How Your Sex Drives Changes From Your 20s to Your 50s

Experts are finally unlocking the mysteries of the female libido. What every woman should know about her sex drive -- in all stages of her life.
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The 20s: Sex and the single girl

Not long ago, my friend Jean and I were talking, when the conversation turned to sex. She had just finished reading a book in which one of the characters was an adolescent girl in hormonal overdrive. "I used to feel that way, too, and, wow, have things changed," said Jean, a 37-year-old mother of two in Connecticut. "I thought women were supposed to reach their sexual peak in their mid-thirties. What happened?"

In an age that celebrates women who enjoy a very healthy libido (consider the popularity of the HBO series Sex and the City), the ups and downs of female desire still remain something of a mystery. But that's changing. With pharmaceutical companies in hot pursuit of a pill that could do for women's sexual fulfillment what Viagra has done for men's, experts are busy investigating what's responsible for female passion.

Researchers are finding that the sex experts Masters and Johnson were wrong when they claimed that female and male desire were alike. New studies suggest that women need to be aroused physically or psychologically to get in the mood for sex. Unlike men, who can get aroused by the sight of a buxom babe in a beer commercial, women rely on different--and subtler--cues. A woman may be responsive to intimate conversation--or a caring gesture by her husband.

Of course, you can't have a healthy sexual appetite without the hormones estrogen and testosterone. Genetics may also play a role. "The characteristics of sex drive appear to be innate early on," says Steven Petak, M.D., J.D., an endocrinologist in Houston. "But psychological factors are probably more important [than genetics]."

That helps explain why women's libidos vary. This diversity is evident not only among women, but within individuals. Like my friend Jean, you may have a strong sex drive during one stage of your life only to have your interest flag during another. Here, experts explain the hormonal, psychological and social factors that affect a woman's libido from her 20s through her 50s.

By the time women enter their 20s, the majority have regular menstrual periods--and a sex drive that ebbs and flows with their cycle. "Around ovulation"--not coincidentally, the time of peak fertility--"women have more interest in sex and are better able to have an orgasm than women who are just about to get their period," says Anita H. Clayton, M.D., associate professor and vice chair of the department of psychiatric medicine at the University of Virginia Health System, in Charlottesville.

Finding their way

Contrary to popular belief, the 20s are not necessarily a time of sexual voraciousness. Many young women are grappling with identity and body-image problems at the same time that they're trying to establish themselves professionally and find a mate. According to the National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS), conducted at the University of Chicago, unmarried women are nearly twice as likely as married women to have anxiety about their sexual performance and have difficulty climaxing. "A woman's sexual interest is greatest when she's in a stable relationship," says Sheryl Kingsberg, Ph.D., assistant professor of reproductive biology and psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland.

Use it or lose it

If a woman in her 20s doesn't have frequent sex, her desire may wane, according to Clayton. Studies have shown that women who engage in sexual activity less than once a week are more likely to have irregular menstrual cycles and ovulation problems than those who do so weekly.

The fear of disease

Two thirds of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) occur in people 25 and younger, and women are more likely to be infected than men, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Those who have contracted an STD may experience shame and be less interested in sex. And women who want to protect themselves must negotiate condom use with their partner, which may dampen desire.

Birth control and the blues

The most popular form of contraception for twentysomething women is the birth control pill. But because it suppresses testosterone production, some women find that the Pill actually undercuts desire. Others, however, find the Pill's convenience--and its reassuringly high success rate--helps promote passion. Another factor influencing sex drive: Up to 20 percent of women in their 20s struggle with clinical depression, a condition that diminishes desire. While antidepressants may boost a woman's mood, some may lower her libido.

Continued on page 2:  The 30s: Married with children

 

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