How Long Does Sexual “Afterglow” Last?

Afterglow refers to “the look of contentment on a person’s face after great sex,” at least according to the Urban Dictionary. In other words, the basic idea here is that sex can sometimes be so good that it has lingering effects on our happiness that others can quite literally see. Despite the popularity of this colloquial term, it’s not something that scientists have studied, which begs the question of whether there is really something to the idea of sexual afterglow and, if so, how long it lasts. A new study published in the journal Psychological Science offers some insights.

Researchers examined data from two sets of couples who took part in a two-week diary study. The first sample involved 96 couples in Texas and the second involved 118 couples in Florida (in both cases, almost all were male-female couples). All participants were in their first marriage and none had been married for longer than 4 months. Participants completed daily surveys that inquired about whether or not they had sex, as well as their feelings of sexual and marital satisfaction that day.

On average, participants had sex on 4 out of the 14 days, although a few did not have sex at all and a few had sex every day. Perhaps not surprisingly, having sex on a given day was associated with greater feelings of sexual satisfaction that day, which the researchers took as evidence of a sexual afterglow.

They then looked at how sex on one day predicted sexual satisfaction on subsequent days. What they found was that sex on a given day was linked to feeling more satisfied the next day, as well as the day after that. However, sex was not associated with feelings of satisfaction three days later. In other words, the sexual afterglow—defined in this case as enhanced feelings of sexual satisfaction—appeared to last up to 48 hours.

What accounts for this afterglow effect? We can’t say for sure, but the researchers theorize that it has to do with biological changes that occur during sex, such as the release of neurotransmitters and hormones (e.g., dopamine and oxytocin). These biological changes are thought to manifest in feelings of greater sexual satisfaction and, further, that this might be adaptive for promoting the kind of bonding that would help to sustain a relationship. Consistent with this idea, the researchers found that the participants who experienced the strongest afterglows were the most satisfied during a follow-up survey conducted a few months later.

Importantly, the researchers demonstrated the same pattern of associations in two different samples. However, there are some limitations of this study, including the fact that we can’t say whether these results would generalize to same-sex couples or to couples who have been together for much longer periods of time. For example, it’s very possible that the effects of the afterglow are strongest in the early stages of a relationship.

Also, inherent in the colloquial definition of afterglow is this idea that you can see it on another person’s face. However, this study can’t speak to the extent to which sexual afterglow is truly detectable and, if so, for how long.

As always, more research would be useful; however, these findings are nonetheless important for confirming that a sexual afterglow does indeed exist and, further, that it tends to last for a couple of days.

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To learn more about this research, see: Meltzer, A. L., Makhanova, A., Hicks, L. L., French, J. E., McNulty, J. K., & Bradbury, T. N. (2017). Quantifying the Sexual Afterglow: The Lingering Benefits of Sex and Their Implications for Pair-Bonded Relationships. Psychological Science.

Image Source: 123RF.com/Elizabeth Engle

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