In my public school sex ed class in the ‘90s, they told us that men reach their sexual peak at 18 and women at 35. I always assumed this was in the same category as other BS aphorisms like “boys only want one thing” or “who would buy the cow when he could get the milk for free” — an explanation for dudes’ voracious behavior and an exhortation to resist. Your boyfriend will get off at just about anything, and it’s not his fault, but you aren’t even physically capable of feeling the kind of pleasure you seek.
I was not prepared to hit 35 and find out that it’s totally true.
There are so many myths and urban legends around gender and sexuality that float around our culture. Evolutionary psychology, or evo psych as it’s often called, is a whole branch of study that seems to exist solely to provide these myths with spurious justifications from caveman days. Women like pink because it was their job to gather berries! Women like brawny men because who else is going to nut-punch a velociraptor! As a bisexual feminist who doesn’t intend to have children, I have basically spent every day of my adult life rolling my eyes at these claims, none of which ever seem to apply to me or my friends. Almost all of these myths serve patriarchal assumptions about gender and sexuality, oh-so-conveniently “proving” that men are “naturally” promiscuous while women are “naturally” monogamous homemakers who love babies and shopping.
You might imagine my surprise, then, when I realized that something I had always assumed was one of these just-so stories seemed to be coming true for me and many of my women friends. In short, we are all approaching 35, and we are all as horny as teens.
Twenty years after hearing the “women reach their sexual peak at 35” chestnut in high school, I am sheepishly confessing: I want to bang just about everyone. The least erotic images of half-clothed human bodies make my mind jump straight to sex; I work from home, and it’s pretty much like that Mitchell & Webb sketch all day. The thing no one mentions is that, like your poor sex-starved high school boyfriend, thirtysomething you might find herself in a relationship with someone whose libido has not just spiked high enough to escape earth’s orbit and fly into the sun. One friend and I joke about starting a sex-swapping app, where the exhausted partners of thirtysomething women can (consensually!) make arrangements with a younger party: “Hey, I love my [wife/girlfriend/whatever] but I really need to get some sleep this month, godspeed.” I personally think that we suddenly teenagery adults should have the sex equivalent of a pen pal, where you would be matched up with someone who also wants to have sex X number of times a day and likes to do Y. (You’d think this would sort of be OkCupid, but the ironic invisibility of over-30s women on dating sites is a subject for another time.)
The thing about this kind of hunger, though, is that at some level it’s not fulfillable. It feels like your body has been hijacked, or maybe that your mind has been hijacked by your body. The poet Anne Carson describes desire as an experience that shows you a fundamental flaw in your own self:
If we follow the trajectory of eros we consistently find it tracing out this same route: it moves out from the lover toward the beloved, then ricochets back to the lover himself and the hole in him, unnoticed before. Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole. (Eros the Bittersweet, p. 30)
In other words, experiencing intense, urgent desire leads to an inevitable question: What the fuck is wrong with me?
Desire can be a kind of humiliation. It makes you do things differently. You watch trashy TV shows because the characters are sexy and might take off some clothes (see: the entire CW lineup—Misha Collins, CALL ME). You flirt with exes on Facebook. You consider which people you know might be DTF. You wonder if your partner (if you have a partner) is having an affair, and that’s why he or she isn’t up for boning 24/7. You think about having an affair yourself, and maybe you do.
We don’t talk about female desire very honestly in our culture. For centuries, women’s sexual appetites have been designated either monstrous and terrifying (see: the Wife of Bath, vagina dentata) or essentially nonexistent (close your eyes and think of England). We’re starting to get to a place of more honesty, but in the U.S., at least, we have the constant drumbeat of rightwing political culture saying that women who want something as simple as birth control are uncontrollable harlots. The anti-choice movement basically exists on the premise that unmarried women who have sex should be punished for their sins. Meanwhile, married women who don’t privately like (or at least submit to) sex with their god-given husbands are frigid bitches whose men are forced—forced!—to seek out other, sluttier options.
As a merry sinner, I pity the pundits who think that the only women who would explicitly consent to sex are prostitutes. But I also don’t find a lot of models for what my friends and I are experiencing, because so many of our ideas about female sexuality come from this tainted well. We’re left to muddle it out on our own, which prompts the cognitive dissonance we all experienced as we rocketed into our overclocked thirties: this Mars and Venus bullshit is REAL?!
The boys in my sex ed class had plenty of (often problematic) models for what male sexuality might look like after they survived adolescence. The whole world is a giant mirror for straight cisgender men. For women, of just about any variety, we only have funhouse mirrors: madonna, whore, and (lately) cougar. Each of these tropes acts as a way to limit women’s sexual agency. The virgin/whore dichotomy has been around for centuries, but “cougars” are a recent phenomenon, often discussed with a distinct mix of revulsion and drooling lust. In the cougar, the 35-year-old at her sexual peak is at least visible, but through the patriarchal gaze, she’s no kind of role model. Check out the Urban Dictionary’s various definitions for a tour of male fear at the idea of sexually experienced women:
- “The cougar can be anyone from an overly surgically altered wind tunnel victim, to an absolute sad and bloated old horn-meister, to a real hottie or milf.”
- “gearing up to sink her claws into an innocent young and strapping buck who happens to cross her path”
- “End state, she will be going for the kill, just like you”
- “She will not attempt to trap her mate into marriage, children or even an exclusive relationship”
- “Cougars generally feed and then continue hunting, as they enjoy role reversal”
The trope of the cougar allows our patriarchal culture another way to pathologize female sexuality. A woman who seeks sex because she likes sex is caricatured as a predator who has somehow convinced herself she has the same sexual freedom as men (they’re just like you, men! run!). If you dare to be a visibly sexual woman over the age of 30, well, you’re a goddamn animal.
So, what’s wrong with us, the lecherous over-30 women who aren’t prepared to reduce ourselves to “cougars”? Short answer: nothing, we’re normal. Long answer: we don’t know.
It seems the origin point of the proverbial horny 35-year-old woman is in the famous Kinsey studies of sexual behavior from the 1950s. So much of Alfred Kinsey’s work (like that good old hetero-homo scale) has entered the larger cultural lexicon and taken on a life of its own, and this seems to be one of those studies from which an idea detached itself and became a meme.
Turns out that the idea of women’s later “sexual peak” is not based on measuring hormones or, David-Attenborough-like, observing women at their 15-year college reunions. Instead, Kinsey studied the frequency of orgasms reported by different age and gender groups in 1953, and found that the winners were 35-ish women and, you guessed it, 18-ish men. The research didn’t look into how these orgasms came about, i.e., whether they involved a fulfilling sex life or, say, an econo-sized tub of lotion.
In other words, the whole “sexual peak” idea is a vague concept drawn from 60-year-old research that could be explained in multiple ways. My anecdotal experience backs it up, and so does the experience of my friends, but we don’t know why. Naturally (GET IT? NATURE), there’s the evo psych version, in which “the lizard-brain impulse to have more kids faces a stark reality: it’s harder and harder to get pregnant as a woman’s remaining eggs age. And so women in their middle years respond by seeking more and more sex.” (Ah, the lizard brain, yes. What would we mammals do without it?) But some researchers contend that there is a difference between “genital prime,” the biological peak that comes in your ideal baby-makin’ days (i.e., before your 30s), and “sexual prime,” an experiential and social peak that can come whenever your life is most awesome. If you are a thirtysomething woman asking Dr. Google “what the fuck is wrong with me,” you will mostly find the very sensible advice that your understanding of your own body and preferences is helping you have better orgasms, which makes you seek more of them, which makes you feel friskier than you did before.
To sum up: In the 1950s, women in the 35-ish age group who talked to Alfred Kinsey reported more orgasms than other women did. We don’t know the reason, and we don’t know if that would still be true if the study were repeated, because we don’t really try that hard when it comes to understanding women’s sexuality—we save our effort for labeling, dismissing, or controlling it.
I don’t know why my body and brain decided to throw their own hormone parade this year, in celebration of my 35th birthday. It takes a lot of effort to keep myself from mauling my partner when he returns from a business trip. I find myself flirting all the time. I saw an ex I hadn’t seen in years and put on new lipstick for the occasion. I send one of my similarly afflicted female friends a steady stream of GIFs of Chris Hemsworth nearly falling out of his low-slung jeans in Thor. I still don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me.
What I do know is that every time I hesitantly bring up this feeling of strange sexual limbo to a woman my age, I get wide-eyed gasps and giggles of recognition. We bond over our ridiculous lusts and our schoolgirl crushes. We horrify ourselves by being walking cliches, and whisper confessions about how we’re taking care of this weird, bottomless hunger from nowhere. We wonder, for a minute, how we might be experiencing this crest if we lived in a society where female desire was encouraged and understood. Then we google “Idris Elba suit” again.
Laura Passin is a poet and feminist at large. For more stories like this one, follow The Archipelago.