Is my biological clock attached to a sex bomb?
January 22, 2008 9:37 AM   Subscribe

One often hears about the mid-thirties "sexual peak" for women. I have some questions about that.

What is this change really like, from your experiences?

How much of this theory assumes a repressive attitude toward female sexual gratification or a delayed onset of it, and how much is actually a dependable increase or decrease in libido-related hormones? Which hormones are verifiably tied to female sex drive?

My libido is, in a word, unruly. Apart from the obvious upside, it's rather like PMS, f that helps clarify my difficulty: inconstant, hard to control, disorienting, distracting, inappropriate, irrational. I went off the pill and it skyrocketed. I am concerned about its likelihood to ride me off the rails over the next ten years. I don't relish the thought of becoming even more like an 18 year old boy, when I'm a sensible and satisfied 26 year old woman. Should I really expect my libido to increase in force, or does this theory merely intend to say that women get better at getting off, like, by learned behaviors, as they mature?

If you have experienced an excess of libido, advice thereto is also appreciated.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

Welcome to what being an 18 year old boy is like.

But I digress. Female libido is very much like PMS in that it peaks when you are most fertile in your cycle.

Other than that, I think you're probably right, it's complicated.

(It's concerning that you say "inappropriate", as you may have other issues that are manifesting as libido. Like a touch of bipolar?)
posted by gjc at 10:09 AM on January 22, 2008

I've found a steady increase over the years (I'm now 42). I tend to think (for me anyway) it's as much "developmental" (getting happy, safe and secure in one's skin) as it is chemical.

Also, I have a teenage boy and a teenage girl, and they are both pretty much the stereotypical "teenage boy," so I'm a little skeptical of the theory anyway.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:15 AM on January 22, 2008

GJC, with all due respect and appreciation for your desire to immediately respond to every question you possibly can, if you're male you really can't speak to what the female sexual experience is like, and your response doesn't really contain an answer to the question. And FYI people don't get a "touch of bipolar" the way you can catch a touch of the flu.

Ambrosia. I think your latter theory is more correct, and Claudia's. My experience has been that a growth in sexual confidence and satisfaction makes me a whole person sexually, if that makes any sense, whereas in my 20s and teens, though eager, I was more learning and fumbling and overly concerned about my partner's experience. I have a high sex drive (I'm 32) but I always have. It feels different for me now, though. It's more integral to me. Does that make sense? (Unhappily I've never been less laid than I am now.)

What would bother you about an excess of libido, or what do you see being an excess? Are you concerned that a higher sex drive would cause you to do crazy things?
posted by loiseau at 10:25 AM on January 22, 2008

I don't relish the thought of becoming even more like an 18 year old boy, when I'm a sensible and satisfied 26 year old woman.

I'm a guy, but it may be useful to consider that your standards for satisfaction may change in the next 10 years. Also, the changes you're wondering about may be just as uncontrollable as your mid-twenties desire to figure out exactly where your life is going and what you need to prepare for.
posted by rhizome at 10:46 AM on January 22, 2008

it's probably more due to going off the pill than any natural life-cycle event. what you describe actually sounds like hypomania more than anything else. see if it regulates within a few months. if not, see your gynecologist. it very well could just be your hormones sorting themselves out again.

feeling sexy is great, but becoming suddenly and distractingly horny may be the sign of something else. but, if everything else checks out, well, then enjoy it!
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:55 AM on January 22, 2008

women get better at getting off, like, by learned behaviors, as they mature
I think it's mostly that. I've just gotten way more in tune with myself and my desires and how to fulfill them as I've gotten older (I'm 40). For me, it's just mostly been about being comfortable with myself and having had the life experience to know what I want. My libido definitely has a cyclical nature that seemed to be tied to my menstrual cycle so that part does wax and wane but my overall interest is clearly tied to my ability,as I've gotten older, to know what to do with that interest.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:56 AM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a 35 year old female. If my libido is greater than it was at 18, I would mostly attribute it to not being a stupid insecure teenager who thought I could never ever let a boy see me naked because I was skinny and had small boobs, knowing what I like sexually and being confident enough to ask for it, and being in a happy marriage where we've been together long enough that we're good at pleasing each other. I've been on and off birth control pills and not noticed any significant change in libido, though my antidepressants sometimes affect it.

As for the biological clock, when I was in my 20s, I sometimes felt the baby urge so strong that I thought there was nothing I wanted more. I haven't felt that urge in many years. I'm now childless by choice and I can hold my newborn nephew without the slightest twinge of envy. If he'd been born during one of those 'baby urge' swings, I would have been in tears knowing that my sister was experiencing motherhood and I was missing out. Looking back, I don't think my libido went up or down during those phases of my life.

So, just one woman's experience, FWIW.
posted by happyturtle at 11:03 AM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had a boyfriend once who told me "testosterone isn't really a bad hormone, its just awfully tough to steer" which sounds a lot like what you're dealing with. Yes, the pill can drop your libido. Lack of the pill can make it go all over the place. As someone in her late thirties I was a little excited in my early 30s waiting for this incredible sex surge to wash over me, but that's not really what happened. Instead I just felt a combination of things

- I felt more deputized to take control of my own sexuality and desires no matter what other people thought was "a good idea" [whether sleeping around or just ignoring people completely, both have been good ideas at various points in my life] and I no longer tolerated uninformed nonsense talk from partners about whatever was "wrong with me" if I didn't click with them sexually
- I felt like I hit a plateau of "good at it" where I felt confident enough that I knew what I liked and competent enough that I could find out what a partner liked without being all nervous/anxious about it any more than is sort of expected
- I reached a comfort level of knowing my own body and being able to talk about sex with other people -- both potential partners and non -- in a way that sort of not only demystified my own experience but helped me understand the experiences of others. I never would have been able to do that in my twenties, but YMMV, natch.

My libidio stayed about the same which is to say low-normal, but I cared less about what normal was in most cases. As someone not really gungho on babymaking and with so many of my friends going down that path, talking about sex in my thirties with other women about my own age became radically less fun. Depending on where you fall along that continuum, that may affect how you feel about what is going on with your body.
posted by jessamyn at 11:08 AM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I experienced a dramatic 3-month surge in libido when my ovaries were sputtering their way into menopause. It was like all the libido of a couple of years concentrated into 3 very distracting months. So I would suspect your hormones are bouncing around a bit, trying to find their feet again after the birth control pills.

As for which hormones influence the female sex drive, it's undoubtedly complicated. I had my ovaries removed for medical reasons, which took a bite out of my libido. Low doses of testosterone helped perk me back up, but I have read that a touch of estrogen is helpful, too.
posted by PatoPata at 11:18 AM on January 22, 2008

I'm 49.

It's true. Thankfully I am in a happy and committed marriage relationship.

Oh,and when I was on a particular med, it increased my libido to an uncomfortable level. If that is what it is like to be an eighteen year old boy, I am very thankful to NOT be one.
posted by konolia at 11:23 AM on January 22, 2008

Male here, but small data-point: the notion that women peak sexually in their 30's originates in the work of Alfred Kinsey, specifically his Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, [cite] in which he claims to have found that masturbation increases as a woman reaches the age of 30. There are many, many issues with Kinsey research, and I wouldn't trust most of the claims he makes, so I'd say it's easy to take issue with it. Even in that citation I link, they're much more vague.

My personal take: it varies. Same with men. It's silly to me to try to map out how sexual activity always or even normally rises and falls; this is a very subjective thing dependant on so many factors that I don't really think it makes sense to say, "women peak at 30."

I say this, by the way, as a male who generally takes offense to the allegation that men peak at 18. Who knows this? I'm 28, by the way, and some people might try to claim that men do peak at 18, but I can only say that they haven't tried to claim that after talking to my wife.
posted by koeselitz at 11:28 AM on January 22, 2008

Response by poster: What would bother you about an excess of libido, or what do you see being an excess?

Embarrassing/Embarassment of riches details: It's distracting and a little guilt-inducing to revert to the boy-crazy, roving-eye, every dude in sight, constantly fantasizing about hands and necks and eyes and crap, sexually frustrated mindset of my 16 year old pre-orgasmic self, when in reality I have a sexy, adoring partner of 6 years, an adventurous, accomplished (is that a good euphemism?), hot sex life that has me firing on all cylinders 4-10 times per week. (Could that standard of satisfaction really get any higher, rhizome?) It also makes me more aggressive about sex in a rather petulant and selfish way which leaves me feeling ashamed of my lack of control.

I went off the pill about six months ago, thinkingwoman, so I do worry that this is just "back to normal," for the first time in several years, and recall how I felt all those years ago. Anyway, hypomania has always sounded a little like me.

I really appreciate the answers so far, which are super helpful and grounding.

jessamyn, if you could elaborate on what the role of motherhood in this is, I would, as a fellow committed non-breeder, be appreciative.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:46 AM on January 22, 2008

I went off the pill when I was 27, and the first six months were definitely sex-crazed. But not crazier than when I was 21-23 and in a long distance relationship, masturbating 3 times a day. My libido is relatively quiet nowadays except for ovulation, but at least that's only 3 days a month of wanting to attack every cute guy I see. So I have a lot of sympathy for the poster, but I think it'll improve.
posted by herbaliser at 11:55 AM on January 22, 2008

I was just talking about this with my partner (now in her 30s). Her experience has been different than the questioner's -- not "unruly" or "inconstant," but rather becoming more focused over time. More focused, meaning that she knows exactly what she wants and how to get that, and also more intense. Not a diffuse, general "I'm feeling sexual," but a much more directed "give me X but not Y" sexuality. It changes around a bit throughout her cycle, but not by all that much -- but that has really depended on what brand of pill she is using; some have caused much more extreme swings than others.

And neither her nor the questioner's experience sounds at all like how I remember being 18. At that age, I was pretty much 170 pounds of pure unguided testosterone, interested in SEX SEX SEX and basically nothing else. Show the then-me a historic building, and my thoughts were "hmmm, I wonder if you could have sex in that upstairs balcony? And isn't that person over there kind of cute? Wow, that chimney is really phallic! Aw man, I have a stiffy again -- I hope no one can see it..."

It really, really sucked to be a passenger to that rush of hormones, and I don't miss it at all. What any girl saw in me at that age, I can't imagine, because all I thought about was sex... but I was also totally inept at it: clumsy, prone to misfires, uncertain, and worse. My observation has been that whatever hormonal and personal changes people in their 30s go through doesn't hold a candle to the intensity and out-of-control nature of those changes in late adolescence; I doubt you'll re-experience that kind of rollercoaster ride.
posted by Forktine at 11:59 AM on January 22, 2008

I felt a surge in my libido around 32... it's curbed a little since I turned 35, but I also went through a phase where I had no sex drive AT ALL from about 28-30. So YMMV.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:59 AM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just seconding that this notion of a sexual peak doesn't come from the field of reproductive biology and quite probably has no basis in physiology (I've certainly never read anything about it and have studied post-grad level repro phys) and is, at best, a construct of where you are in life, assuming it even exists. I'm not convinced. Certainly your peak fertility is passed before thirty and every year past that gets harder to get pregnant, so the idea of 35 being peak breeding time doesn't necessarily make sense from a reproductive point of view either.

You seem to think your libido is going to do something specific as you pass thirty and you'll have no control. My experience and my reading says that more likely that whatever else is going on in your life will have more of an effect (child rearing, job stress, self esteem, whatever). For example, often new mothers talk of lowered libido due to sleep deprivation and lack of time for their partner. It's not that long ago that women were more likely to be starting their families during their twenties, meaning the children have grown up some and the mothers are horny again by their thirties - so this is when they 'peak'. Alternately those who haven't had children by their thirties often find it becoming a pressing priority with the increased sex drive or interest in finding a sexual partner that comes with that. The stuff about feeling more relaxed with yourself and content with your life as you get into your thirties seems to be true too, is for me and most people I know my age (32). So there are a lot of factors going on which have nothing to do with hormones.

And just as another data point, my libido is a lot lower at 32 than it was at 22 (like from raging high to sex-once-a-month). I'm just so much more tired and busy by now, we don't have time and I don't really care. Also I've been with my boyfriend since I was 19, priorities have changed. I'm certainly not at my sexual peak or whatever, but I'm very happy with where my life and relationship is at (more so than ever before) and wouldn't swap for anything. Does this mean anything in the greater scheme of things or relate at all to what will happen to you? Not really.
posted by shelleycat at 12:16 PM on January 22, 2008

This is very interesting; I never knew the origin of the late-30s-libido-surge meme, or thought to question it. I did have one, most definitely, but on the other hand, as I look back over my life I now see it in the context of an erratic ebb and flow of sexual interest and desire throughout life. There were times I was very preoccupied with sex and fantasy-ridden, and times when I was dealing with other things (career, family, illness, projects) and there didn't seem to be room to set up and maintain the feedback loop that high sexual interest entails.

The experiences described here resonate with me - as many have noted, the kind of comfort, confidence, and disimissal of BS that have increased during my 30s have made me more comfortable, confident, and satisfied about sex. But desire comes and goes, sometimes strong, sometimes not all that noticeable. As for you, I wouldn't live in fear or expectation of a time when you will be bowled over by lustfulness. There will probably be times when you are, and times when your head is elsewhere. The idea that the 'surge' is a myth or contrivance makes a lot of personal sense to me, when I realize that all my life, I've been moving from one end to the other of a spectrum that ranged from 'near-obsessed' to 'almost completely uninterested.' I don't think anything I've experienced in my 30s fell anywhere outside that lifetime continuum.
posted by Miko at 1:07 PM on January 22, 2008

I definitely noticed an incease at about 33 ... and I was in between relationships. Many days I had to stop myself from driving past the local college with my windows rolled down and going "Hey little boy. Want some candy?"
I always thought the surge was attributed to natural hormonal changes, kind of like the last surge before the hormonal declines of menopause begin. I do think there's some actual science behind this and not just some fantastical theory.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 2:32 PM on January 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

Here's one woman's experience: I'm 36, and every year since I turned 30, my libido has been steadily increasing. Frankly, it was the specific desire for sex (not companionship) that drove me to online dating when I was 30.

And I had a libido of 7 (on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is where I am now) all the way up until 30. What I was always far more interested in relationship-wise was love and companionship.

Luckily for me I am happily married, because I know it would be tough to be single and experiencing all this.

My highly unscientific theory on this is that women who haven't had children by age 30 (and I have none) have an upsurge in testosterone that is physiologically-mediated in direct response to the lack of reproduction. It is the female body's way of saying, "Enough is enough. It's time to get laid and pump out a baby. He'll do." Therefore if a woman has had children, then that libido surge after age 30 doesn't surface. Her body knows she's done her reproductive duty, so it isn't compelling her to get it on already.

I polled women at work in their thirties and we perfectly fell into the two categories above, based on whether or not they had borne children. (Like I said, thoroughly unscientific, because there weren't any women around who had adopted children).

It certainly makes sense to me, but I agree that there are many more factors at play here: women's comfort levels with their bodies, maturity, quality of relationship with partner, self-esteem, stress, sleep-deprivation, exercise, diet, blah blah.

Also, I experience a predictable monthly surge in my libido, which perfectly syncs with the time in my menstrual cycle when I'd be most fertile, as you probably do, too.

I also took the pill and it evened out the peaks & valleys of a menstrual cycle, especially in regard to my emotionality, so I also think that's what you're experiencing. (Remember, when you're on the pill, your body thinks it's pregnant, so it's not even similar to what you experience au naturel).

So, I wish you luck in finding suitable partners/toys to get you through the night. See you at Good Vibes/Babes in Toyland.

[And I know from hypomania, and what you describe is simply one symptom of hypomania, ie the hypersexuality, but none of the other attendant salinet features (racing thoughts, sleep-deprivation, pressured speech, overspending, etc) so I hope you ignore any of the comments about that.]
posted by Pocahontas at 4:24 PM on January 22, 2008

Pocahontas: Frankly, it was the specific desire for sex (not companionship) that drove me to online dating when I was 30.

HA. Me too, sort of -- I was prowling Craigslist "casual encounters" for a year right after I turned 30. (I couldn't be arsed to write a pseudo-witty bobo profile so I cut right to the chase with CL.) For the record, yes, there are normal people there, and with 500-600 responses to an ad the numbers definitely work in a woman's favour.

I deeply envy all of you who've had partners through this period of your life. I'm coming up on 33 and it's been 9 or 10 months now and I'm starting to think I may have to resort to desperate measures again.
posted by loiseau at 8:05 PM on January 22, 2008

I forgot the best part! Multiple orgasms.

I had a different kind of multiple orgasm in my twenties; they were waves of orgasms, stacked on top of each other, all at once & lasting maybe six seconds in total. Unfortunately, because there were so many, I couldn't actually enjoy any one in its entirety, because then the next one was right on its heels.

But now, nowadays I easily orgasm one after another, fully enjoying each one, then ready for more moments later.
posted by Pocahontas at 9:57 PM on January 22, 2008

I deeply envy all of you who've had partners through this period of your life. I'm coming up on 33 and it's been 9 or 10 months now and I'm starting to think I may have to resort to desperate measures again.

I was once in the OP's situation with a partner who was simultaneously experiencing a downswing, and it was not fun!

I think some surges can be specifically to do with being single in your 30s. If you're independent and confident, and you're doing your thang, there's potential opportunity around every corner. This level of the unknown gives me real frisson!
posted by freya_lamb at 2:11 AM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

loiseau, thanks for the compliment! But I have to disabuse you of the notion that you know what you are talking about. You don't know who I am, what my gender is or what my experience/education is. So please just concentrate on being helpful, as I tried to do, and keep your schoolmarmish scolding to yourself.
posted by gjc at 7:08 AM on January 23, 2008

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