Cougars Gone Wild
You'd think young women would be the most sex-mad. Well, not according to "the first study to examine changes in women's reproductive behavior across the life-cycle as a function of an evolved psychological adaptation." Yes, according to this study, it seems girls with aging eggs have more fun.
This very interesting study -- published in Personality and Individual Differences, and sloppily and incorrectly reported in various newspapers and on blogs -- is by University of Texas' Judith A. Easton, Jaime C. Confer, Cari D. Goetz and David M. Buss.
As TIME's John Cloud writes, their research suggests evolutionary forces push women to be more sexual -- and in some unexpected ways -- with women who'd passed their peak fertility years but weren't yet in menopause the most sexually active, with the most active sexual fantasy lives:
Buss, Easton and their colleagues found that women in their 30s and early 40s are significantly more sexual than younger women. Women ages 27 through 45 report not only having more sexual fantasies (and more intense sexual fantasies) than women ages 18 through 26; the older women also report having more sex, period. And they are more willing than younger women to have casual sex, even one-night stands. In other words, despite the girls-gone-wild image of promiscuous college women, it is women in their middle years who are America's most sexually industrious.
By contrast, men's sexual interest and output, usually measured by reported number of orgasms per week, peaks in the teen years and then settles to a steady level (an average of three orgasms per week) for most of their lives. As I pointed out in March, most men remain sexually active into their 70s. According to the new study, as well as the one I wrote about in March, women's sexual ardor declines precipitously after menopause.
Why would women be more sexually active in their middle years than in their teens and 20s? Buss and his students say evolution has encouraged women to be more sexually active as their fertility begins to decline and as menopause approaches.
Here's how their theory works:
Our female ancestors would have grown accustomed to watching many of their children -- perhaps as many as half -- die of various diseases, starvation, warfare and so on before being able to have kids of their own. This trauma left a psychological imprint to bear as many children as possible. Becoming pregnant is much easier for women and girls in their teens and early 20s -- so much easier that they need not spend much time having sex.
However, after the mid-20s, the lizard-brain impulse to have more kids faces a stark reality: it's harder and harder to get pregnant as a woman's remaining eggs age. And so women in their middle years respond by seeking more and more sex.
An interesting passage from the study, which I have, and have read: "Contrary to our prediction, women in a relationship classified as reproduction expediting did not fantasize more about someone other than their current romantic partner, but instead equally fantasized about their current romantic partner and other individuals. Women with high fertility did fantasize more about their current partner than other individuals, although this was not the case for menopausal women." (As they wrote earlier, "Menopausal women are no longer able to conceive, and therefore their psychology should not function to increase opportunities for conception.")
(Some caveats: study uses self-reported sex data [I always discount this because people lie about sex], and subjects were university students and self-selected participants off a Craigslist ad, where, as Cloud pointed out, people go seeking hookups. They also didn't control for hormonal birth control "which may also affect sexual motivations and behaviors.")
UPDATE: David Buss weighs in (in an e-mail exchange with me, which he gave me permission to publish) with a more nuanced view on self-reported sex data. (I wrote back to him to ask if I'd gotten the blog item right -- because I'd rather admit that I'm wrong and correct what I've published than look like I know it all...a problem with far too many reporters out there, I think). Buss writes:
In my judgment, you can't simply discount self-report studies, though, for several reasons. Yes, of course people lie, but one has to ask whether that distorts the findings in ways that produce artifactual results. Take affairs. Self-reports will surely underestimate the incidence of affairs, so if the goal is to obtain precise percentages of affairs, the findings will be misleadingly low. But that simply means that self-reported affairs are lower-bound estimates of actual rates. And there is no reason to doubt that the men and women differ in affair rate, as the self-reports reveal.
Second, in many cases in which self-reports have been able to be verified by independent data sources, such as observers, friends, or spouses, or by demographic or laboratory data, the results almost always confirm the self-reports. Example: my 37 culture study of mate preferences found that men expressed a preference for younger women, and women expressed a preference for older men [as a spouse]. Demographic data confirm that the average actual age differences between brides and grooms correspond almost precisely to the self-reported preferences.
Third, for some sexual topics, self-reports are the ONLY legitimate data source. Sexual fantasies are a prime example.
Yes, you always want to try to verify scientific findings with more than one method or data source. But there's not reason to believe that self-reports should simply be dismissed because some people sometimes lie.
By the way, Judith A. Easton was the lead author and Jaime C. Confer was the second author, and Buss contributed to the writing. I'm so shocked at how, in story after story, "reporters" said Buss wrote the study, or quoted him as if they'd actually interviewed him (for example, Nick Collins, in the Telegraph/UK), who just pulled bits out of the study and made it look as if he'd interviewed Buss. (On the bright side, this suggests that Collins actually read the study instead of simply reporting what the UT press release said.)