanchett’s flawless Grace-Kelly hair grazed Rooney Mara’s rigid torso.
It’s not as if my wife is opposed to the content of my public service announcement. It’s just that she’s from Connecticut where, apparently, they frown on outbursts in movie theaters.
A few days after we saw “Carol,” I came across an essay in a national magazine by a previously straight woman navigating her first lesbian affair. The essay, like the movie, was stunningly beautiful, but lines like “with a woman you don’t have intercourse” had me jumping out of my seat again.
Women don’t have intercourse?
In a country that now allows women to marry each other in any state they choose, it boggles the mind that we’re still living under the collective fantasy that lesbian sex amounts to the pre-marital “heavy petting” we used to read about in cautionary Dear Abby columns.
While I’m sure that some lesbians don’t have intercourse—just like I’m sure some straight couples don’t have intercourse— portraying all women as cuddle muffins who “make love” primary by caressing each other’s hands is bizarrely unrealistic. And it’s sexist.
“Just think if you were a sheltered young lesbian,” I ranted to my wife as we left the movie theater and walked home in the cold California drizzle. “You’d see that scene and you’d vow never to come out of the closet. You’d think your sexuality was about to be reduced to rolling over and sighing for the rest of your life.”
It was precisely this misunderstanding that kept me hooking up with men when I was in my early 20s. One boyfriend had epic temper tantrums every night, and another read Shakespearean poetry and fancied himself a connoisseur of expensive Scotch. I didn’t like the stubble on either man’s cheeks, but at least I could count on intercourse.
This same confusion sent me into my first lesbian love affairs with a naivety that made for some tragically boring sex.
I owe a serious public apology to the first couple of women I ever hooked up with.
We hugged. We kissed. I held their hands. I probably licked them gently. It’s what I thought I was supposed to do. They were women, after all—delicate petunias who maybe weren’t even interested in orgasm. They just wanted to connect. We sighed and fell asleep completely frustrated.
If I met up with one of those women today I hope I could burn through my embarrassment to say, “I am so sorry for thinking that foreplay and then talking about your cat would satisfy you.”
It was the early 1990s and even as a lifelong student of feminism, I still clung to fantasies about femininity as intrinsically gentle. On some level, I must have also believed that women didn’t like sex.
Like most people, I already knew too much about male violence and, to be honest, I imagined lesbianism would save me from all that.
Coming out as a lesbian would mean a rational, if difficult, bargain: I’d sacrifice hot, power-infused sex for a world in which we’d all be very tender with one another.
In those days, I moved in two distinct cultures: rural lesbian separatists who wore Birkenstocks and had names like “Bear” and “Skylark,” and urban butch-femme dykes who dressed to the nines. When our straight peers were opting for unisex flannels, San Francisco femmes wore red lipstick and our butches were buffed and handsome.
Still, in both worlds I imagined I’d find relationships that overflowed with all the stereotypes of femininity: Women would be softer, more caring, and endlessly compassionate.
I wanted this female utopia.
In bed, I figured women would be sensual, which I wanted, too, but surely they’d also be docile and tame–like the ladies of “Carol.”
I mourned the sexual hunger and satisfaction I assumed was reserved for straight couples.
And then I got properly laid. My date was tough and literary, but she could take a joke. Just the right balance of scary and surrender blew my 20-something mind.
Another twenty years later, and I’ve probably had sex with about as many women as men in my life, and in that limited experience I’ve found that women can be just as aggressive and insatiable as men. Sex between women can be at least as raunchy as straight sex. People of every gender destroy each other. We all have to navigate the nuances of consent. And, yes, Virginia, lesbians have intercourse.
Just as men can be sensitive and vulnerable, women can be dominant and rough. That’s the definition of intimacy, after all: We strip away as many of our social fronts as we can and we stand naked in front of our lover.
When I first hooked up with my wife a few years ago, I brought her to meet my friend and longtime lesbian sex educator Susie Bright. When Susie opened her door, her mouth fell open in delighted surprise. “You’re an old-fashioned butch-femme couple!”
Our presentation may be outdated, but butch-femme couples have hardly been an anomaly through the decades. Photographic evidence of hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine female couples date back to the beginning of photography itself. The 1950s “Carol” is set in saw the rise of a generation of very visible, full-time, out butches. Many lesbian couples passed for straight, and we used our over-the-top looks to signal each other.
There’s a brief scene in “Carol” when a butch woman eyes our waif-life heroine in a music store. I leaned over and whispered to my wife, “I wish they’d make that movie.”
Other decades and other life-experiences would bring equally hot, sometimes more gender-neutral lesbian aesthetics. Our bedrooms are the scenes of every kind of impassioned sex and intercourse.
Some feminists write off the butch-femme dynamic as an imitation of straight culture, but despite the “homo” in homosexual, many of us are not attracted to sameness at all.
My wife has a sexy swagger. She’s East Coast to my West Coast. She has short hair. I wear mine longer. She keeps her nails short, too, and un-manicured. Mine will always be red.
My wife had her last suit jacket custom made in Bangkok with plenty of room for her breasts. I can find clothes that work for me in most women’s departments.
My wife makes a mean Massaman curry and she washes the wine glasses until they shine like fresh icicles. I’m better with finances.
In social situations, my wife is funny while I tend to be shy.
In dark movie theaters, I might blurt out what’s on my mind. She holds me back.
And when we get home, we have filthy hot intercourse.