Image: Adobe Stock
This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.Picture the scene: You’ve just finished having sex, and the person who just seconds ago was digging their nails into your back, is now backing away. They’ve instantly and completely gone off the idea of any kind of physical contact. As they slip into the shower, you’re left clutching a sweaty pillow, wondering why they didn’t want to stay under the blanket for a cuddle and a chat.
Or maybe – no judgement! – you’re the one doing the showering in this particular scenario. Everyone reacts differently in the moments after orgasm. In fact, it’s now become a burgeoning area of academic study. Until recently, much of the research was focused on what’s known clinically as post-coital dysphoria — the term given to those unmistakable sensations of sadness, anxiety and irritability that can wash over us after a sexual encounter.Then along came a 2020 study by Andrea Burri and Peter Hilpert, two sexologists based at the Institute for Sex Counselling and Sexual Sciences in Zurich, which concluded that we might be better off redefining it as “postcoital symptoms”. They understand it as a series of feelings, including mood swings and low energy, that arise largely due to a decline in interest after sexual climax.The duo surveyed 223 women and 76 men, asking them to answer a base set of 21 questions related to the topic. A staggering 94.3 percent of the participants were found to have shown signs of postcoital symptoms since they became sexually active. Interestingly, 46.6 percent of them reported that these feelings were just as likely to be present after masturbation as they were after sexual activity with another person (or multiple people).
It’s worth considering that much of the scientific literature on this topic has, historically at least, been rather phallocentric. A good example of just how much weight has been placed on the penis is the significance afforded to the refectory period — that is, just how long it takes a man to get an erection again after orgasm. This is largely determined by the age of the penis-possessor in question. Eighteen-year-olds only have to factor in 28 minutes or so, while sexually active men in their 70s are looking at a 20-hour gap between sessions.Fabrizio Quattrini, a psychotherapist, sexologist and lecturer in clinical sexual disorders at Italy’s University of L'Aquila, is adamant that both sexes are affected by stimulation. “Hypersensitivity of the genitals after orgasm isn’t just a male thing,” he says. “Some people have a hypersensitive clitoral gland, which has to be stimulated in a certain way to experience pleasure. And just like men with their penises, they might not want to even think about any additional stimulation after that."Beyond the outmoded stereotypes that permeate our understanding of gender and sexuality (i.e. men scarpering after sex and women clinging, barnacle-like, to their partners), there’s an attempt to understand the post-sex blues as a biological phenomena. It’s an idea put forward by Filippo Maria Nimbi, a psychologist and sexologist at the Sapienza University of Rome.
“The evolutionary branches say that, on a biological level, women try to keep their partners close to guarantee a feeling of safety in the result of pregnancy, while men want to inseminate as many women as possible to ensure the continuation of the species,” Nimbi says. “But that’s a simplistic and dated concept. We have to overcome the gender binary and all the stereotypes that come with it.”It’s possible that those stereotypes have already played a devastating role in the collective sexual imagination. We often take on roles in the bedroom, reacting and behaving in certain ways, because this is what we feel like we should be doing, as opposed to what we actually want to do. This occurs in sexual relationships of all stripes.This stems in part from our experience of sex education in childhood and adolescence, Quattrini argues. He says that when you’ve not been educated properly on the link between emotion and sexuality, the heady combination of physical and emotional sensations that bubble up in one’s self after sex cannot be “understood, managed, and evaluated in a constructive way.” This leads to situations where people’s ideas about sex perhaps don’t align with their lived experience of it.So how can couples handle a situation where one partner tends towards postcoital symptoms more than the other? For Quattrini, communication is key. “You’ve got to ask each other questions like: ‘How did this start? Has it always been like this? Have we ever addressed it?’” he says. “Clearly, if that aspect was never there, it means that the partners are becoming aware of some absence. If, on the other hand, they were there in the past, but not anymore, it may be a sign of losing something in the relationship. You always need to understand how a couple is evolving.”The experts I spoke with reiterated the need to practice what we might think of as “positive sexuality”. This has nothing to do with thinking that every sexual encounter will be amazing, but instead experiencing it all without judgement and prejudice — and that extends to any postcoital anxieties. Including, it seems, running off for a shower.