It is a common belief that women reach their sexual 'peak' in their 30s and men in their 20s. However, contemporary research does not support this theory. Instead, research states that women's sexual desire is influenced by many different biological, psychological, and social factors, with age not being the determining factor, and these factors change over the course of a woman's life.
Women do not have a sexual peak in life. A number of biopsychosocial factors influence a woman's sexual desire, including menstrual cycle, stress, and relationship status.
The belief that certain sexes or genders reach a sexual peak is a myth that dates back to research conducted by sexologist Alfred Kinsey and colleagues in 1953, which has since been debunked.
Most women will experience multiple changes to their sexual desire over their lifetime. This is a natural occurrence influenced by the physical, mental and emotional changes experienced over a lifetime.
The belief that both women and men reach a sexual peak in their lifetimes may have stemmed from Sexologist Alfred Kinsey and colleagues, who in 1953 published the book Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Research within this book found that women in their 30s had the greatest number of orgasms compared to any other age group. However, using the total number of orgasms as an indicator of a sexual peak fails to account for a person's sexual desire, which has been found to be independent of sexual activity.
Today, researchers believe that certain age-related factors lead to a decline in a woman's sexual desire. However, there are many other factors that influence women's sexual desire, which changes throughout their lifespan, irrespective of age.
Biological factors that affect sexual desire
The sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone all play a role in reproduction and sexual development for women. These hormones fluctuate during women's lives and can affect their sexual desire.
The menstrual cycle comprises four distinct phases: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. Each of these phases is controlled by the rise and fall of sex hormones and influences a woman's sexual desire differently. For example, during menstruation, many women experience pain and loss of sleep, which could decrease their sexual desire. During the ovulation phase, there is a surge of testosterone, which has been found to regulate sexual desire within women, which increases the sexual desire for many women during this time.
Many women report an increase in sexual desire during the early stages of pregnancy due to the rise of estrogen and progesterone, which causes an increase in vaginal lubrication and blood flow to the vagina. However, studies have found that sexual desire decreases as the pregnancy progresses.
Menopause is marked by a reduction of estrogen, which leads to a reduction in vaginal lubrication and the thinning of the vaginal wall, which can make sex painful, leading to decreased sexual desire. Additionally, researchers have found that night sweats and sleep disturbances caused by menopause are associated with decreased sexual desire for women.
Psychological factors that affect sexual desire
The brain plays a significant role in healthy sexual function, and any psychological disturbance is likely to impact sexual desire.
Chronic stress increases the hormone cortisol, which can decrease sexual desire in women and interrupt the menstrual cycle. Today, women are leading increasingly stressful lives as they are expected to manage a career, a household, and children, which can significantly diminish the time available for self-care.
Similar to stress, anxiety causes high levels of cortisol in the body, which can impact a woman's sexual desire. Additionally, anxiety related to sex can lower the body's reaction to sexual stimulation, prevent lubrication, or even cause painful sex, all of which can lead to a lower sexual desire.
Depression is one of the leading causes of diminished sexual desire in women. Depression in women has been found to lessen the desire for pleasure, as well as emotional and physical intimacy. Medications used to treat depression, most notably selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, significantly decrease sexual desire. While these medications work at reducing the symptoms of depression, they have been known to decrease vaginal lubrication, delay orgasm, and reduce sexual desire.
Social factors that affect sexual desire
Relationships with others and the self all play a prominent role in women's sexual desire, which can change daily.
Both relationship duration and satisfaction have been found to influence sexual desire for partnered women. A 2018 study found that women in long-term relationships who had a good relationship with their partners had higher levels of sexual desire. Similarly, women in relationships with attentive, understanding, and intimate partners, no matter their gender, were found to have higher sexual desire than women with inattentive partners.
Children's physical and emotional needs decrease the chances that women have to act on their sexual desire or significantly diminish them, particularly with young children. Many women with small children report a decrease in sexual desire and arousal due to the demanding needs of raising young children. Pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding have significant impacts on women, both physically and emotionally, all of which can alter sexual desire.
Body image is another important social factor associated with sexual desire. Women who viewed themselves and their bodies positively were found to have higher sexual desire, sexual arousal, sexual satisfaction, and a higher chance of orgasm than women who viewed their bodies negatively.
There is no specific point in a woman's life at which they peak sexually. Although it is a common belief that women reach their sexual peak in their 30s, this has been found untrue for most women. Several biopsychosocial factors impact women's sexual desire, irrespective of age. Most women experience multiple changes to their sexual desire over their lifespan due to these factors, and this is completely normal.
- SpringerLink. Psychological Factors Involved in Sexual Desire, Sexual Activity, and Sexual Satisfaction: A Multi-factorial Perspective.
- NIH. Female social and sexual interest across the menstrual cycle: the roles of pain, sleep and hormones.
- NIH. Increasing women’s sexual desire: The comparative effectiveness of estrogens and androgens.
- Obstetrics and Gynecology. Sexuality and sexual activity in pregnancy.
- NIH. Night sweats, sleep disturbance, and depression associated with diminished libido in late menopausal transition and early postmenopause: baseline data from the Herbal Alternatives for Menopause Trial (HALT).
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- SpringerLink. Exploring the Link Between Daily Relationship Quality, Sexual Desire, and Sexual Activity in Couples.
- Frontiers. Associations of Intimacy, Partner Responsiveness, and Attachment-Related Emotional Needs With Sexual Desire.
- NIH. The Relationship Between Body Image and Sexual Function in Middle-Aged Women.