Month: October 2015

Why Do So Many Women Feel Sad After Sex?

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.”

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.

How to Date a Rape Survivor – Latest Article for VICE Broadly

Originally published in Broadly.

We’ve all got baggage. Adding an extra layer to the muddled waters of dating is the highly common and formidable post traumatic stress disorder that can arise from a sexual assault. For me, help came through medical cannabis and a partner down to go down on me while I watch Planet Earth and sip valerian root tea while listening to the calming voice of David Attenborough. RAINN estimates an average of 293,066 Americans (age 12 or older) are victims of sexual violence each year, so it could happen to you or your partner as well.

“Chances are very good that they will date a sexual assault survivor because the rates are so high,” says psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg. “When you are dating or having sex with somebody, you’re interacting with them on the same level which they were violated. So that makes it so tricky.” While all relationships, individuals, and healing processes are different, there are certain general things one can do when dating a survivor of sexual assault.

First and foremost, believe them. “When people tell you their stories, believe them,” says Dr. Greenberg. “The likelihood of someone making that up is probably very, very low. Listen and believe them, and don’t feel like you have to fix things for them, or that you can fix things for then…Let them speak.” In other words, shut the fuck up a bit and let them tell their story – in their own time. “If you love someone, or even if you don’t love them and you’re just trying to have a positive sexual experience with them, you need to let them really sort through it at a pace and level of detail that’s comfortable for them,” says Emily Lindin of The Unslut Project and UnSlut: A Documentary Film which explores sexual shaming, including interviews with the family and friends of Rehtaeh Parsons. Parsons was a 17-year-old Canadian student who reportedly hung herself after sexual bullying resulting from photos that surfaced of her alleged gang rape.

When it is appropriate to chime in, it’s important to ask the right questions. “The right questions are not: ‘What happened? Where did you get touched? Where were your parents? Were you drunk?’ Not any accusatory or judgmental questions. Don’t ask about details, ask about triggers,” says Dr. Greenberg. It’s important to go over triggers to prevent a survivor from having to relive an experience. A trigger is something that can remind you of the assault and cause flashbacks. It could be anything from seeing someone on the subway with a similar tattoo to your assaulter, or hearing a word or phrase they used during the attack, or being touched in an unintentionally similar way. It’s shitty for everyone when during sex you’re trying your hardest not to spiral into full panic attack because your boyfriend accidentally did something that surfaced flashbacks from your assault, and it’s also really frustrating to have to listen to them whine about how usually they are so great at getting chicks off with the exact move that’s causing your flashback.

When dating a sexual assault survivor, sometimes you just have to be patient and learn not to take things personally. “This is a tough one, but you really have to work on not taking it personally. Because it’s due to the trauma and not you,” says Dr. Greenberg. “You have to be patient. You’re going to learn how to be gentle, to avoid the triggers, and how to make it a safe and lovely experience. And be forgiving… as they trust you more, things will become easier.”

For some women (and yes – men can be sexual assault survivors too) you’re dealing with persistent old scars that just don’t want to fade. For others, like Kara*, who survived a rape in the past month, her and her boyfriend Jon* are having to navigate triggers bubbling up from a very fresh wound. “What’s so disheartening is that she’s blaming herself, and that she’s responsible for it, or maybe she didn’t do enough stuff,” Jon told me. “I have to encourage her that it’s not true.” The root keeping Kara and Jon strong is that, when they discuss her rape, he remains respectful and reminds her of the number one rule – it wasn’t your fault. Period. “He’s been really helpful, because I’ll sit here and get upset and blame myself and he actually reasons with me,” says Kara.

“When we brought [Kara] to the emergency room, she was covered in bruises, like big hand print bruises,” said Jon. “She [said] ‘I don’t know maybe I didn’t do enough… I bruise easily,’ and I was like, ‘We wrestle, all the time. In bed.’ I’ll put my butt on her face to fart on her. And I was like, ‘You try really hard not to let me fart on you, don’t you?’ And she goes, ‘Yeah, I try my best.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah every time we wrestle you’re trying really hard, but you’re not left with any bruises on you. So when you were in this struggle obviously you were fighting very hard not to leave these bruises.”

As Boyfriend of the Year as Jon seems, he understands that to get through this, Kara will need to see a professional trained in treating assault victims. “He’s been trying to get me to talk to a counselor, which, I will…” says Kara. In order to encourage her, Jon said, he “bribed her with a kitty.” “He did, he’s like you can get a kitten…but you can’t talk to it like your counselor, you have to actually go. It’s a really tiny kitty I think it will help just to take care of something. Putting the love and energy into it,” said Kara.

“You’re going to need to go to therapy and see a crisis counselor – as soon as possible. Because the sooner you see a crisis counselor the less likely you are to get post traumatic stress disorder. They found that with trauma victims are helped immediately they’re much more likely to have a positive outcome,” explains Dr. Greenberg. The healing from a sexual assault is a lifelong process. Even with patience, respect, and time, surviving a rape is something you have to carry with yourself for the rest of your life. Yet, you’re still you. You still want to drink herbal tea while your boyfriend eats you out, or you’re still are going to have to smell your boyfriend’s smelly farts. Life stops for nothing.

“Acknowledge that it is a really important part of their history, [and let] them know that you’re ready to listen when you’re ready to talk, and that you respect them,” says Lindin. “I think it’s important to remember that sexual assault survivors don’t stop being adult humans because they went through this.”