Sex is straightforward until it’s over. As soon as an orgasm ends, a new, potentially confusing phase of sex begins — and for some, that period can be downright terrible. The feeling of sadness that can immediately follow an orgasm is known among psychologists as “post-coital dysphoria.” For a number of reasons, the condition has been studied only in women, but scientists behind a recent Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy article took it upon themselves to be the first to ask whether men felt it, too.
PCD is defined by psychologists as a type of “dysphoria” because the negative feelings are incongruent with the “positive emotional experience” usually associated with consensual sex — the afterglow, the cuddling, and so on. It’s well-reported in women, but in the new study, the authors, led by psychology professor Robert D. Schweitzer, Ph.D., of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, studied self-reported data on the sex lives of 1,208 international men and found that men experience PCD as well. In fact, quite a lot of men do.
Out of the men who filled out the study’s anonymous online questionnaires, 41 percent had experienced PCD in their lifetime, 20 percent had done so in the past four weeks, and three to four percent experienced it regularly. On the whole, these frequencies are all still lower than those reported for women, but they’re still substantial enough not to ignore.
There are a number of factors linked to PCD in women, like psychological distress, sexual dysfunction, and a past history of abuse. As the team found in the new study, the same is true of men — it’s just never been studied before. That dearth of research on male PCD, they write, is largely the result of the cultural assumptions we make of men: that, essentially, they feel pretty damn good after having sex. But apparently, that is not always the case.
In the paper, the team includes direct quotations from the surveys in which the male participants describe how PCD feels to them. Here’s one example: “hard to quantify but after sexual activity I get a strong sense of self-loathing about myself, usually I’ll distract myself by going to sleep or going and doing something else or occasionally laying in silence until it goes away.” In another, one says: “I feel a lot of shame.” Being unprecedented, this work opens the door for researchers to more thoughtfully consider what men experience during the “resolution phase” of sex and how it might affect their own and their partner’s sex life.
Existing research on what people do after they orgasm may shed light on why PCD isn’t as obvious in men — and what can be done to help relieve it. Amanda Denes, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Communication who was not involved in the study, tells Inverse: “My research on communication after sexual activity, or pillow talk, has found that women disclose more positive thoughts and feelings to their partners after sexual activity compared to men,” she says. “Though speculative, perhaps women engage in more communication after sex as a means of either counter-acting or masking feelings of post-coital dysphoria and promoting connection with their partner.”
In one of her recent studies, she found that men who deliberately engaged in more pillow talk with their partner had overall better relationship satisfaction and were better able to regulate their physiological stress while discussing conflicts with their romantic partner. “We did not measure post-coital dysphoria, but it is possible that mens’ generally lower prevalence of PCD might allow them to benefit more from interventions focused on post-sex behavior,” says Denes.
While future research will very likely reveal more about the psychological underpinnings of PCD and how people can deal with it, studies like this one are useful simply because they ask us to reconsider the assumptions we take for granted. Sex can be good, sure — but for whom?