You’ve probably been there: After one inning between the sheets, not everyone’s ready for another. Women may be primed to go seconds after the first big win, but for men, it may not be so easy. No matter what his brain is saying, his body just won’t comply. What gives?
Both women and men have a built-in recovery period after sex. The refractory period for women isn’t as long (allowing for the possibility of multiple orgasms), but everyone experiences this waiting game.
For males, it’s called the refractory period (MRP), and it’s the time after ejaculation — lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few days — until it’s possible to get an erection again.
After ejaculation, the whole body is on overdrive. And the sympathetic nervous system — which controls the fight-or-flight response — pushes for calm, explains urologist Charles Walker.
This activates the release of certain neurotransmitters, the body’s chemical messengers, which cause the smooth muscle in the penis to contract, driving it into a flaccid fix.
What happens next is a domino effect, lowering levels of neurotransmitters, namely dopamine and testosterone. Dopamine, one of your “happiness” hormones, is secreted when you’re aroused. But when your system wants you to come off that high, it dampens production of it.
At the same time, production of the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone prolactin increases, which also counteracts arousal. Prolactin is the hormone most strongly associated with the refractory period — the lower your prolactin levels, the quicker you can get going again.
Take note: Ejaculation and orgasm aren’t the same thing — they’re two separate processes. Ifsomeone with a penis can refrain from ejaculating during orgasm, they may be able to have multiple orgasms. It’s a rare phenomenon and takes a lot of practice to become proficient.
Prolactin also explains why MRP lasts longer with orgasm from intercourse versus self-pleasure. The amount of prolactin released after intercourse is apparently 400 percent greater than following masturbation, according to research from 2006.
While that sounds like a bummer, the researchers suggest that this could simply mean that intercourse is usually more physiologically satisfying than masturbation.
Another side effect of increased prolactin? It suppresses production of testosterone, a key player in piquing your interest in sex. Also, your brain releases a surge of serotonin, which makes us want to just roll over and sleep after sex.
One research review of post-intercourse brain scans revealed that ejaculation causes a dip in activity in the prefrontal cortex and a release of oxytocin and serotonin, shutting off alertness and mental activity and essentially kneecapping any sexual desire.
So not only are your hormones working to actively make you not aroused, you also have less of the hormones that are responsible for getting your engines running. But don’t worry — it’s not as hopeless as it sounds.
It depends on a handful of factors, experts say. The biggest? Age.
“Teenage boys can have a refractory period of a few minutes,” says Abraham Morgentaler, associate clinical professor of urology at Harvard Medical School and author of “The Truth About Men and Sex: Intimate Secrets from the Doctor’s Office.”
“But a 30-year-old man is typically unable to have a second orgasm for half an hour or more, and for many men 50 years and older, one orgasm per day may be all they can achieve,” he says.
Other factors that come into play:
- level of sensitivity
- how turned on you are
- the quality and emotional state of your relationship
- whether you’ve been drinking
- whether you’re circumcised
- what medications you’re on
- how comfortable you are in your environment
Yep, this includes pretty much everything that would affect your ability to get an erection to start with, but even more so because you’re fighting against your body’s natural inclinations to recharge.
Everyone is wired differently too. “One young man may be able to have five or more erections and orgasms in a day with a new partner, whereas another young man in the same circumstances may not have the urge or ability to have more than one,” Morgentaler adds.
For most people, this forced break isn’t a huge problem. The biggest issue is if it’s affecting a partner’s pleasure. It can also be an inconvenience for couples who want to have back-to-back romping sessions.
Some can still have an erection, but no orgasm, during the MRP, Morgentaler adds.
How can you minimize the wait time? You can’t really control or predict it. But there’s one thing docs agree helps speed up your time between innings: increasing arousal.
“In especially exciting circumstances, all bets are off, and men may surprise themselves with how quickly their erection returns and their ability to have orgasms in relatively rapid succession,” Morgentaler says.
Some ideas to spice things up: Rent a hotel room instead of having sex at home, have morning sex instead of at night — even small efforts to add novelty may be enough for excitement to overpower your systems, Morgentaler adds.
And remember: “You don’t need an erection to give and receive pleasure,” says sexologist Jessica O’Reilly, PhD. “You’ve got 10 good fingers, a tongue, and hopefully some toys that can help [your partner] reach climax during the MRP.”
The refractory period is a natural phenomenon and is your body’s way of healing and protecting you after ejaculation. However, if you’re young and healthy and spending hours on the sidelines, check in with your doctor.
It could be simply a side effect of a medication — antidepressants in particular mess with your dopamine and serotonin levels — or a sign of something that needs medical attention, Walker says. It’s always better to check with a professional who can guide you.