Resolve to dissolve under the sheets

Stendhal gets around the self-help cheese

It’s a new year and as much as we’re warned about the folly of resolution making, it’s likely that many of us have made a few. From the usual promises of losing 10 pounds, going to the gym more regularly and quitting smoking or drinking, to more lofty goals, like a change in careers, learning Italian or who knows? People make lists and swear that this year will be different. Perhaps it will be. After all, self-improvement is an elusive but highly attractive thing.

If you resolved to resist lesbian bed death in 2004, True Secrets Of Lesbian Desire: Keeping Sex Alive In Long-Term Relationships is the book for you. Can anyone find the answer to lesbian bed death in a mere 119 pages? It is certainly what therapist Renate Stendhal offers up in her slim volume (the book was actually first published as Love’s Learning Place; this second edition is distinctly improved). So what are the secrets, you might ask? Sex toys? Fantasies? Losing 10 pounds? Learning new techniques that will drive her wild? Maybe. But, as is the way of all self-help books, there is no correct answer.

And this is primarily a self-help book – from the presentation of the stories drawn from Stendhal’s practice as a therapist, to the careful selection of inspirational quotations from Adrienne Rich, Audre Lord and Dorothy Allison. To her credit Stendhal avoids most of the usual cheerleader language associated with the genre. She does have her moments, however: “We have learned from the Kinsey Report, Masters and Johnson, and The Hite Report; we don’t fear any more that masturbation will cause brain damage; we have had R-rated and X-rated movies, porn magazines at the corner store we’ve followed the latest fads: The G-spot, ecstasy, tantric workshops – but what if all this hasn’t taught us much or anything about our individual sexual selves, our own mysterious sexual bodies? Could it be that sex and truth can’t be taught?”

The question of truth is Stendhal’s central thesis. She is flat-out passionate about it in fact: It is the key to sexual happiness. Of course unravelling the truth could well be a lifelong project since Stendhal believes that there are a multitude of barriers that prevent us from actually knowing what we really want – fear, shame, ignorance and perhaps even laziness for openers.

This is not a book that raises any questions about why anyone would choose monogamy over any other way to organize a long-term relationship, although there is nothing in the book that suggests that monogamy is a higher or more desirable form. Like all good therapists, Stendhal scrupulously avoids that kind of judgment. Her premise is: If that is what you’ve chosen, how can you avoid the demise of great regular sex in lesbian relationships?


The book looks at three real (or imagined – it’s hard to know) couples who are each struggling in their own ways with sexual issues in their relationships. This sort of thing is always the most gratifying aspect of self-help books – the fly on the therapist’s wall element. Perhaps the most interesting couple is the one not suffering from a shortage of sexual activity but rather boredom with the increasing amount of effort required to “get it up.” The solution involves a more careful look at what sex is in a much more primitive way.

Stendhal is well versed in the language of lesbian feminist psychobanter but she’s not at all shy about throwing in a few politically suspect approaches as well. A little psychoanalysis works wonders at times and it’s refreshing to have someone throw it in the lesbo mix without apology. Nothing like getting over your shame and guilt with a little help from Freud. It’s thrillingly subversive.

Sure there are few cheesy elements in this book, but that might be beside the point. There’s an irresistible earnestness at work that makes it hard to resist the message. Sex is serious business after all, isn’t it?


Renate Stendhal.

North Atlantic Books.

119 pages. $22.50.

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