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The Sexual Peak: Myth or Biological Imperative?

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I woke up on my thirty-second birthday and took stock of myself, as I usually do on my birthday. There I was, all limbs in their proper places, fingers and toes counted, neuroses and foibles categorized, goals for the coming year duly noted. Then I moved on to the newest item on the list—it was a fabled detail, but nonetheless highly anticipated: sexual peak? Check? Hello? Is this thing on?

I was lying next to my boyfriend, watching him sleep, waiting for the animalistic urge to mate to overtake me. But my desires in that moment trended more toward coffee and bacon. I didn’t think much of it; I had been thirty-two for only a couple of minutes, technically speaking—maybe it was just taking a little longer for that sexual peak to, you know, peak.

As the day wore on and birthday festivities spooled out in front of me, I awaited the arrival of my inner nymphomaniac, the insatiable, multiorgasmic force of nature that would be taking over my body any moment. I kept my boyfriend close, not wanting to waste a moment of this inevitable libidinal explosion. But it never arrived—at least, not in its expected form.

The “Facts”
When discussing the idea of sexual peaks, people point to all kinds of biological evidence. One is that the levels of sexual hormones are highest for men when they are between seventeen and twenty-two, and highest for women around ages thirty-one to thirty-six. The thing of it is that the level of sexual hormones “has absolutely no correlation to the enjoyment, the activity, the frequency of sex,” according to Dr. Lee P. Shulman, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. In other words, the physiological chemistry happening plays a very small part in one’s overall sex drive.

Another fact is that, inarguably, a seventeen- to twenty-two-year-old man’s erections are, by virtue of youth, going to be harder, straighter, and more frequent. There’s nothing surprising in that. Anything that stands still long enough isn’t safe around a man in the bloom of his sexuality. However, that hardly means that that four-year span will be the most sexually prolific and knowledgeable of a young man’s life. And if it is, let’s have a moment of silence for those poor lads.

The point is, when we discuss “sexual peaks,” there seems to be no distinction between the biological imperative to perpetuate our species and simple, unadulterated lust. So this gets us into the sticky issue of not only trying to make that distinction, but also attempting to identify where biology and culture intersect. What is more important: ejaculation or ovulation? These things need to go hand in hand (or sperm in ova, rather) in order to perpetuate the species successfully. But how do those mechanics figure into the idea of sexual peaks as they are discussed in our society? That seems to be the question that no one has an answer for—or, rather, everyone has a different answer, thereby rendering the idea of sexual primacy a reflection of our collective sexual values and mores and stereotypes, rather than a biological fact. Therefore, it all arguably comes down to this: when in your life are you going to have the most fun having sex?

Gender Roles
There is so much more to the equation of sexual enjoyment and the way this enjoyment is divided between the genders. Some speculate that woman’s enthusiasm for sex in her thirties is Mother Nature’s way of telling her to get on with the baby making before it’s too late. However, it’s just as likely that at that point in that woman’s experience, she is most comfortable with her body and is confident in her sexuality, all of which makes for not only an increased desire for sex, but for better sex when it is had. On a physical level, meanwhile, her body is less receptive to sexual attentions—meaning, her vagina doesn’t lubricate as easily, and her fertility isn’t quite as potent as it might have been in her mid- to late twenties.

As far as men go, once a guy gets to be in his thirties, he’s simply not the machine he once was. His erections are less, shall we say, erect, they are fewer than they might once have been, and his repeat performances are not what they once were. But, as with a woman in her thirties, this doesn’t mean a man doesn’t enjoy sex all the same. He just might have a hard time keeping pace with his girlfriend of the same age, who, after years of practice, has finally figured out what all the fuss is about.

Our society has some predeterminations regarding sex and gender that are problematic to the sexual-peaks issue. One is our insistence that women define themselves by their sexual desirability. Hence Botox. Hence cougar culture. Hence Extreme Makeover. As Paul Elam puts it on “The point is that without sexual viability, the power of most women in this culture is reduced to whatever is afforded by rote chivalry.” Elam takes an extreme and, in my opinion, narrow view of women’s sexuality in general, but he’s got a point. Because we put so much value on desirability, the notion of a woman’s peaking sexually in her thirties is, he argues, a last gasp at being relevant not only to the biological cycle, but to the social constructs of Western civilization as well. Clearly, that’s taking things a bit too far. To suggest that women are sexually irrelevant once they cease to be as fertile and hot as they were in their twenties is unfair at best.

Myth: Busted?
The only way to reach a conclusion on the subject of sexual peaks, then, is to first decide if you’re talking about the simple biological ability to make babies or about sex as a recreational undertaking. Once that’s established, it can be argued that different “peaks” that satisfy these two different categories exist. Humans in their late teens and early to mid-twenties are most fertile, have the most physical energy, and will be of the appropriate age to rear offspring, theoretically, from a longevity standpoint. However, people in their thirties and older have the maturity of both mind and body and the experience that are prerequisites for having good, satisfying sex.

As I progress further into my thirties, I have realized that a sexual peak, if there is such a thing, isn’t an explosion of baby craving, nor is it a temporary phase of wanton lust. It’s having been around the block enough to know what you want—not only from a sexual encounter, but also from the people you involve yourself with. It is having that itemized list of things that make you happy, and diligently checking them off, one by one.


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