Whirling around our collective imaginations is the idea that men reach their sexual peak around 18 and women around 35. The man on the brink of adolescence and adulthood, we’re told, will have sex with anything that moves. Meanwhile, the woman on the brink of losing her looks, so it goes, is prone to buying skin-tight jeans and prowling bars filled with much younger men.
Nature, it is often argued, is the driving force behind these sexual peaks (though their very existence is debatable). Here I’d like to offer five alternative cultural reasons why we might think that men are at the top of their game at 18 and women at 35.
1. We're obsessed with penises.
When we say that men hit their sexual peak in early adolescence, we are assuming some measures of “peak” that deserve to be made explicit. Kinsey used the number of orgasms per week as a proxy for the strength of sexual desire. The rigidity and performance of an erection may be another commonly assumed measure.
These, though, are based on value judgments about what good sex looks like. As Bernie Zilbergeld writes, male sexuality is expected to include a perfectly hard erection that functions automatically and predictably:
No matter if you’re sick or well, tired or fresh, preoocupied or fully present, if you like your partner or not, if you’re angry or not, if you’re anxious or relaxed, or if you’ve gotten any stimulation or not—your penis should immediately come to full attention and do its manly thing.
But penile performance isn’t all there is to sex. Here are some things we’re probably not considering when we estimate men’s sexual peak: comfort with being intimate with another person’s body, skill at giving another person an orgasm, the ability to bring on or delay one’s own orgasms as wanted, and an encompassing appreciation for sensuality as well as sexual acts.
In other words, when we say that men reach their sexual peak at 18, it’s worth asking: “peak for who!?” A man with a few more decades may be a much better sexual partner than one on the brink of adolescence and adulthood.
2. Our penis obsession might make men lose sight of the benefits that come with age.
Unfortunately, as men age, the conflation of good sex with a super-penis may inhibit their ability to enjoy their maturing sexualities. Most men, at some point in their lives, will have difficulty getting erections at least sometimes. So imperfect penile performance is part of sex and should be embraced as such. In fact, I propose that it is part of the beauty of human sexuality: Penises are temperamental, unpredictable, vulnerable, sensitive and prone to tantrums. This is kind of sweet, when you think about it. Sometimes they need to be tickled and coddled, convinced or inspired to come out and play. This is OK.
But because we define a robust male sexuality in terms of penile performance, when they don’t perform perfectly, men often feel embarrassed, even humiliated. Since this happens more as men get older, they may be less comfortable with their sexuality out of fear that their bodies will betray them. They report having “conversations with their penises.” Michael S. Kimmel and Jeffrey Fracher write:
[They] cajole, plead with, or demand that they become and remain erect. The penis can become the man’s enemy, ready to engage in the most shameful conspiracy possible: performance failure.
Some men, then, avoid sexual situations out of fear of “failure.” Other men enjoy the sex they do have less than they otherwise would, because they’re worried about what their bodies will do. Sadly, they may be so busy being wistful for their younger selves that they miss all the wonderful things that come with age and maturity, yearning for a supposed “sexual peak” that happened long ago.
3. Sex ed teaches that sex is pleasurable for boys, but dangerous for girls.
If men tend to become increasingly uncomfortable with their bodies, women often learn to be deeply uncomfortable from the get-go. For them, embracing their own sexuality is not a challenge that comes with age, it’s one they encounter as early as childhood.
In most schools, if we learn anything about sex at all, we’re likely taught a story about men’s and women’s sexualities that leaves us with the impression that men and women experience their sexualities in different ways. In short, boys’ sexuality is overtly linked with desire and pleasure, whereas women’s is connected with danger.
This is partly because Americans have decided to couch sex education in a discussion about reproduction. When we teach children about reproduction, male ejaculation (and so, necessarily, male orgasm) is a central part of the lesson. If they’re in a comprehensive sex education program, boys may even receive lessons about the normalcy of accidental erections and wet dreams. Boys’ sexual desires, then, are part of the conversation. So, for boys, the idea that sex is natural and pleasurable is part of the lesson.
Not so for girls. Girls are unlikely to learn anything about their own sexualities in sex education. Again, this is partly because we use reproduction instead of pleasure as the excuse for talking about sex; they learn about the other “o”: ovulation. There’s almost never any discussion of girls’ sexual desires or pleasure. Often, however, there’s plenty of talk about how sex can get girls “into trouble”: pregnancy, emotional harm, sexually transmitted infections, ruined reputations and sexual assault. So, essentially, girls learn the same lesson that boys learn – sex is natural and pleasurable for boys – so watch out. It may take decades for them to understand that sex is natural and pleasurable for them too.
It’s no wonder, then, that young women tend to focus on the risks of acting on their sexual feelings more so than young men. When they do, they often have a difficult time enjoying the sex they have.
4. Women are encouraged to be sexy, but not necessarily sexual.
In a telling statement, Paris Hilton once told Rolling Stone magazine: my boyfriends always tell me I’m not sexual. Sexy, but not sexual.” Hilton was touching on a subtle but pervasive fact: When it comes to sex, many women feel like their role is, first and foremost, to deliver a sexy body.
A sexy body, though, is not a sexual body. A sexy body is sexy like a sports car is sexy. There’s no doubt that a Ferrari is sexy in some sort of inanimate way, but it’s not sexual. A Ferrari can’t have urges, respond sexually or feel anything. Insofar as we lump sexy women in with sexy things, what’s important isn’t how she feels, what she thinks, who she is, or even what she can do … it’s how she looks. When a woman internalizes this message, we see something we call self-sexual objectification.
Women who self-objectify often habitually monitor their bodies, even during sex. She might try to stay in sexual positions that she thinks are flattering, arrange her body and limbs to make herself look thinner or curvier, or try not to make any embarrassing noises or faces. She may even try to avoid orgasm because climaxing means losing control of these things. So, some women have “out of body sexual experiences,” constantly thinking about how it looks to the other person instead of focusing on how it feels.
And, sure enough, irrespective of actual attractiveness, the degree to which women self-objectify correlates with many measures of sexual dissatisfaction and dysfunction. That is, the more a woman worries about how she looks, the less likely she’ll experience sexual desire, pleasure and orgasm. It may take years for women to reprogram themselves to focus on how sex feels; to embrace being sexual, not just sexy.
5. Women's orgasms aren't treated as a priority.
If women are busy being sexy-but-not-sexual and men are busy talking to their penises, then it should be no surprise that male orgasm takes center stage in any given sexual encounter. It’s not that the script precludes female orgasm, it’s just that it’s peripheral; it's not part of the main event. Her orgasm is like the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae; it’s a nice decorative addition, but it’s not an essential part of the dessert. Take off the cherry … everyone knows it’s still an ice cream sundae.
New research on college students shows that this is especially true in casual sexual encounters. Both men and women in first-time heterosexual hookups are concentrated on giving the man an orgasm; in other words, both deprioritize her pleasure. Women become more comfortable in asking their partners for orgasm, however, as their relationships become more serious. And men are more interested in their female partners’ pleasure once they’ve decided they actually like her. Still, women are often loath to talk about what gives them orgasms, leaving their partners to learn by Google, trial and error.
If we judge by the number of orgasms, then, women may seem to be reaching a peak much later than men. If we devalue her orgasm in heterosexual encounters and if women are reluctant to talk about what they like once men start paying attention, it may be a while before she catches up.
Rethinking sexual peaks
Discussions of the infamous sexual peak often assume that, insofar as it exists, it reflects a biological imperative. In fact, there are lots of non-biological reasons why men may become increasingly uncomfortable with their sexuality as they age and women may start off so.
Instead of thinking about sexual peaks at all, perhaps we should use a different metaphor: sexual evolution. We are all forced to fight for our own sexualities, contending with cultural, interpersonal, psychological and physiological factors that conspire to limit our imagination. Instead of anticipating or mourning a golden time, the goal could be embracing our sexual experiences as they change throughout the life cycle, sometimes trading one good for another, but always with the aim of maximizing the good.