Hey ladies careening toward age 35 — it's important decision time! You can A.) hit your sexual peak, and, like a remotely programmable robot in a Blade Runner ripoff, suddenly become "switched on" like a sex-crazed lunatic unleashed upon decent society. Or you can B.) reject the still-repressive social and cultural expectations of how female desire should work, and enjoy a sexual prime whenever you are good and ready, when opportunity permits, or even ongoingly. Tough choices, gals.
You don't have to spend all day reading old Cosmo issues in your dentist's waiting room to know that conventional wisdom paints men as hot, horny and rarin' to go at 18, while women aren't at their sizzlin' sexual peak until their mid-30's. But what does that even mean? The universe is playing a cruel starcrossed genitals joke on us? Dudes are already sexually spent by the time they are old enough to drink? OMG Cougars r real?
Of course not — it means that we took some research from 1953 about female vs male behavior and declared it the truth of all time. Put that notion under glass; it's an antique! The new realness: "Sexual prime" is a myth.
In a recent HuffPo piece by Dr. Bella Ellwood-Clayton, a sexual anthropologist who has just written a book on female desire called Sex Drive, she looks at the root of this sexual peak myth in an interview with Lori Brotto, a psychologist who focuses on female sexuality:
"The myth comes from Alfred Kinsey's data [ed: from 1953]. The questions he asked were for different age groups. 'What is the maximum number of orgasms you have in a given week?'"
Kinsey found that 18-year old men and 35-year old women were having the most frequent orgasms. "But what the data doesn't reflect well," Brotto says, "is why are 18-year-old men having orgasms so frequently? They're masturbating all the time." And for the women?
"Well, in 1953 when this book was published — they were likely married, in a stable relationship and knew who they were. We know that orgasmic ability becomes more frequent with age and relationship security."
Dr. Ellwood-Clayton's findings don't mean that there aren't any differences in how men and women experience sexual desire over different ages, it's just that, per usual, we've exaggerated the ever-loving fuck out of them. We have focused on a hormonal model for how sexual desire works rather than a more holistic one that encompasses the multi-factored aspects of desire for humans.
Better, researchers say, to think of the human sex drive as a system of peaks and valleys measured by both hormones and psychological well-being, maturity, experience, and intangible things like spirit.
When looking at human sexuality through this lens, there's no such thing as a singular sexual prime; there's genital prime and sexual prime. Being young and fertile are related to genital prime — when your body and hormones are most rarin' to go to get it on. But sexual prime is about all the other stuff. A piece over at Shape explains that in greater depth:
If Kinsey were looking at hormonal levels alone, he’d be largely correct about sexual peaks. In men, testosterone levels reach their apex around age 18, while women’s estrogen (and fertility) hits a high-water mark during the mid- to late-20s. This hot-and-heavy stage of sexual maturity is known as the genital prime, because it’s when the body responds most quickly to arousal (it also explains all those stereotypes about high school boys…).
But a person’s genital or hormonal peak isn’t the same as his or her sexual prime. In fact, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to predict or claim that a certain age comprises a sexual peak, because it’s different for every adult. Being at the top of one’s sexual game is much more complicated than the number of sperm in the tank or the ease with which one can get pregnant—sex is also psychological. Mental factors like body confidence, personal sexuality, feelings of intimacy and trust with a partner, libido, and knowledge of sexual preferences take time and experience to develop.
This at least ought to help explain the newly permissive demographic of women to whom we give unfortunate big cat nicknames to ("Cougars"), women who were once over the hill and supposed to be content with invisibility, now boldly pursuing sexual relationships — sometimes with men in their "genital prime."
In Bellwood-Clayton's book, Sex Drive, in which she interviewed scores of women in a variety of ages and stages about their own experience with desire, and she found that for many women — their sexual prime, when they were well-matched with a partner, not consumed with very small children, and not depressed —could be an ongoing experience, a near-constant state that lasted over decades of their lives. That is, if they're able to overcome cultural forces that hinder lust, such children, downplaying of sexual pleasure as a worthy pursuit, and the fact that women are more likely to be depressed.
And yes, there was something to being in their 30s for many women interviewed in Sex Drive that corresponded with being able to focus on themselves, their own pleasure, what they wanted, who they were.
But this was about circumstance more than biology.
And Bellwood-Clayton does ask: If a woman nearing 35 is also nearing peak fertility, might it make all kinds of sense that biology would help ignite her desire to "maximize reproductive success" late in the game?
Only that doesn't pan out. Because the thing about aging is that testosterone levels — related to libido — wane as you get older. In women, too — 45-year-old ladies have less of the stuff than 20-year old ladies, which further goes to show just how much of a sway circumstance has on sexual fulfillment.
Bellwood-Clayton's book is an interesting companion to another new book on female sexuality, Daniel Bergner's latest work, What Do Women Want? The Science Behind Female Desire.
Interviewed here by Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory, Bergner talks about the base, animalistic desire of females in all kinds of species, noting that "gender stereotypes have shaped scientific research and blinded researchers to evidence of female lust and sexual initiation throughout the animal kingdom, including among humans. It reveals how society’s repression of female sexuality has reshaped women’s desires and sex lives."
That stubborn embrace of conventional wisdom and repression of reality has led to an interesting phenomenon: despite studies that show, again and again, that women respond to a much wider array of sexual stimuli than previously thought (more than men!), women routinely underreport their arousal.
Is it that they actually don't experience the desire in a conscious way, or that they've spent their lives ignoring it?
Either way, all this focus on female sexual desire makes you wonder what would happen if we really could allow women the same sexual freedom as men from jump. Women would have more time to pursue their own desires in a healthy way, and spend less time unpacking all the messages that hamper it.
But there's a faster solution: Stop waiting for cultural permission to get off. As long as we align our attitudes about sexuality with hormones rather than the whole human experience, as long as we let someone else write the story of our inner lives as women, we'll keep misunderstanding ourselves in the process. That we've already been doing it for so long already is the real shocker. And I don't mean the sexual maneuver.