Repost of an article I originally wrote for Mic Connections. Photo courtesy of Mic/Getty Images.
The last time I cried after sex was during a summer fling I wasn’t totally into, about a year and a half ago. The sex was consensual, but all of a sudden, while he was on top of me, my flight-or-flight instinct kicked in. I had to ask him to stop before tears came.
This wasn’t a first-time experience. I live with post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by sexual assault, which means I sometimes have panic attacks during sex, which can sometimes end in tears. But according to a paper recently published in the journal Sexual Medicine, I’m not alone.
According to the study, nearly 46% of the more than 230 women polled have felt depressed after sex at some point during their lives. 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.
Why the hell are so many women feeling sad after sex? The PCD study had some obvious flaws. For instance, the results were collected through an online survey, and the sample size included predominantly heterosexual women. But this is not the first time researchers have tried to link sex to sadness in women. A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Sexual Health found one-third of women said they felt depressed even after satisfactory sex.
Jerilyn, 27, is one of them. “Even when I was single, the post-sex depression morphed into a different shade of empty. I always attributed it to the fear of being abandoned,” she told Mic. “I started to wonder if something was being taken from me every time I had sex, even though I enjoyed the act itself.”
Researchers theorized this post-sex dysphoria was caused by hormonal shifts after orgasm. But according to sex and relationship expert Logan Levkoff, the reason might have less to do with biology and more to do with how women’s sexuality is viewed in modern society.
“I think it’s important to remember that if you grow up not feeling empowered by your body, if you feel guilt and shame about sex, if you’ve been taught that your needs are less important than a man’s needs … [it’s not a] surprise that some people wouldn’t feel great after sex,” Levkoff told Mic.
According to Levkoff, part of why women might feel down after getting laid is that their needs weren’t met in bed, a phenomenon linked to how our culture teaches women about their sexual desires. While many men believe that women can achieve orgasm via penetration alone, according to one study, about 75% of women need some form of clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm.
If their partners aren’t interested in paying attention to their desires, it’s no surprise that women would feel frustrated or emotionally drained after sex. “I think that the take-home message has a lot to do with how we learned about sex [and] how we feel about our bodies,” Levkoff said.
Playing into stereotypes: Possible causes of PCD aside, it’s worth noting that the study could be interpreted as perpetuating the idea that women are more biologically predisposed than men to becoming emotionally attachedto their partners after sex. (That notion was quickly debunked by a study from Concordia University, which found men and women process both love and sexual attraction in pretty much the same way.)
The idea that women are more likely than men to become sad or depressed after sex also inherently endorses the stereotype that women just aren’t really into sex at all. While numerous publications have said otherwise — in fact, a fertility app survey from earlier this year determined that many women would prefer to be having more sex than they’re currently having — the stereotype of the sexless housewife in a frumpy nightgown snapping, “Not tonight, honey,” at her poor, neglected husband still persists.
For this reason, many women don’t buy into the PCD study, insisting that they feel just fine after sex. “The only time I ever feel negative emotions after sex is if it was a one-night stand and I didn’t practice safe sex,” Meredith*, 24, explained. “Maybe guilt the next day, but no, I’m never sad. I love sex.”
Ehris, 22, is also skeptical that women have a biological predisposition toward post-sex depression. “I’ve experienced [sadness after sex] before. But I don’t think that it needs to be pathologized as a problem experienced predominantly by women,” she explained. “I’ve had and heard of partners of both sexes and a variety of genders who have felt melancholic after sex.”
Ehris brings up an important point: PCD isn’t exclusive to women. Men too don’t always feel awesome after sex. “We certainly don’t talk about it as much,” Levkoff said of PCD in men. “And that’s the one thing — this study sort of stereotypes, ‘Yeah, women really aren’t interested in sex.’ I don’t want this to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that’s a bad paradigm to put out there.”
A hormonal quirk or a sign that something’s not quite right: An orgasm can be one of nature’s most powerful drugs. When you have sex, the release of hormones in your brain can cause some funny reactions, from making you want to snuggle into your partner’s armpit to making you cry uncontrollably for no apparent reason. The occasional bout of post-sex sadness might be a sign that something isn’t right in the relationship, but it might also just be an odd quirk of nature and nothing more than that.
That said, if you consistently feel sad and depressed after having sex, it’s worth asking yourself why and reevaluating your partner selection. 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,” 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].”
Jerilyn experienced PCD for years before she started dating her current partner, a longtime friend of hers. They’ve been together five months, and Jerilyn said she is finally enjoying sex in the way she thought she was meant to.
“This is the first time in my life that I have not had some form of postcoital depression. The only reason I get sad is if he falls asleep and I want more,” she explained. “Sex is finally what it should be for me, which is primal and passionate, and no longer something that provokes that overhanging, ambiguous sensation that something isn’t right.”
I’ve dealt with a lot of my PTSD-related issues, and like Jerilyn, I am now with a partner with whom I feel safe. I no longer feel sadness or anxiety after sex. Instead, I feel a lovely, Ativan-esque sense of calmness.
*Some names have been changed and last names have been withheld to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.