Surely it has happened to most of us, at some point or another: after the rush of coital bliss comes, inexplicably, sadness. Melancholy. Fear. Tears, even. What is it, and why does it happen?
A piece by Sophie Saint Thomas at Mic explores just that question, in light of recent findings that 46 percent of 230 women polled admitted to feeling sad after sex at one point in their lives. Of the study, published in Sexual Medicine, Thomas writes:
These women reported feeling symptoms of PCD, or postcoital dysphoria, which is marked by “tearfulness, anxiety, agitation, a sense of melancholy or depression or aggression,” according to the Independent. Of those women, 2% said they felt that way after every time they had sex. And although 20% of the women polled said they had experienced sexual abuse in the past, which led to them developing mental health issues down the road, many of those surveyed didn’t report having a preexisting condition like PTSD to explain their symptoms.
PTSD, a history of sexual trauma—these are understandable reasons that sex could be fraught. It’s also tempting to think sadness post-sex could just be about the quality of the sex—who hasn’t been utterly disappointed in this way?—but an older study from 2011 that Thomas cites found that women felt bummed after sex even when the sex was “satisfactory.”
A 27-year-old woman interviewed for the piece explains that for her, the post-coital blues were related in part to a fear of being abandoned that emerged after intimacy. “I started to wonder if something was being taken from me every time I had sex, even though I enjoyed the act itself,” she told Thomas.
The rest of Thomas’s article explores the many other reasons women could feel this way. Maybe it’s the cultural baggage of shame or guilt that rears its head after you’ve done the deed. Maybe it’s because orgasms are maddeningly elusive for so many women, and with the end of sex comes the fresh realization that yet again, only one person got off.
Thomas also addresses the stereotypes and issues inherent in this research: online poll, hetero women only...what about gay men and lesbians, what about literally anyone else? Also, by looking at sadness in women it implies that this about some extra feelings women inherently have (or lack) about the act, but Thomas notes the idea that women are somehow more bonded after sex to their partners are is a myth, as is the idea that women are less interested in sex than men.
We now know that women experience arguably more sexual desire, in response to a wider range of stimulus, than previously thought. “Doesn’t like to fuck” is such an easy dismissive takeaway when we picture women bursting into tears after lovemaking. But reality is, as always, much more complex, and the prevailing research and theories point to the notion that female sexuality is actually more like a Ferrari V12 stuck inside a Yugo. Exciting desire levels! Rarin’ to go! Problem is, it has been told it is a Yugo its entire life. I am deeply sorry for this car analogy.
That said, the analogy helps, because feeling so limited in terms of how you can express your desires could be a big part of this puzzle. We often fear being seen by our lovers as not feminine enough, too aggressive, hard to please, complicated, and so on; feeling inexplicably sad after sex—even sex you’d call satisfactory—would then make sense. Because satisfactory is not great, and I would argue that many women have spent their lives having mediocre sex and learning to repress their dissatisfaction with it.
But let’s say you did just have great sex, and you don’t have a history of PTSD/trauma, and you still feel sad. Then what? Well, there could be a number of cut-and-dry reasons, such as:
- You know this asshole is terrible for you
- You know this asshole is great for you, but you can’t be together
- His roommate hates you
- You still haven’t written that novel
- You know the world is more heavily weighted on you
- You don’t really love him
- You love him too much
- You both love each other, but you’re sure it’s not exactly right
- You’re sleeping with your sister’s husband
- (You don’t even like him, you’re just mad at your sister)
More often, though, the cause is likely somewhat more ephemeral—and it’s important to note that this also happens to men. A Vice piece looking at post-orgasm sadness in dudes explores the existential dilemma inherent in the act. Sadness comes from a sense of loss after such closeness (which is perhaps why the French call orgasm “le petit mort,” or “the little death”).
Daniel Woolfson writes:
In 2009, American psychiatrist Richard Friedman investigated possible biological explanations for post-coital sadness. He wanted to prove that the phenomenon was, in some cases, the result of a rebound in the amygdala—the part of the brain that deals with fear and anxiety. During sex, the amygdala “dampens” fear and anxiety. Thus, post-coital sadness could be explained as amygdala function sharply returning to normal levels.
Taking that into account, those temporary feelings of depression could be compared to what you feel like the day after deciding to drop another pill as the birds started singing, only on a smaller scale. What goes up must come down.
This makes sense, because hey, we take drugs to get high, and when they wear off, we temporarily sink below our emotional baseline. Interestingly, part of the study found that when subjects took anti-depressants, which often resulted in a decrease in sexual pleasure due to side-effects, they were less likely to report sadness after sex. Now that’s the ultimate bummer—is the only way to not be sad after sex to not have very good sex in the first place?
Back at Mic, Thomas examines the fact that it could really simply have a lot do to with your partner, even if said partner is only a casual one. She writes:
While it might sound obvious, who you’re having sex with plays a major role in how you feel about it afterward. Levkoff said it’s wise to check in with yourself and make sure you are comfortable with your partner and that there are no unaddressed, underlying issues preventing you from enjoying the encounter to the fullest, even if you’re just looking for a one-night stand.
Ultimately, it’s important to have sex with someone with whom you feel safe, “and by safe I mean respected, trusted, cared for,” [relationship expert Logan] Levkoff said. “It might not even be a monogamous romantic relationship. If you feel like this is someone you are connected to and who respects you, that certainly impacts [your feelings afterward].”
That was the case for the woman Thomas interviewed, who found that she no longer had the post-sex feelings of abandonment once she was in a safer, more secure relationship. But that may not be the case for everyone.
Being alive is strange and terrifying. Physical intimacy is one of the closest, most deeply connected experiences you can have, yet it can also be fantastically meaningless, which is potentially quite confusing. In either case, the sense of vulnerability that follows can suddenly wash over you in a tidal wave, leaving you feeling utterly exposed.
We may never understand the crushing weight of our own existence, or why it needs to poke its head out right after a mind-blowing romp. But these feelings, inconvenient though they might be, aren’t necessarily meant to be ignored. If you’re getting sad after sex, there’s probably a reason worth examining—whether it’s some existential tangle in your subconscious, or just a relationship (or lack thereof) that kind of sucks.
Gif via Sony Pictures/Dawson’s Creek.