Among the universe's cruel ironies—pretty much anything having to do with puberty, say, or the career arc of Michael Bay—this has to be near the top of the heap: Women typically hit their sexual stride in their mid-thirties, just as many guys the same age are pulling up lame with the equivalent of a sex-drive charley horse.
Okay, the sprinting metaphor is a bit much, but you get the idea. Guys experience a huge surge of testosterone during adolescence, but by their late twenties, that jolt is already on the wane. A few years later, women are finally ready to join the party.
Does it get any crueler?
And this situation may be more acute than ever.
"There are a lot of very attractive women in their thirties not getting the sex they want," says Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle and author of Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years. "And it happens as the relationship matures."
Schwartz notes that it can be an off-putting experience for some men—conditioned for years to initiate sex—when their partners are suddenly making the first move. And the second. And the twelfth.
"Men are used to cajoling and seducing, they are used to doing things on their own erotic schedules," says Schwartz. "This often teaches him about his own sexuality—that he's not as omnivorous as he thought." Then something truly bizarre occurs. "Men can get hurt, too, and find women pushy."
Such is the case with "Tina" and "Owen" (some names in this story have been changed), a mid-thirties couple in Brooklyn, New York, who both work in marketing. When they started dating, seven years ago, Owen, who lived in Manhattan at the time, was always up for a late-night outer-borough schlep if it meant he'd score.
"I'd be, 'It's eleven o'clock at night,' and he'd say, 'I'll be there,'" Tina says wistfully. Now married for three years, Owen and Tina are approaching a different anniversary—one year of couples therapy. Let's just say that it isn't Tina's sex drive that needs the tune-up.
"He calls me a 17-year-old boy," she says with a sigh. "It's kind of like a sad joke."
Owen wasn't laughing the day the enormous cherry-red vibrator that Tina ordered arrived in the mail. "I showed it to him—'Look, honey!'—I was all excited," Tina says. His reaction: "That's really aggressive." The vibrator was no fun; it became an issue in therapy.
Tina and Owen are far from alone. There is ample science related to men and sudden dips in testosterone levels—and none of it is good news. Beginning at age 30, most men see the hormone's production fall off to the tune of 10 percent every decade.
And a study last year by the New England Research Institutes found that today's men are manufacturing about 20 percent less testosterone than they were only 15 years ago as they age. Speculation on the cause includes an increase in obesity and a decrease in smokers (smoking, it seems, bumps up testosterone production), but nothing has been identified as the main culprit yet. What we do know are the nasty side effects of these hormonal hard times: more fat, less muscle, depression, exhaustion, and, that's right, a lower sex drive.
It's a different story for women. Tina has found that her female friends all agree that their orgasms have grown better, stronger, and more fulfilling as they've gotten older—but they've also become far less frequent as sex is less frequent. Several of Tina's girlfriends have considered having affairs to compensate for the lack of attention they get at home. In one extreme case, a friend who acted on her desire had to have invasive surgery after contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Her husband still has no idea.
She's gotta have it, indeed.
"These are third-wave feminists," notes clinical sexologist Ian Kerner, author of She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman. "Female sexuality is part and parcel of the air they breathe."
Though she doesn't partake in extramarital activities herself, Tina understands the temptation: "For the first 15 years of my sexual life, from about 15 to 30, I was just trying to keep everything under control. Now I wonder why I wasn't just a total slut."
So why aren't more thirtysomethings having more sex? It often comes down to that eternal killjoy: communication.
"The main thing I hear from women is: 'My guy thinks of me as his sweet little girlfriend, while he's in the other room jerking off to porn,'" Kerner says. "'But if he heard the dirty thoughts I have, it would blow his mind.'"
It's unlikely that "Ben" thinks of "Cynthia" as his sweet little anything—the New York couple, married for four years after dating for two, have always talked openly about sex. "I'm a lusty person," says Cynthia, a 39-year-old software developer.
On the couple's second date, Ben, 42, who works as a gaffer, went to her place to cook dinner, and matters quickly progressed to the bedroom. Over the next several months, Ben almost always made the first move and it was always met with enthusiasm; they got it on a few times a week.
Then romantic inertia set in. Before they realized it, they were spending far less time in the sack. Soon enough, they were lucky to have sex twice a month.
Cynthia's raging libido, it seems, was not enough to ensure frequent happy endings. As Ben slacked off as the sexual instigator, their success rate dropped precipitously. "If he initiated it, fine, we'd have sex," Cynthia says. But if Ben didn't make the first move? Most nights that meant no action.
Eventually, practically bursting with horniness, Cynthia had little choice but to take matters—that is to say, Ben—into her own very capable hands.
Ben acknowledges that Cynthia's high sex drive has been a boon—essential, even—for their coupling. "That's an attraction for me," he says. "When she decides to jump on me—well, hot dog!"
Things aren't quite so harmonious for "David" and "Frances," who met in a Baltimore bar three years ago. Early on, the sex was fantastic. But then David, 36, took a job in North Carolina, and Frances, now 33, moved back home to Wisconsin, and grew unhappy about her lack of sexual satisfaction. When she visited him in Carolina, they slept together only once over several weeks. David had become preoccupied with other concerns.
"I guess I'm not spending enough time with her clitoris," he says now. "We have sex, I get off and leave her frustrated—but it's not intentional."
The relationship is hanging on by a thread; the prospects don't look good. When David called Frances in Wisconsin recently, she told him she was on her way to help a friend "feed the chickens."
"But I found out later she was really going over to fuck this other guy," David says. Which, it seems, is an elevated risk these days if your partner is not getting what she needs in bed—and on the kitchen counter and the bathroom linoleum.
"We're now in the post-Samantha age of the milf," Kerner notes, alluding to the Sex and the City cougar.
For some guys, that will mean more sex than they ever imagined. For others, it might be time to find a younger girlfriend.
Bring Sexy Back
Six ways to boost your libido
Pump iron or watch an action movie. Testosterone surges following tough-guy activities.
Talk about your feelings. Your sex drive is tied to your state of mind. If you're nervous or stressed, clear your head by speaking.
Eat fish. It's full of zinc and phosphorous, both of which are known to increase testosterone levels.
Think about booze. Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia found that exposure to words like beer and keg can affect men's interest in sex.
Lose your gut. Fat cells suck up a certain amount of testosterone, but the ones in the stomach do it most efficiently.
Stay away from meds. Yes, anti-depressants dampen your libido, but so do over-the-counter pills with the warning "May cause drowsiness."