What happens if a woman wants and initiates as much if not more sex than her partner? In a perfect world, they are happily copulating, the war between the sexes softening in a post-coital haze. But the world, of course, isn't perfect.
A year ago, I woke to a phone call from a friend, a high school teacher in her early 40s, complaining that the night before, the man she was seeing had wanted to watch movies and cuddle, while she wanted sex. When she told him if they weren't going to have sex she'd rather sleep at home, his feelings were hurt. She said the emotional part of the relationship (he was talking marriage) was draining her and that without nightly hot sex, she wasn't sure it was worth the effort.
Her discontent sounded familiar. I'd been hearing and experiencing echoes of this for more than a year. My friend Andrea, a 37-year-old mother of two, was frustrated with the guy she was dating. He was a big talker about his "musical career" but spent more time talking about the gigs he was going to book than actually booking them. She overpowered him professionally and sexually. "It's a rare man who can keep up with me."
Susanne, a married corporate lawyer and mother of two in her mid 30s told me, "I for sure have the higher sex drive. For sure! My husband is more, 'the kids are across the hall' when I suggest we duck into the guest room."
My own sex drive spiked dramatically in my mid 40s as I sent my children out into the world, left an unhappy marriage, and came into my own personally, professionally, and sexually. So much so, there were days when I felt like a sex-obsessed adolescent boy. But the first man I dated after separating from my husband while initially thrilled that I wanted sex as much if not more than he did, wanted less as the relationship progressed. Soon my daily drive outpaced his, and I found myself with my own 'he wants to cuddle and I want to have sex' scenario.
I hadn't expected any of this. Growing up, I rarely heard of men wanting sex less than women. It all ran totally counter to traditional societal expectations about men and women and desire. And it's still not all that common today.
Fortunately, the stock character of the sexually disinterested and inhibited midlife woman seems to be disappearing from pop culture, but you rarely see media coverage of powerful women in their 40s and 50s who want to have sex every day. The only role model women like me have from the last fifteen years or twenty is the cougar -- who showed up on TV (Samantha in "Sex in the City", Gabrielle in "Desperate Housewives," Courtney Cox in "Cougar Town"), movies ("Notes on a Scandal"), pop songs ("Stacey's Mom") and in slang ("MILF"). And thanks to characters like "Cougar Town's" Jules Cobb, that sexually "empowered" woman is often characterized as emotionally desperate and sought after for her money. Neither I nor the women I knew were specifically interested in younger men, and it wasn't emotional connection we were desperate for since we were getting a lot of that from each other and our kids. We wanted low liability, low maintenance men who were good in bed.
And yet, the media headlines bombard us with stories of high-profile men insatiably seeking sex (Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Dominique Strauss-Kahn to name a few), feeding deep-seated cultural notions about male virility and the underlying implication that, for men, power is the great aphrodisiac.
Consequently, women whose libidos rev up after 40 often feel like they are abnormal. Hilda Hutcherson, professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University and co-director of New York Center for Women's Sexual Health told me, "Women come to me [in private practice] and say, 'There's something wrong with me. I want it all the time.' And I say, 'There's nothing wrong ... That inner vixen that's been suppressed is coming out and saying HELLO.'"
It makes sense that some women feel their most sexual in their forties, when many are also at the top of their careers (though, contrary to popular belief, it is not a given that women's libido is strongest at any particular age).
"This is a time for women," Michelle Pearson, a clinical psychologist in Winnipeg, told me. "[They] are becoming very successful in all areas of their lives. Successful work seems to rev up women's ... libido" as well as their self-esteem, she says.
But as great as it is to hear a professional acknowledge that, I can't ignore what is problematic about this new -- or, more likely, newly recognized -- development: At the same time I was marveling at how many women I knew were reaching their sexual peak in their 40s and 50s, I seemed to be hearing more and more stories from friends and friends of friends and colleagues across the country of male performance anxiety and sex avoidance.
Leah Klungness, Ph.D., a practicing psychologist in New York, suggested that men are taking on the "honey I have a headache" role for a reason, the same reason some women do -- and it doesn't necessarily have to do with not wanting sex.
"The 'not tonight, honey' is the only power some women hold in relationships," said Klungness. "This applies to 'trophy wives' and wives of big earners/public figures/powerful men who basically control everything else." And it may well apply to men dating or married to successful women saying they just want to cuddle. Perhaps, said Klungness, that behavior is "a power grab by men who feel powerless."
It's easy to see how some men today could feel less powerful than previous generations of males. Birth control, sperm donorship, and in vitro fertilization have liberated sex from its reproductive origins. With more women breadwinners, some single parents by choice, a male provider often isn't necessary. In fact, as Hanna Rosin noted in her Atlantic Monthly article "The End of Men," women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history in 2010. Most managers are now women, too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same."
There are no studies -- yet -- that indicate a link between the empowerment of women in and outside of the bedroom and declining male libido levels, but given what I've heard from the women I know, I wouldn't be surprised. And frankly, the possibility worries me a little. It's exciting that women are finally admitting they sometimes want sex more than men do is exciting, but I wonder: If we desire and initiate more -- and often get turned down -- will women be perpetually frustrated?
The stakes are high for men, too. I am not the first to suggest that men who cling to the old outmoded model are at risk of being left behind, culturally and professionally -- see Rosin again -- but they may also have more trouble finding women willing to either play into the old scenario of male sexual dominance or put up with a guy whose sex drive doesn't match her own because he feels overpowered.
I think it's a time for the sexual liberation of men as well -- liberation from any vestiges of a traditionally macho perspective. Much richer, more exciting relationships await men who embrace the fluidity and current evolution of male/female roles, in and out of the bedroom. If more men open themselves to that, perhaps we can finally arrive at that place Simone de Beauvoir looked forward to in The Second Sex, when the so-called " 'division' of humanity" into male and female "will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form."