I was out recently with a friend, and we started talking about sex. She told me about how, in her current relationship, she wants sex more often than her boyfriend does. We laughed about how this never would have happened when we were in our twenties. “We’re in our sexual prime now,” she said, and we laughed again.
We hear this a lot: that a woman’s “sexual prime” – or sometimes the term is “sexual peak” – happens during her thirties. But really, what does it mean? If we imagine a woman’s sexual trajectory as a curve that rises as she approaches her thirties, briefly pauses at its highest point, then turns downward into a decline, it would look like a bell curve.
Many women find sex more satisfying in their thirties than ever.
What might be the cause of this ephemeral peak? Is it because women are more fertile in their thirties than they will ever be? Have they had enough years of sexual experience and now know more intimately what brings them pleasure? Does this peak have something to do with the mysterious “ female libido”? Does it mean the clitoris is more sensitive than it ever has been, or ever will be again? Does it have to do with the “g-spot”?
There can also be different kinds of peaks. A woman may have more sex in her late teens and early twenties than she does in her thirties, but enjoy sex much more during her late thirties and early forties. Or she might have a child and experience sex so differently afterwards that it doesn’t make sense to evaluate it by the same criteria as before. And so on.
What is the Meaning of “Sexual Prime”?
The idea of women reaching a sexual prime comes from sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s 1953 work Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Kinsey says that while women tend to have less sex as they get older, “these declines … do not provide any evidence that the female ages in her sexual capacities.” In fact, according to Kinsey, women masturbate and have fantasies more and more until they’re about 55 or 60 (menopause).
Kinsey claims that women having less sex as they age is due mostly to men’s waning sexual desires, since (Kinsey claims) men’s sexual desire tends to control whether or not sex happens.
His research found that the highest incidence of orgasm for married women was between 31 and 40 years old, when 90% of the women in his sample were reaching orgasm at least some of the time. After 41, the number reaching orgasm began to decline. And only 71% of 16 to 20-year-old married women reached orgasm. Perhaps the idea of a “sexual peak” derives from this data?
More recent research finds similar numbers by age group, with women 36 years of age and older reporting the highest levels of self-confidence, enjoyment of sex, and most satisfying orgasms.
What is the Cultural Context of Hitting Your “Sexual Peak”?
Western culture embraces ideas like “sexual peak” and “sexual prime” in part because we love the promise of reaching pinnacles, performance peaks. We also love the challenge of “getting back” our youth and all its charms, of achieving the impossible. But, having a lot of sex hasn’t always been culturally sanctioned.
Kinsey quotes early medical books warning of the ailments women and men will suffer if they have sex too frequently.
According to an early Italian text, women who have sex too often will suffer from “a loss of mental grip, backache, lassitude, giddiness, dimness of sight, noises in the ears, numbness of fingers, loss of memory, and paralysis.”
Another early text advises that “no man of average health… can exceed the bounds of once a week without… danger of having entered upon a life of excess both for himself and for his wife.”
More recent studies, however, say that the sex people are having right now is the best sex of their lives, even though they might not be having the most sex they’ve ever had. Quantity is not the same as quality when it comes to sex, and that's where the nuances of a “sexual peak” become harder to pin down.
In my early twenties I rarely had an orgasm during sex, but I still found sex thrilling (the new sensations were interesting, and masturbation was better when I could re-play what had happened). Now, I rarely have sex without having an orgasm, and that’s thrilling, too.
The Complexity of Female Arousal
Not only does the trajectory of a woman's desire change over time, but there are important differences between men's and women's experiences of sexual desire.
We know that men think about sex more frequently than women (it's true!) and they are quicker to become aroused (also true). But what we don't talk about as often is how men's experience of desire is more rigid in comparison to women. Men don't explore as many types of non-heterosexual encounters in fantasy or in real life, and they tend to have more straightforward approach to reaching orgasm – both from an internal, biological perspective and in the ways it plays out in their everyday sexual activities.
By contrast, women are aroused in ways that are often inverse to what men expect – at times requiring physical touch or even orgasm before they reach peak arousal. Women also have more complex turn-ons and tend to have a more fluid approach to what is acceptable to fantasize about and even what types of sex in pornography is arousing.
In addition to the nuances of what turns women on, the time needed to reach arousal is twice that of men. Research shows that women require up to 20 minutes of foreplay to become fully aroused, whereas men only require 11 minutes. Many of us reading this can also appreciate the role that everyday stress and fatigue can play in getting turned on. Arousal – as well as the ability to reach climax – often requires a relaxed and open state of mind.
So, women really just need more time: more years of experience to explore and understand what turns them on, and a more drawn out foreplay experience – whether that is solo or with a partner.
Debunking the Notion of “Normality” in Sexual Behavior
It is also worth mentioning that there is no “normal” when it comes to sexuality. We can share averages or generalizations based on statistics, but those are not representative of the wide and varied ways each of us are experience and explore our lives as sexual beings.
In the United States alone, over 3 million people self-identify as asexual, which means they do not experience sexual attraction to anyone, opposite sex or same sex. In addition, many factors can impact your libido and your ability to find sex satisfying, such as hormonal birth control, emotional or physical trauma, or lack of compatibility with a partner. There is no normal and everyone will "peak" at a different time.