Excerpt: “There is what’s called ‘a drop’ after the chemical high of a sexual encounter.” For more on the science of post-coital distress in men and women explore Evidence of shifts after sex.
Women tell to us about how they feel after sex, and we explore research to help us make sense of that post-coital feeling. (Original article in Stylist)
Sometimes after Olivia, 28 – a happily partnered woman – orgasmed during the Covid-19 pandemic, she began to cry. “I would get so overwhelmed after an orgasm that a couple of times I genuinely sobbed after sex because it was so overwhelming to feel such intense emotions,” she says.
Generally, she feels warm and content – “like all of my worries just vanish for 10 minutes” – but the strain of social confinement was reflected in her sexual habits. “I think because of work and being so homesick, I was kind of switching my emotions off but after an orgasm it’d all come flooding back and I couldn’t cope.”
Feeling an unexpected wave of emotion post-coital emotion isn’t unusual. In fact, nothing is usual in the game of intercourse. A physically and emotionally demanding exercise, the sentiment felt afterwards – wholly dependent on circumstance – follows no set path. Hollywood purports otherwise, showcasing tales of couples climaxing in tandem only to fall into a lovers’ embrace – but real sex is different, messy and Daedalian, where everything from ebullience to indifference can be found.
“The main thing I notice is that it’s completely unpredictable,” Alice, 29, a woman in a long-term relationship shares. “Sometimes I feel great, sometimes I get very pensive, sometimes frankly my mind is on other things and I get up and straight onto something else. The one thing I’d say is that there’s less of a sudden shift in emotion for me; I can’t immediately switch my emotions off in any situation and sex is no different.”
It’s totally circumstantial, explains Ellen*, 26, a queer woman in a long-term relationship, mainly depending on who you’re sleeping with. “If I feel a connection other than a physical one, or there aren’t any broader red flags, then generally I feel pretty content and safe. But if it’s someone I’m only sleeping with for the sake of it, then I get anxious and overthink a lot. The rose-tinted glasses definitely come off.”
Post-coital dysphoria (PCD) or post-coital tristesse are the terms used to describe feeling tearful, sad, anxious, aggressive, agitated or generally melancholic after sex. What is most interesting about the condition is that it happens even after the sex is consensual.
“It’s a complicated issue that I would be hesitant to link to one single factor,” sex educator and host of the Glow West podcast Dr Caroline West tells Stylist. “We may engage in fully consensual sex but might only be doing that because we’re looking for something more and using sex is a substitute. What you may really be searching for is touch and intimacy, which is something you only realise post-coitum.
“We’re also socialised to believe that we can have a one-night stand with a stranger and it not be an issue, but being held by someone you don’t know is weird – despite both being intimate acts,” she continues. “It would be lovely for everyone to engage in the intimacy that they really want, to be their sexually authentic selves, in lieu of performative sexuality every time.”
“When I was sleeping with men, sex was a minefield,” Freya*, 32, a queer woman also happily partnered, says, “Needless to say men were not versed in the notion of basic care and compassion once you’ve had an intimate encounter. And so feelings of shame and isolation rose up in the minutes and hours after sex, compounding all the worst aspects of hook-up culture. It felt dehumanising and transactional.
“When I started to sleep with women, even one-night stands had a greater sense of connection. There is sometimes physical affection, there is usually laughter and there is rarely the imperative to leave once both of you have come. There is care and a desire to avoid the sort of demeaning encounters women experience living within a patriarchal society. Casual sex with men felt risky and hardly worth the psychological impact of the aftermath, even if they could show you a good time.”
According to a 2014 study by the University of Toronto, post-intercourse feelings are actually all about comparison. If you’re partial to one type of post-coital approach, it’s not surprising to feel vulnerable when your partner(s) do something different. Conversely, if you’re happy with the approach your partner(s) take after sex, you’ll be happy with the sex itself.
The study also found that, despite results being similar for men and women, the association between post-sex affection and relationship satisfaction was stronger for women. “Part of that is an internalised societal conditioning,” Dr West continues. “Women are still tarnished with the idea that if they sleep around, they are sluts. We can’t just say ‘I want to have sex with you for an hour and then go home’, we have to justify it to ourselves as the ‘good kind’ of sex, the kind that’s socially acceptable.
“On a related note, we also aren’t taught how to develop healthy sexual relationships,” she says. “If we want to learn to drive, we pick up a government-approved manual and learn, but informing oneself about healthy sexual behaviours is much more difficult. We’re also battling against societal stigma and a lack of communication – it’s really unfair.”
A 2015 study by the International Society for Sexual Medicine delved into the little-understood phenomenon of PCD revealing that 46% of 230 female participants experienced it “a few times” in the past month, regardless of the intimacy or relationship status they had with their partner(s).
This is echoed in a 2011 Albright College study that looked at evolutionary tactics linked with post-intercourse approaches, showing that women were likely to engage in post-coital behaviours whether they were in a relationship with that person or not, whereas men were only likely to engage if the possibility of future sexual endeavours was on the table.
A salient post-coital narrative is actually encouraged in queer and play-based circles, says Ruth Crean, a trainee psychotherapist working in the area of sex therapy, polyamory and LGBTQ+ relationships. “Aftercare is seen as integral as the play itself. People will automatically begin an open conversation in which they ask how the other person likes being cared for. It’s because there is what’s called ‘a drop’ after the chemical high of a sexual encounter and sex is seen as a whole experience – rather than a race to the finish.”
Aftercare, also, is not one size fits all. It’s wholly dependent, Crean continues. Some prefer to be traditionally cared for and held, while others require time and space alone or simply verbal reassurance. “You don’t know what the other person likes,” she says. “But you can have an open conversation about desire and create your own script. Isn’t it interesting when we start to design things that work for us rather than taking on societal norms?”
From the outside in, it seems prudent to say that post-coital emotions often reflect one’s relationship with a sexual partner(s). However, that too takes sex at face value – by way of a myopic lens. It can feel natural to equate a healthy relationship to a healthy sex life, but that’s not necessarily so.
“I think it really changes all the time,” Dr West tells Stylist. “Libido will naturally ebb and flow from stress or medication or even just tiredness. It’s totally normal. It’s important to recognise that there is nothing wrong with not having sex with your partner for a while – there are other ways to source intimacy, even if that is cuddling in front of Netflix.
“For me it depends on who I’m sleeping with, or what kind of sex you’re having,” says Chloe*, 25, who identifies as a lesbian. “But often after sex I actually feel very emotional. In my most recent relationship, my girlfriend didn’t like to be touched at all after sex and would push me away. So, in my wanting to be close but being denied that, my bodily response was usually to cry. It used to really freak me out because I was enjoying the sex and in love with her. But the more I discussed it, the more common it was amongst my friends and I suppose the less alone I felt!”
A prolonged and continued feeling of post-coital sadness can be indicative of something deeper, and can also be avoided by talking. Talking about one’s preferences is a relatively new and still taboo topic in many cultures, with the vast majority preferring to simply ‘hope for the best’.
Perhaps we all need to take a leaf out of queer culture’s book and instigate open and frank conversations about sex in the same way we do about almost everything else. Worst case scenario, you’re introduced to different ideas. Best case? Greater sexual satisfaction. You decide.