What You Think You Know About the Male Refractory Period is Probably Wrong

Male symbols. Erect and limp.

The refractory period is usually defined as a phase following orgasm during which additional orgasms are impossible. Sexual arousal is often said to be very difficult during this time as well. The refractory period is usually discussed in relation to men; women are often said to have no such period, and this difference has been used to explain why women are more likely than men to have multiple orgasms. 

This narrative—while extraordinarily popular and pervasive in human sexuality textbooks and websites—might be incorrect, though. The truth of the matter is that we don’t actually know all that much about the refractory period—it’s a “shortcoming” in the sexuality literature, so to speak.

The standard refractory period narrative is one that comes from the pioneering research of William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the 1960s. However, in looking back at their work, it is apparent that their description of this phenomenon should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, in a recent review paper on the subject of the refractory period, Dr. Roy Levin observed the following: 

“It is interesting to note that Masters and Johnson, working in a period before evidence-based medicine, never published any experimental data or evidence to support the concept of the PERT [post-ejaculation refractory time] in men..Their statements that it occurred would now be designated as authority-based.” [1]

In other words, it’s time for us to revisit what we think we know about the refractory period. It’s possible that Masters and Johnson got it wrong. For one thing, perhaps the circumstances under which they observed human sexual behavior weren’t conducive to quantifying the male refractory period or studying male multiple orgasms. 

Just think about it: having sex in front of a group of scientists (even if the scientists are hiding behind one-way mirrors) probably creates a certain amount of performance pressure that could make it harder to, well, stay hard (or get hard again) after the first orgasm.

Anecdotally, I’ve spoken to several men who have described their sex lives to me in ways that have led me to believe there’s probably a lot more diversity in the male sexual response cycle than previously thought. For example, here are just a few of the many stories I’ve heard:

· A man who says it is very easy for him to reach orgasm, and to keep orgasming again and again with very little time in between. When he has an orgasm, he just wants to keep going and going—the only difficult thing for him is finding a partner who can keep up.

· A man who says that reaching orgasm is actually somewhat difficult. It takes a long time for him to get there—but once he orgasms, the floodgates open. He can stay aroused and reach orgasm over and over without a problem. 

· Multiple men have told me that they usually only have one orgasm—but under certain highly exciting conditions (such as having a new and extremely attractive partner or being part of a group sex situation), they don’t have a refractory period. They can stay aroused and have multiple orgasms in a short period of time in those situations. 

· Some men have also told me that they can pretty much always have multiple orgasms, but they decide in the moment how many they want to have based on situational or other factors (like how much time they have, how tired they are, what their partner wants, etc.).  

Of course, these are anecdotes—not data. But there is some data out there to back up these observations. For example, scientists have documented some reports of men having multiple orgasms. They even recorded one case of a man who, inside a research lab, masturbated to orgasm six times in 36 minutes [2].

However, given that there’s so little research on this subject, we can’t really say how common any of these experiences are. Generally speaking, we just don’t know what percentage of men have non-existent or very short refractory periods. We also don’t know what percentage have long ones (I’ve certainly also heard from men whose refractory period might be better described in terms of days rather than seconds or minutes).  

So what accounts for all of this variability? It’s likely related to the brain chemicals that are released during orgasm. Although the neurobiology of the refractory period remains poorly understood, researchers have pointed to possible roles of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, as well as the hormones prolactin and oxytocin [1]. It’s possible that some men are releasing more or less of these brain chemicals, or that some men’s bodies are naturally more or less sensitive to them. In other words, maybe some men’s brains are just “wired” to have shorter vs. longer refractory periods.   

Given that the refractory period is thought to be under the control of neurotransmitters and hormones, some researchers are testing whether they can experimentally adjust the length of the refractory period by tinkering with levels of these brain chemicals [1]. With a better understanding of the neurobiology of the refractory period, it’s possible that scientists may one day develop a drug that eliminates the male refractory period altogether—and for men who currently have lengthy refractory periods, this could potentially allow them to have multiple orgasms back to back on demand. 

Interestingly, there is one widely available drug that some research already suggests can reduce refractory period length: sildenafil (i.e., Viagra) [3]. Theoretically, this makes sense—after all, this drug makes it easier to become and stay erect, so taking it could potentially reduce one barrier to having multiple orgasms. 

With all of that said, one thing about the refractory period is clear: the standard narrative probably isn’t true and the diversity of the male sexual response cycle is worthy of a lot more study.

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[1] Levin, R. J. (2009). Revisiting post-ejaculation refractory time—what we know and what we do not know in males and in females. The Journal of Sexual Medicine6(9), 2376-2389.

[2] Whipple, B., Myers, B. R., & Komisaruk, B. R. (1998). Male multiple ejaculatory orgasms: A case study. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 23(2), 157-162.

[3] Mondaini, N., Ponchietti, R., Muir, G. H., Montorsi, F., Di Loro, F., Lombardi, G., & Rizzo, M. (2003). Sildenafil does not improve sexual function in men without erectile dysfunction but does reduce the postorgasmic refractory time. International Journal of Impotence Research15(3), 225.

Image Credit: 123RF

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