May 2014

SEX IN MARRIAGE Renate Stendhal and Kim Chernin Scene4 Magazine-May 2014

A conversation between Kim Chernin and Renate Stendhal
authors of Lesbian Marriage: A Love & Sex Survival Kit

Sex is a trickster: it flares up, slips away, gets fixed on the one and only, changes partners, goes wild, thrives on intimacy, gets going only with strangers, falls asleep, changes form, gets bored, and sparks into life again. When we fall in love, we want sex to be around forever, for better or worse. But when we commit to a relationship and when we get married, sex tends to sneak away. Desire falls asleep and bed death is afoot – the so-called "lesbian bed death" (as comedian Kate Clinton famously quipped) is everyone's bed death. Every marriage is challenged in the same way, whether you are hetero, gay, bi or questioning.

SEX IN MARRIAGE Renate Stendhal and Kim Chernin Scene4 Magazine-May 2014

A Conversation

Renate: A relationship is a collaboration, sex is a collaboration, a conversation is a collaboration, and so is writing a book together. We've done it twice before, the first time about sex, the second about opera (two passionate pursuits). We've been together for 28 years, and never wanted to get married – until now. We preferred to be gay, bohemian outsiders who had as little as possible to do with established conventions. But we've entered a dramatic change in the cultural climate.

Kim: Gay marriage has become political. The personal IS political as we've been saying for a long time. It has also become historical, and we wanted to be part of one of the most significant legal decisions that have been announced during our lifetime.

Renate: The freedom for lesbian and gay people to marry brings with it a new potential and new demands. We wrote Lesbian Marriage: A Love & Sex Survival Kit because in our long relationship "we've seen it all." And we've weathered it all.

Kim: We've written for a long time on women's lives, spirituality, and sex. We've talked to many women personally and professionally, as mentors and as practitioners of a different kind of listening: a form of common sense conversation. (Common sense because over the years we have realized that common sense is the least common kind of sense.) Now we wanted to talk about what happens to sex "for better or worse."

Renate: Obviously, sex and marriage are not exactly horse and carriage! We narrowed down a dozen major sexual challenges that occur in every committed relationship, but of course we wanted to address them from the perspective of women – women in love with women. And we gathered strategies -- tools we ourselves have found effective in addressing these challenges. For example, we talk about "Myths of Desire," cultural notions of passion and pain versus pleasure. We talk about "You Always, I never: Grudges and Bed Death" and about the "Genital Corset" –  the need to loosen up our pre-set notions about where and how sex has to take place. We discuss "The Power of Never Now," people being too busy and stressed to have sex, and "The Make-Over Marriage" --  the inflated expectations of couples that marriage will solve all their problems.

Kim: We are providing food for thought and, in addition to sexy stories, a toolkit -- handy lists of Do's and Don'ts to keep in mind when passion and romance threaten to slip away.

Renate: The best way to demonstrate what we are after in Lesbian Marriage: A Love & Sex Survival Kit is to take one central, general misunderstanding about sex in long-term relationships. We call it "The Hot Burn versus the Slow Burn."

  SEX IN MARRIAGE Renate Stendhal and Kim Chernin Scene4 Magazine-May 2014

An Excerpt

The Hot Burn is the quick flare, the instantaneous sexual kindle, the experience we think worth ruining our lives for. The Slow Burn takes longer to get going. It needs a more intimate, mature knowledge of our lover's body. It requires patience as the heat gathers and gains force. The great temptation of the Hot Burn is that you race ahead of yourself and seem transformed. Your old self is left behind. You are carried beyond the sexual limitations that have always plagued you. How could you resist it?

The Slow Burn is mostly ignored because it is compared to the Hot Burn and found wanting; we don't cherish it because we almost don't notice it. After the Hot Burn you return to yourself. You come back to the person you have always been in all your sexual shyness, shame, and fear. Back to your serious doubt of your attractiveness. Your body's repressions and secrets speak up again. The Slow Burn never really gets a chance; before it can develop, we have to face everything the Hot Burn has allowed us to leave behind. Poor old Slow Burn, personally and culturally unrecognized as a possibility of sexual fulfillment.

You can be sure Tristan and Isolde, who had been drugged into their passion, knew nothing about it. Ditto for Romeo and Juliet, those kids of thirteen and sixteen with their single burning night together. Anthony and Cleopatra, Paris and Helen of Troy, Eloise and Abelard. You didn't even have to know their stories to know how hot they'd been burning. Did two women together have to be walled in by these old bedtime stories?

Let's think: what would have happened to Romeo and Juliet ten years later if they had lived, and lived together? Romeo might be taking off for Padua every chance he got, resenting the time Juliet spent with their children; she might have felt that after a day of kids and the house and her own family another demand on her for intimacy was just too much. Could she have taught Romeo to caress her tired body to sleep? To give her a sexy foot massage that would have melted her to the bone?

Lesbian (and all other) sex manuals are filled with suggestions for lovers to get back into the Hot Burn:  fill the bubble bath, light the candle, burn your incense, get out that exotic oil, slide your k. d. lang into the CD player. Start with the back rub. 

All this sudsing would be well and good if the attempt to reach a Hot Burn weren't so misguided. Candles light up the Slow Burn. Think of a sensual, tender flame; a breath moving gently over your skin; kisses lingering in the hollow of your neck; little bites on your ear lobe, and naughty whispers. Nothing asked for and demanded beyond what is there for both of you in the moment. No other goal or pursuit or striving, no effort or labor.  Slow Burn is not boredom, but something entirely different. A different kind of passion learned in confessional intimacy. A seasoned passion only a seasoned couple can achieve. A sensual knowledge only you and she can know. Marriage is an excellent place for carnal knowledge.



Start to recognize the possibility of another kind of desire.

Learn to know another kind of passion.

Get curious about Slow Burn and experiment with it.

Celebrate every step you make in this direction. (Slow Burn will last until death do you part.)

Expect that in any long-term relationship some form of Hot-Burn-crisis will arise.

Expect that one of you will fall in love with someone else, start flirting, be tempted and perhaps act out.

Be prepared; it could be you.

Imagine what it would take to come to complete, shared understanding.

Consider the possibility of being forgiven.

Realize that forgiveness and understanding are different names for the same thing.

Consider this: the two of you might have a chance to begin all over again, both changed, more mature, more whole-hearted and loving.


Don't be a fool and throw in the towel the minute things start to cool off.

Don't blame your lover for things slowing down.

Don't constantly remind her of how she used to be when you first met.

Don't run out to look for the Hot Burn with someone else.

Don't compare your relationship to all the wild affairs you've had before (which obviously never lasted).

Don't compare your sexuality to your best friend's. (She just fell in love.)

Don't brood; use a tool from the kit.

Don't harp; play with the tools.

Don't focus on what you don't have.

Don't be a sex-perfectionist.

Don't think good enough is less than good enough.   

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Kim Chernin and Renate Stendhal are prize-winning writers as well as relationship experts. After a cross-cultural relationship of 28 years, they are now a married couple. Lesbian Marriage: A Love & Sex Survival Kit is their third co-authored book (they follow their own advice most of the time!).

Look inside the paperback on Amazon

©2014 Renate Stendhal and Kim Chernin
©2014 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 - International Magazine of Arts and Culture

May 2014

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