Sex in your 20s, 30s, 40s

How does lovemaking change through the decades? Three women open up.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

How does lovemaking change through the decades? Three women open up.

My Reading Room

“I have finally figured out that sex isn’t simply a penis coming into contact with a vagina.”


By J.G., 29, writer.

I’d always wanted sex before I actually had sex. As a teen flipping through steamy novels and watching the occasional porn flick, I thought sex seemed so pleasurable that I ached experience it with someone just my hand. I didn’t buy into the sacred virginity thing. I just wanted to do it. All the positions, all the kinks. I lost my virginity at 21. was a university schoolmate, handsome, with a bad-boy going on. I had expected mind blowing experience, but instead, all I got was awkward fumbling in a cramped bed and a vagina that refused entry at first, and then felt absolutely nothing except for an uncomfortable tightness. Still, not wanting to appear like a complete starfish, I made the requisite porn-star sounds and then faked an orgasm so it would end. We never saw each other again. I wish I could say that I went on to have thrilling sexy times, but I didn’t. I thought that with more experience, I would get good at it, and then I would get the amazing orgasmic sex I wanted. I hoped that whoever I slept with would get so addicted to me, they would never want to leave me.

I should’ve realised then that my problem wasn’t a lack of experience, but of self-esteem. For the next three years, I got the kind of sex I did not want. My next partner was emotionally abusive and selfish. We started out passionate, doing it at least twice or thrice each time we met, him because he was a young man with a raging libido, me because I never said no. His style was crude and careless, always putting his own needs first. Whenever I said no to sex, he would accuse me of not loving him. If I suggested something kinky like spanking, he would take it too far, ignoring my protests when I no longer felt safe or comfortable. “How can we have a healthy relationship if you keep changing your mind like that?” he asked. Yet, I never spoke up. I was afraid he might leave me if I criticised him. Even if I derived zero pleasure from the act, I quickly learnt that pretending I enjoyed it would get me the affection and approval I craved. I did get a lot more experience – but in faking extremely convincing orgasms. It took me a long time to stop blaming myself for the bad sex I was getting. I grew to detest porn. The enthusiasm of the performers now seemed fake. Sex does not feel good, I thought. How can they even pretend to enjoy what they’re doing? The turning point came when I left him and dated a better guy. It didn’t work out for reasons that included his depression and porn addiction. But our relationship did change my attitude towards sex, partly because he was better skilled with his equipment. I learnt that sex could indeed feel good, physically. In my late 20s, I went for counselling to address an eating disorder I had struggled with since my teens. The sessions led me to a deeper understanding of my selfesteem issues. I realised my tendency to blame myself for things that didn’t meet my expectations, and to believe that if I was unhappy in a relationship, it was because I wasn’t the “perfect girlfriend”. Therapy helped me to focus on being the perfect person for myself. I decided then to prioritise my needs and pleasures in life – and in bed. With a touch of luck, I met someone. Someone with patience, excellent communication skills, and with whom I shared extraordinarily compatible tastes in and out of bed. We openly discussed sex and our feelings without fear of judgment, gave each other feedback, and experimented sexually without taking things too seriously. As I approach the close of my 20s, I have been in the same loving relationship for almost three years. I’m having the wild and explosive sex I wanted in my early 20s, but I’m also having the sex I didn’t realise came along with it – emotionally satisfying, considerate and cooperative. I can now say no without worrying if it would make him love me less. I have finally figured out that sex isn’t simply a penis coming into contact with a vagina, neither is it a magical telepathic bond between two people. Rather, it’s a conversation. You can have a meaningful exchange when both parties communicate and respect each other’s views. Or you can have a frustrating monologue where you are either imposing or compromising on your needs and opinions. It took me almost 10 years to get here, but I don’t regret the learning curve one bit.

See you tonight!
See you tonight!

“Married sex is like assembling a Billy bookcase without once looking at the Ikea manual.”


By Sally Lim, 40, married with two young children

It was smack in the middle of a work meeting a few years back.

My mobile phone pinged a reminder and a colleague beside me glanced over, eyebrows raised when she saw the note that flashed across the iPhone.

“Fishing with H?” she whispered, frowning. “Since when did you go fishing?” Little did she know, I thought.

At some point in my 10-year marriage, that was what my sex life was reduced to – code names for sex and “pinging” reminders in the middle of marketing meetings.

It was borne out of necessity – when you have a full-time job, a messy household with no domestic helper and two overactive kids, there isn’t much time or space left for nookie.

Scheduling sex sounds horribly unromantic, but it saved my sex life once the kids came along.

Here’s something first-time parents learn quickly: The best birth control is a pair of kids below five.

Post-pregnancy, you first have to deal with a gamut of insecurities – stretch marks, bloating, extra weight. Boobs? I didn’t have any for a good three years. More like on demand milk dispensers.

Then there was the privacy problem. It’s hard to play come-hither eye tango with your husband when you’ve got one eye on the toddler leaning precariously over his crib.

Doing the deed with your Redmart shopping list running through your head? Very unsexy.

Remembering that you’ve forgotten to unclog the sink while your husband is whispering sweet nothings in your ear? Very, very unsexy. 

The biggest problem of all was the lack of time.

So when everything else puts you on call 24/7, the one thing you can lock down – at least in a one-hour time slot – is your sex life.

There were missed appointments, of course. Lots of delays and “the kids are still awake” cancellations, leaving my husband to grumble: “It’s easier to get a reservation at Joel Robuchon.”

But for the most part, a scheduled sex life really worked.

Our once-a-week appointments became that special treat to look forward to. It helped that by then, my husband and I had decoded each other’s sexual needs.

In my 20s, when we were dating, everything was so new and tentative, each of us trying so hard to impress the other. Then, I was also less sure of my needs, more hung up about physical insecurities.

In my 30s, I felt more confident about my body and wore each post pregnancy stretch mark with pride. In the bedroom, I was fearless and more willing to try new things. Plus, my husband and I were so in tune with each other by then, we knew exactly which buttons to press.

As a friend once put it, married sex life is like assembling a Billy bookcase without once looking at the Ikea manual.

But to really enjoy sex in your 30s, you have to change your mindset.

Go for quality, not quantity. That once-a-week fix was way more fulfilling than a handful of quick let’s-get-it-over-with sessions throughout the week. Get out of the country if you have to. Your kids will survive without you. Really. So we’d leave them with the grandparents and steal away to an island resort for a dirty weekend. Never mind if it meant they would be spoilt rotten by the time we got back.

And don’t sweat the small things. No, that milk-stained romper on the floor will not miraculously grow legs and walk over to the laundry basket by itself. But it can remain there for another day.

Or at least another hour.

My Reading Room

“The most discernible difference about sex after 40 is the quality of orgasms.”


By Theresa Tan, 48, married with three children aged 10 to 17

I didn’t expect to love being in my 40s as much as I do now. I didn’t expect to have the best sex of my life after 40, either.

Don’t get me wrong, the cliche is true: At 40something, you simply accept that roll of belly fat is never going away, the butt cheeks and eyelids will start to droop, there will always be something else to pay for, and your savings will never grow.

You accept that the kids who once worshipped at your feet and presented you with daily declarations of “I Heart You Mummy!” have evolved like Pokemon – into taller, less cute creatures who can stop any conversation with a well-placed eye roll, or a snarky Whatsapp message.

If you’re like me, you might also be running a three-generation household with various challenges such as forgetful and hearing-impaired in-laws, learning disabilities in the little one(s), and rising COEs with one year left on your MPV’s life.

So, how the heck does sex figure in all of it?

Surprisingly, sex is one of the main things to look forward to now that I’m in my 40s.

Sex in my 20s was probably like sex in anybody’s 20s – making love with a vengeance. Every chance to “get down” presented a challenge to be sexier, more innovative, more adventurous. Looking back, the fun was in the experimenting, not so much the sex itself, which was kind of an anticlimax after getting all excited about high heels-and-leather foreplay.

I seriously thought coitus was dead when I hit my 30s. The husband and I spent so much time and energy conceiving and birthing our children that, to be honest, I didn’t mind if we never had sex again. It had become a chore, and my libido was greatly reduced during pregnancy, then nursing, then weaning, and getting pregnant again.

Then I turned 40. My last child had been weaned. My breasts were mine once more, and I could finally have sex for fun and not for biblical purposes. Suddenly, it felt like I was 20 again – it was most liberating.

The most discernible difference about sex after 40 is the quality of orgasms. I’m talking about A5-grade Wagyu in your 40s versus the frozen beef shank cubes you toss into a stew in your 20s.

The quality of the climax has a lot to do with the calm and relaxed state of mind that one has achieved; like Yoda, you can move that large ship with seemingly no effort. It makes a difference when you are not thinking about whether your infant is going to cry the next minute, or if the toddler is going to have a fever in the middle of your date night – now, if my teen has a fever, she knows where the medication is.

Although the husband and I can’t meet for a quickie during lunch hour, our Friday date nights, scheduled carefully and entered into a dozen calendars, are our Precious. Untouchable. After a week of meetings, interviews, writing, cooking, ferrying the kids to school, tuition, therapy, choir, and cell group meetings, having a Friday night off from everybody else is priceless.

Does sex change as we physically age? Yes. The hip joints are looser, the back muscles are weaker, and isn’t everybody 2kg heavier than they should be? So, positions change – yes, the missionary is much appreciated at this stage, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t switch it up every couple of weeks. Discovery is really a lot of fun. Too much information already; I’ll move on.

So what sort of sex do women in their 40s want? The kind that is doubt-free, worry-free, consistent and frequent. Sex that grows better with every week, month, year.

It took me and my husband 21 years to get to this point, and I believe there’s so much more to the love we can make. I’m looking forward to more and greater sex in our 50s, 60s, 70s and, God willing, 80s.

Theresa Tan is the author of A Clean Breast, a chronicle of her experience with breast cancer, and a partner at Word Agency, a writing and editing consultancy.