Breaking: Middle-aged women like sex

A new study sets out to prove something we already knew, but is there more to the story than what science explains?

Published July 8, 2010 10:01PM (EDT)

Today in "hey, didn't we already know that?" is a recent study out of the University of Texas showing that women hit a sexual peak in middle age. But the reason might surprise you. According to the researchers, what's ramping up the libidos of women in their 30s and 40s is their declining fertility. Women of a certain age, says study author David Buss, have a psychological urge to "facilitate conception before the window of opportunity closes."

Buss and his team of psychologists surveyed over 800 women and found that women ages 27 to 45 were more likely than either their highly fertile younger sisters (ages 18 to 26) or the menopausal set (over 46) to "have frequent sexual fantasies," "think about sexual activity," or display "a willingness to have casual sex." And from an evolutionary biology standpoint, the researchers argue, that makes sense -- in order to propagate the species, women with declining fertility recognize, consciously or otherwise, that if they want to have children, well, they'd better snap to it. In other words, when your biological clock says jump, you better, uh, run off and have lots of sex.

This data is interesting because it provides a scientific backbone for an idea that's been floating around in our cultural ether ever since the Kinsey Reports: that women peak sexually far later in life than men. But I'm still not convinced that's the kind of idea that can be scientifically proven, considering the massive web of social forces it's tangled up in. I mean, isn't it possible that women go that far into life before hitting sexual fulfillment not for reasons of fertility but as a result of the giant Cone of Silence we put around female sexuality, especially in adolescence? (When was the last time you heard someone refer to female masturbation as "just girls being girls"? Or frankly, heard it openly referred to at all?) What about the persistent and gendered double standards we have about casual sex?

With all the weird cultural baggage we carry in the arenas of women and desire, it's hard to pin the late-blooming tendencies to any one factor. I'd say that the UT researchers are definitely right to say that female sexuality is tangled up in psychology, but I suspect it's more complicated than they let on. Incidentally, it's hard to find a piece of writing on this study without practically tripping over a photo of Eva Longoria or a cutesy headline touting "the science of cougars revealed" on your way in. That suggests to me that we're still a long way from approaching female desire as a topic worthy of a serious discussion. And as long as that's the case, we'll likely keep absorbing the facts of studies like this one without ever considering the huge cultural hows and whys behind them.

By Ryan Brown

Ryan Brown is a writer living in Boston.

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