Sex & Relationships

Are Older Women More Sexually Adventurous Than 20-Somethings?

A new study reveals the somewhat surprising information that older women are more likely to have sex on a first date than younger ones. Why?

It wasn’t some big-news, 40-point headline, WTF kind of statistic, just an interesting gap in age-related behavior reported by associate editor Carolyn Kylstra in her recent Men’s Health story. The story explored the differences in dating and sexual behavior of women in their 20s, 30s and 40s based on a survey of 1,400 women. When it came to the question of having sex on a first date if there was chemistry, 17 percent of the 20somethings said that was a possibility versus 28 percent of the 30- and 29 percent of the 40-somethings.

If the first thing you thought was, “Really? I thought younger girls were throwing it around like confetti,” you and me both. With the background noise of hook-up culture, sexting, friends with benefits, and the Duke Sex List it’s easy to think that younger women are pretty sexually aggressive… that is, if pop culture is your main source of information.

The fact is that they do have other influences besides those mentioned above. Kylstra offered some additional thoughts via email on why young women are more conservative than one might imagine.

Girls in their 20s, she offers, are still close enough with family and friends to consider their opinions important; indeed, in the story it notes that the dating site OKCupid found that “my girlfriends” is the most common phrase used by straight women in their profiles and “close with my mother” is in the top 20. If mom or the BFFs don’t approve of jumping into bed, she might be less likely to rush it.

Younger women also haven’t had that much sex so they’re not as sure about how to get what they want, and they’re less secure about their bodies, which is kind of ironic, considering that many older women pine for the bodies they had when they were younger. An abstract from an Oregon Health and Science University study on body image published in The Journal of General Psychology found that “younger and older women have similar body dissatisfaction but that younger women have a higher drive for thinness and experience more societal influence on their body image.” Interestingly Glamor magazine’s 2009 body image survey of 16,000 women reported that the body images of young women had perked up considerably, with 22 percent percent of younger woman more “likely to be happy with their shape than older women are.” The story also quotes psychologist Anne Kearney-Cook as crediting recent efforts to show more varied body images as helping with this confidence boost.

So maybe it depends on who you ask.

Kylstra also notes a study from the University of Texas at Austin which shows that women in the middle age group of 27-45 (the other groups were 18-26 and 45+) thought about and had more sex and “are more willing to engage in sex after knowing a partner for either one month, one week or one evening,” according to Tom Jacobs who wrote about the study for Miller-McCune. The researchers think this is a response to declining fertility, but also noted it can simply be that older women are more comfortable with sex.

“Older women – that’s 'older' since 40s is still young to me – are clearer about what they want and what they don’t,” says psychotherapist Isadora Alman, whose sex and relationship advice column “Ask Isadora,” has been running in various outlets for 25 years. “Older women also may be looking for good sex since they may have had enough of the other kind,” she says.

Agreed, and I would add to Isadora’s thoughts that an older woman (I’m 46) is less likely to suggest or accept a date with someone she’s not attracted to, so her sexual intention might be there from the start. Younger women will go out just for the sake of going out. Older have less time – in a day and on this earth – and we’re more picky about how we spend it. We’re not going to waste an hour on a “maybe" when we know what “Yes! Yes! Yes!” is what it's all about.

And with screaming orgasms in mind we must, of course, address the "cougar,” an older-woman image that has become a caricature.

“Everyone’s using the word cougar and it’s gotten a bad rap,” says LA Talk Radio’s Lucia, a sex and relationships expert who recently launched the Cougar Channel on YouTube.

“Everyone assumes it’s just about sex. They’re going after these guys and they’re dragging them back to their house and having sex with them! That’s probably more of a male fantasy than a female fantasy,” she says.

Not that the older woman/younger man pairing is a fantasy.

There are indeed older single women who find younger men attracted to them and think “Wow, well, I’m going to try it out and if I feel like having sex on the first date I will,” Lucia says. While some may have thought it could only be about sex because that’s all a younger man would want, some have found that some younger men do want relationships with older women. One of the best relationships she’s ever had, she says, was with a man 14 years her junior, with whom she still has a close friendship.

As for the supposedly common knowledge that men are biologically driven to seek younger, more fertile women, it may be common, but it may not be knowledge, but rather, preference. Some men, Lucia says, “are thinking 'Even though I’m programmed to want to be with someone fertile my attraction is to someone older,' and so they’re choosing to go with their attraction rather than their programming.”

“We’re brought up to think (men) want youth …why would they want an older woman? Luckily, men aren’t as shallow as that,” she says, and cites confidence, experience, and freedom from drama among the draws of the mature female.

The benefit of the cougar craze, Lucia says, is that it lifted the taboo on older woman/younger man relationships so now they’re as accepted as any other pairing. 

“She’s very much on target,” says Julianne Cantarella, the Courtship Coach, about Lucia’s take on the cougar image opening doors for a different kind of May/December relationship, though Cantarella is not crazy about the term (“I don’t think it adds value to older women”).

And what about the vastly different cultural climates these two groups of women came of age in?

Tina B. Tessina, psychotherapist and author of 13 books on relationships, notes that the times older women were raised with has something to do with their more relaxed attitude about sex.

“Women in their 40s were part of the sexual revolution and have a more liberal view of sex,” she offers via email.

“Older women have been around the block, and aren't expecting as much from a relationship. Many of them are not looking for commitment and marriage, they just want to have a good time,” she writes.

Tessina says while the older generation understands that sex can break your heart, they’re less likely to see it as lethal, which younger women, raised with the specter of HIV, might do and thus be more careful.

That’s an interesting thought because on one hand, yes, I vividly remember the wild, free vibe of my '70s childhood, but by the time I was college-age the threat of HIV hit those casual attitudes with a wrecking ball of fear. (I vividlyremember this PSA that Madonna did.)

Julianne Cantarella also notes that while 40-somethings might be able to hear echoes of the sexual revolution, the message of sexual safety was drummed into our young heads relentlessly, something she thought would make older women more cautious than younger ones who didn’t grow up with the disease as a nightly news bulletin. (HIV is on the rise, with the CDC reporting that women account for 27 percent of annual new cases).

Whether it’s that distant call of our '70s youth, our biological clocks, or our gratifying comfort with ourselves, we older ladies are pretty sexually aggressive. We may not all be cougars…but we can be tigresses.

“Women in their 40s love sex,” Kylstra writes, noting that this group was “the most likely to have had an orgasm during their most recent sexual encounter (86 percent).”

Kylstra quotes Dr. Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist, author, and one of my personal favorite thinkers on the subject of romance, who says the boldness of women in their 40s – in all areas of life – is the result of hormones: both estrogen and testosterone drop in our early 40s but testosterone drops less. Also "A woman in her 40s is, for the most part, relieved of the worry of having babies, so she can be more relaxed about sex and have it more often," Fisher says.

I can vouch for this one, too. Once I got past 45 and decided for sure I was not going to have kids, I felt much more free and secure, which is better for sex – and everything else.

What’s great about this story is that while it’s a survey meant to tap into the consciousness of groups of women it also shows that maybe we’re not that easily classified after all. Younger women have a better body image in one survey but not another. Some older women just want a little fun, some want commitment. It’s hard to survey the nuances that really make up our lives, but it sure is fun to think about them.

It also shows that the mirror pop culture offers us is a little blurry. Not all young women are Girls Gone Wild. Not all older women are prowling cougars. Maybe we look at sex the same way we look at the Cooking Channel. Just because we like the shows it doesn’t mean we’re all following the recipes.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.