The YOU survey: What women over 40 *really* think about sex

They prefer Poldark to porn and, whisper it, are having more – and better – sex than millennials. In this exclusive YOU magazine sex survey, 2,000 women over 40 told us everything about their sex lives. Rowan Pelling breaks down some frankly frisky stats.

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The great reveal of YOU’s riveting sex survey is that we Brits aren’t cold fish at all. Far from it, we crave nothing more than to get tactile with the person we love. What we mums, wives, aunts and career women value most about sex is the sensation of profound connection with a partner we love. In other words, for women physical love is all about the quest for intimacy. Bearing that in mind, it’s fair to say the sexual and emotional health of the UK’s ‘middle-youth’ (the researchers quizzed females aged 45 plus) is in pretty robust shape.

The most reassuring revelation is that, for the most part, the females of the species are contented with their sex and love lives. A heartening 58 per cent are having regular sex with their significant others and the majority of those say they tend to make love on a weekly basis. Furthermore, these figures come hard on the heels of a survey from Public Health England, which found women in the 55-64 bracket were – ta-daah! – the most contented with their sex lives compared to other age groups.

This was certainly my sense of things when I set up The Amorist magazine last year for female devotees of love and passion. It seems once women are out on the other side of menopause, freed from fear of pregnancy and experienced enough to dispense with insecurity, they feel more sensual.

Meanwhile, millennials (those aged 25-34) who are bombarded by dating apps such as Tinder and have been raised in the shadow of online porn were by some measure the most dissatisfied. It seems the nation’s more mature women could teach the Love Island generation a thing or two about bliss. For us, it’s about getting our priorities right. A whopping 95 per cent of the women polled for YOU said they would opt for true love over great sex. By the age of 45 most women know love lasts a lifetime, while lust is far more fickle.

Another shock-horror finding is that we’re not a nation of love rats, whatever TV dramas such as Doctor Foster suggest. We don’t tend to cheat on our partners and it seems that for the great part they are faithful to us. Nor are we kinksters, despite the multimillion sales of Fifty Shades of Grey. We know what we like and that doesn’t tend to require wild experimentation, drawers stuffed full of sex aids, outrageous fantasies or daily erotic encounters.

Porn is largely a turn-off but we’re not prudes, it’s just that we’re focused on more profound issues. What British women long for in the second halves of their lives is a relationship based on trust, honesty, time together and good communication, where romance and conversation are right up there with physical passion.

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What We’re Really Looking For

The company that conducted the YOU survey, ResearchNow, interviewed 2,000 women. Just over three quarters are in some form of committed, long-term relationship – 1,150 of those are married – but nearly a quarter describe themselves as single. And the majority are in the 45-64 age bracket, like me (reader, I turned 50 this year).

As you might expect, the women in committed relationships sometimes have different priorities to those who are single. The singles have had a few more sexual partners – an average of ten – while the coupled-up average six. But the disparities between partnered women and those living alone aren’t that great, and 71 per cent of the singles are either actively looking to get married or wouldn’t rule it out. Only a third of us fear being lonely.

64% of women in couples said that they married ‘the best sex of their lives’

Those who are still looking for love rate trustworthiness as the most desirable characteristic in a future partner, followed by someone with an attractive personality who’s dependable. Sexual mastery and toned torsos come right at the bottom of the wish list, despite TV viewers’ collective sighing at Aidan Turner’s buff body in Poldark. In real life we’re looking for a best friend and soul mate.

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Love vs Lust

What’s really striking is the sense of sexual stability among the women polled. There’s a lot of doom-mongering about soaring divorce rates and infidelity, but the YOU survey tells a rather different story. When the women in relationships were asked how their love lives and sex lives (as two distinct and separate areas of investigation) had changed over the past decade, around half declared that things had pretty much stayed constant. More than that, 26 per cent of the women in couples said that their ‘love’ life had actually improved in the past ten years, while only 17 per cent saw an improvement in their ‘sex’ life over the same period.

31% in relationships think their sex life needs to be improved

Overall, the figures were perkier for love-life satisfaction than purely sexual, suggesting quite a few women in long-term relationships had seen their own or their partner’s libido wane, but still felt cherished. It was no shock to learn the biggest threat to our sex lives is lack of sleep, followed by depleted desire – and, of course, these two factors are closely linked.

Again and again the data shows what women rate most is a close emotional bond with their partner. When interviewees were asked what they’d like to see improved in their relationships, the top response was more romance (44 per cent) followed by better communication and spending more time together. An improved sex life was knocked into fourth priority.

Intimacy Rules

What almost all the women prized highly is the pivotal role of kissing and cuddling. They cited tender, tactile gestures as being far more important to their wellbeing than the act of sex itself. And by some considerable margin. Only 29 per cent believe that making love is more important than smooching and caressing – although a slightly larger number, 31 per cent, admitted a bit more sex would strengthen their relationship.

Even so, only a titchy five per cent of women with partners were ‘very worried’ that they weren’t having enough sex – whereas almost half claimed they wouldn’t be too bothered if intercourse ceased altogether. Bearing that in mind, we shouldn’t be amazed that most women said their partner was more likely to initiate sex than they were. Most sex research shows that men feel spontaneous sexual desire more than women, who may not feel ‘in the mood’ until they’re making love. Many women would often settle for snuggling up on a sofa.

5% have had sex with a best friend

In a similar vein, two key desires – stronger, it seems, than any erotic fantasy – revolve around having a romantic partner cook for them or to stay up all night talking. Wives particularly liked the chef-for-a-night idea, indicating that women are still shouldering the burden of most domestic chores.

Singles were especially turned on by the thought of chatting from dusk to dawn, bringing to mind the Jay McInerney wisecrack ‘Men talk to women so they can sleep with them and women sleep with men so they can talk to them’. I suspect the Ethan Hawke movie Before Sunrise, where two would-be lovers converse for hours and nearly die of sexual tension, has a lot to answer for.

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Straight, Gay or…Curious

No contemporary sex survey would be complete without a close examination of sexuality. Celebrities such as Mary Portas and Kristen Stewart moving from straight relationships to same-sex ones demonstrate how mainstream such transitions have become. The women YOU quizzed are living proof that orientation can be fluid. While 84 per cent of the women polled said that they had always identified as straight, 12 per cent said they had felt bisexual or bi-curious in some way, with four per cent stating they’d acted on that curiosity and had some kind of same-sex encounter.

Just over a fifth agreed with the statement that their sexuality had changed over time, meaning that even if they mostly felt straight there might be some shift on the Kinsey Scale (named after the famous sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who pioneered surveys measuring on a scale of 0-6 how straight or gay people felt, where zero means exclusively straight and six indicates exclusively gay; Kinsey found numerous people had a degree of ambiguity).

This is fascinating, as the Office for National Statistics reports that only two per cent of the nation identify as being gay, which indicates that older women are more certain about who they are than the supposedly experimental millennials. However, 16 per cent of the respondents said they once felt bisexual, but now regarded themselves as straight.

No Sex, We’re Single

The notion of the older single woman as a confident seductress up for adventure, like Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones, appears wide of the mark for most of those questioned. Only 15 per cent of the singles are having any form of regular hook-ups, while 78 per cent said sex was a rarity.

Their favourite sexual position (just like the coupled-up women) is old-school missionary style, followed by woman-on-top, and a chastening 62 per cent believe their pals are having more clinches than they are. This number is far lower among the women with partners, where only 37 per cent believe the mattress springs creak more next door.

Why It’s No Good To Share

Another striking feature is the steadfastness of the women surveyed. Whatever the media talk of polyamory, most women aren’t up for sharing. Only six per cent of the women in long-term relationships said they had cheated on their current partner and 86 per cent believed their other half had been faithful to them. Meanwhile, 70 per cent of the single women said they’d never betrayed a sexual partner, even though three quarters of them either knew or suspected someone had cheated on them.

The desire to be constant and have a healthy, balanced relationship based on trust is evident throughout the responses. Quality is consistently rated above quantity in terms of partners and the frequency of sex needed to maintain a contented lifestyle. Most of the women, single or not, agreed that sex in your 40s is preferable to sex in your 20s and that it would be better to have a non-sexual relationship than an open one (although 23 per cent disagreed and put sex first).

Our guiltiest secret? Faced with a snap decision between a £100 shopping spree or a clinch with our spouse, we’d run for the mall. But then we know that sex with your long-term partner is generally not on limited offer, whereas shopping vouchers are.

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Calling All Younger Men!

What I found most startling was the fact that, 87 per cent of mature singles say they don’t use dating apps – unlike their 20-something counterparts, who aren’t called the Tinder generation for nothing. When asked why, almost half the respondents said they didn’t need an app to get a date and a third declared meeting strangers made them nervous and that the whole business was ‘unnatural’.

45% of singles would consider dating someone ten years younger

Never was it clearer that 45-plussers are the pre-digital, pre-selfie generation. We cling to the notion of old-fashioned face-to-face communication, unmediated by a bunch of millennial techies in Silicon Valley. The one area where the single women showed a disdain for convention is that almost three quarters would consider dating a younger man (the survey cited ten years their junior), showing how normal that dynamic has become. I suspect that Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron’s 25-year age gap has had its influence.

The DIY Approach

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the most sure-fire way for females to climax is masturbation. No one knows a woman’s body like that woman herself (also, there’s no pressure to perform for someone else), and 55 per cent of those quizzed reported it was an effective way of peaking. However, 21 per cent of the coupled-up and 28 per cent of the singletons said that they never climax via self-pleasuring. This demonstrates how wildly different the female anatomy is from the male, as there can barely be a man alive who hasn’t enjoyed satisfactory solo sessions.

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Toys R Not Us

My guess is the effectiveness of masturbation might depend on ownership of a sex toy. Just over a quarter of those polled own a vibrator, with Rampant Rabbits making a strong showing. The next most popular sex aids are flavoured lubricant, handcuffs and love eggs (owned by four per cent). But mostly toys are minority tastes; 68 per cent of the women surveyed have no sex aids whatsoever. Only 30 per cent thought sex toys might play some useful role in couples’ sex.

The truth is we midlife women are an erotically conservative bunch. The most outré form of intercourse we’ve tried is outdoor sex, and there’s nothing wild about going al fresco. We know young women are under huge pressure to depilate, but only 38 per cent of Britain’s older women tame their bikini area on a regular basis. Shaving is by far the most popular method, with only eight per cent opting for the palaver of a wax. Most women groom for hygiene reasons or personal preference; very few feel under pressure from partners.

Indeed, that’s a key message throughout this data: we mature women conduct our sex lives on our own, or equal, terms. This demographic is too sure of its taste to be manipulated.

Who Needs Perfect?

Apart from the ongoing quest for intimacy, the other strong thread in this data is pragmatism. I was surprised that almost half the women in long-term relationships admitted that they had ‘settled’ for their current partner. This would be dispiriting if the respondents didn’t seem so upbeat about it – just remember that 80 per cent of the coupled-up say that their love life has remained the same or improved over the past decade.

37% think their friends are having more sex than they are

To my mind this reflects the fact that in midlife you realise it’s a bit absurd to believe there’s only one person on the entire planet who can make you happy. To have a contented relationship you have to accept your spouse’s flaws and realise that, in return, your own shortcomings are being tolerated.

Satisfaction… Always Guaranteed?

The emphasis in the survey’s findings may be on emotions, intimacy and the yearning for romance, but there are some fascinating revelations about the mechanics of sex itself. In popular erotic discourse we’re always hearing about the multi-orgasmic woman and how the clitoris has 8,000 nerve-endings (twice as many as the penis), meaning there’s a lot of pressure to make climaxing the central focus of a satisfactory sex life. No wonder 42 per cent of those quizzed had faked a climax at some point! It’s clear the female orgasm remains an elusive goal for many.

Despite most of the women in relationships expressing overall satisfaction with their love and sex lives, 26 per cent rarely or never achieve orgasm during penetrative sex, while 39 per cent rarely or never hit a big O during oral sex. This last statistic is surprising, as most sex therapists would tell you that women are far more likely to climax through oral sex than intercourse. The unanswered question here is about their partner’s technique and whether some women remain embarrassed about oral stimulation.

Of those women who do have regular orgasms, they cited penetrative sex as a more effective way of having an orgasm than oral sex, which is again surprising – 50 per cent of the respondents with partners said they climax every time or most of the time, while making love. I am fairly sure that many of the women were enjoying some form of clitoral stimulation during sex to achieve such a high rate of satisfaction.

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And Now For The Really Good News

Overall, the findings of this wide-reaching survey left me feeling very upbeat about the wellbeing of Britain’s boudoir life and the level-headedness of midlife women. How can you not feel cheerful to hear that women would – by an overwhelming margin – rather be single and happy than married and unhappy, and would pick brainy partners over beautiful ones?

Given the choice between giving up family life, food and holidays or waving goodbye to sex, the clear majority would prioritise loved ones, cuisine and travel. We know sex is important but we don’t let it dominate. Even so, we rate our erotic lives highly and would far rather jettison exercise, chocolate and Netflix than ditch our sex lives.

66% would rather give up alcohol than sex

Perhaps it helps that sex can be the most enjoyable form of workout known to womankind! The key finding here is we’re egalitarian rather than perfectionists. We don’t chase rainbows so much as realism and equilibrium. When the married women were asked who was better in bed – their partner or themselves – 77 per reported the expertise was equal. If that isn’t a recipe for long-term sexual harmony, I don’t know what is.