All of us have heard of foreplay – but what about afterplay? I believe that what happens after sex is just as important as what precedes it or even the act itself.
For many people, it is easy to see penetration or the act of orgasm as the “point” of sex or the “main course”. In my clinic, I frequently hear how many people have become overly focused on these ideas. In doing so, they lose so many pleasures which are not covered by these acts. The time spent in penetration is, studies tell us, only about 4% of the average sexual interaction, and for most people the period of orgasm is less than a minute’s worth of pleasure – a tiny percentage of sex. So if that is our focus, aren’t we overlooking something?
My answer is a resounding yes! Far from sex being the main course, I see sex as akin to a sandwich. What happens before and after penetration and orgasm is key. The time taken to warm up the body’s arousal mechanisms, to connect with your partner and to allow yourself to relax into (and get aroused into) a physical and emotional state where you are ready to allow more intimate contact with another person is essential to good sex. Anticipation of the act is often at least as enjoyable as the act itself, so creating a good build up is important.
However, it is in the minutes following sex that we can really alter our body’s experience and the impact it has on our relationship. In the post coital haze that follows a positive sexual encounter the body is awash with neurochemicals. Oxytocin (the bonding or “cuddle hormone”) is released during sex and helps us to feel connected with our partner. Unfortunately dopamine is also produced and although this has a short-term positive effect (making the brain feel satiated and giving a short-term sense of well-being), its levels quickly reduce, leading to withdrawal symptoms and irritability. Some scientists argue that the reason we lose desire in long-term relationships may be because we come to associate sexual intimacy with the feelings of annoyance which can arise from low dopamine levels, thus causing us to avoid sex. Many people counter this by going out and finding new partners to feed their dopamine habit whilst avoiding the irritability feelings which may be put onto a regular partner.
So how do we counter-act the emotional rollercoaster associated with dopamine? The answer is oxytocin. Although after orgasm levels of oxytocin begin to fall, you can sustain them by continuing to maintain close body contact, hugging and holding each other.
Hugs lasting more than 20 seconds have been shown to cause the release of oxytocin and oxytocin is directly related to our ability to bond with another person.
As well as increasing pair-bonding, increased levels of oxytocin have been shown to have multiple positive effects: lessening cravings and reducing addiction, lower stress levels, increasing sexual receptivity, speeding up wound healing and facilitating learning, lowers blood pressure. In fact, it seems to be almost a miracle hormone. So if you want to maintain desire and deepen your relationship, don’t let sex end right after orgasm. Hold one another and you’ll see the benefits blossom in your relationship.