What Does a Woman’s ‘Sexual Prime’ Mean, Anyway?

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A series investigating the effects of gravity on the female form.

The problem with asking people when their sex lives were at their best is that, when it comes to sex, everyone is an optimist. Everyone believes the best sex is still to come. (Everyone who isn’t asexual or a priest, at least.) Naifs believe more is out there. Sluts know more is out there. Even hopeless souls who believe themselves doomed to lives of loneliness, or trapped in loveless marriages, or isolated in horrible lands of religious zealotry and prudishness, remain hopeful that some hot-ass hookups are on the horizon. And so, when I went searching for testimony about that fabled era in a woman’s life — the female sexual prime — I came away with stories about sexual awakenings and escalations, but none about decline. Like the afterlife and The Walking Dead, the female sexual prime has a beginning — but no end.

That’s probably because — like the afterlife and The Walking Dead — the female sexual prime is something we sort of made up.

The conventional wisdom goes something like this: Men, who discover sex by brute force of irrepressible boner-popping, peak sexually in their late teens. But women don’t peak until their 30s. It’s one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that masquerades as an antidote to convention (older women are sexual beings too!) but is in fact as facile as that which it purports to debunk. (See also: chocolate is actually good for you, and not all germs are bad.)

In addition to being bizarrely cruel to men— whose sex lives are apparently downhill from the beginning— this theory of the female libido derives from the sexual habits my grandparents’ generation. Specifically, the habits of Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s survey subjects in the 1940s and 50s. When Kinsey asked his subjects how frequently they experienced orgasm, he found that men in their late teens were getting off with greater frequency than their elders. But women in their early thirties had more orgasms than women in their teens. Kinsey didn’t sort out why the disparity existed— were younger women less sexual or just less forthcoming? If a woman was expected to save sex for marriage, was she expected to save orgasms for marriage, too? Did they all even know what orgasms were? And were the young men constantly popping off because they were hornier, or because their orgasms were, one presume, more likely to be the result of masturbation than partnered acts?

And then, once you get through that thicket of questions, an even more obvious one arises: Is quantity of orgasms a meaningful measure of, well, anything? Do tons of orgasms mean you’re really horny, really frustrated, or just bored? And what constitutes a “sexual peak,” anyway? As one 40-year-old woman said to me: “Maybe my prime will be when I stop having sex, but don’t care.” Meanwhile, a woman in her late fifties noted that anyone comparing early-life sex or late-life sex will inevitably be comparing the sexual cultures of different eras— she didn’t orgasm consistently when she was younger, but is that about her sex drive, or the difficulty of purchasing a vibrator in the 1980s?

When it comes to sheer horniness, though, Kinsey may have been on to something. In 2010, University of Texas psychologist Dr. Judith Easton asked 827 heterosexual women about the frequency and intensity of their sexual thoughts and fantasies, as well as their sexual habits, and found that the sexual imagination crested between the ages of 27 and 45. The same group reported being more willing to have sex with men they’d known for any length of time — including one-night stands — than any other group. (Maybe the early 20s aren’t actually that slutty.) Easton described this mind-set and behavior as “reproduction expediting” — as their fertility declined, the women sought and enacted procreative situations more often. That many of these women weren’t trying to procreate, her co-author Dr. David M. Buss explained to me, was beside the point: “Having some sort of conscious utilitarian goal is really not a part of any evolutionary argument, if there is an evolutionary argument for this. All you need is the sex.” And, for some portion of women (and our paleo ancestresses), children will follow.

But as Buss points out, inexplicable instinctual desire is but one small component of a modern sex life. Women seek and have sex for hundreds of reasons — which Buss knows because, in 2009’s Why Women Have Sex, he and co-author Dr. Cindy Meston outlined 237 distinct reasons for sex. (My favorite chapter, “The Thrill of Conquest,” contains an illuminating passage on revenge sex.) Of those many reasons, some are, of course, related to reproduction and various biological-clock-adjacent desires, fears, and strategies. (My least favorite chapter, “A Sense of Duty,” was the dreariest read of my life.) But he’s also quick to point out that upticks in sex don’t have to be about procreation — they could just as easily be about any number of desires, including the psychological joy of not wanting to procreate.

So said the writer Glynnis MacNicol when I asked her about her sex life as a single 42-year-old who decided, some time ago, that she will probably not have children. Arriving on the other side, she discovered the sex was even better — in part because, now, it only exists for pleasure. Or primarily, at least. Describing a recent romantic encounter on a moonlit night in Paris, she explains, “Five years ago, in my mind, I already would have already been five steps down: Is this somebody I can see myself with? Where is this going? All those thoughts that go through your head when you’re like, ‘This all feels really romantic. Does it mean something? Should I be planning?’” But now? “He was holding my hand and he went to kiss me, and in my head I’m like, ‘What is his name?’” And then she rejected him, because she just didn’t care.

If that’s not peak sexual prowess, then I don’t what is.

The purpose of sex is, after all, whatever the hell we want it to be. Or as Dr. Buss explained: “We have these pleasure mechanisms and sometimes we just like to activate them in various ways. They don’t necessarily have any function other than that.”

What Does a Woman’s ‘Sexual Prime’ Mean, Anyway?