Postcoital dysphoria is a sudden feeling of loneliness, sadness, and confusion after experiencing pleasure, writes Emma Flint
Content warning: this piece contains a discussion of trauma due to sexual abuse. Click here to go back to homepage
Partnered sex can be wonderful and fulfilling. We surrender ourselves to an intimate moment, one which happens to naturally release endorphins. So why do some of us feel sad afterwards?
Not to be confused with “crymaxing”, which is considered a euphoric experience when you cry during orgasm or after sex, postcoital dysphoria (PCD) is a little-understood experience that involves negative feelings after sex. It might include tearfulness, a sense of melancholy or depression, anxiety, agitation, or even aggression.1
When you research PCD, many definitions given do little more than describe it as a sudden sense of depression, lowness, or anxiety. Plus, there is often an attempt to explain these feelings as being caused by something that happened during sex: maybe you didn’t feel that your needs were met, you felt ashamed, or you needed more post-sex care.
A recurring theme in all this information is the assumption that PCD only happens with partnered sex. Yet, there’s plenty of times I’ve suffered from PCD after solo play. In fact, a lot of my PCD occurs this way.
I’m disconnected from myself during one of the most intimate acts I can have with myself, and this causes debilitating distress
It could be argued that I respond to solo sex in this way because I miss my partner being there, and perhaps there’s an element of that every now and again. But I find it hard to believe that I’m not meeting my own needs. If anyone is going to hit the mark, it’s me; I know my body and its needs best, and I have an imagination that can fuel some fantastic scenarios.
Simply referring to PCD as intense sadness doesn’t quite capture how it feels; it’s a moment when all you can do is cry, immediately feeling so utterly alone and confused after such a pleasurable experience.
Sex and masturbation are meant to be moments when we’re connected to ourselves and/or our partner(s), yet when we’re struggling and feel alone, we become disconnected from ourselves emotionally even though we’re feeling physical connection. We’re present but not necessarily “there” in the moment.
This is how PCD feels for me most of the time, with the pandemic only having worsened that feeling; I’m disconnected from myself during one of the most intimate acts I can have with myself, and this causes debilitating distress. My mind knows that such pleasurable moments shouldn’t also be sad, so when that sadness hits it causes me to almost become numb.
Every time I’ve experienced abuse, it’s been at the hands of someone else. This in turn has created a warped relationship for me between sex and partners
The confusion this creates causes my anxiety to peak, which triggers the inevitable need to cry in order to release this new build-up of emotional tension. In these moments, I become open to revisiting past experiences — most notably my past sexual trauma.
I’m a survivor of sexual abuse. Given that history, it could be possible that my PCD is affected by PTSD.2 I don’t feel that’s what’s happening to me, but I do think that my trauma has shaped how I engage with sex, specifically when I’m alone.
Every time I’ve experienced abuse, it’s been at the hands of someone else. This in turn has created a warped relationship for me between sex and partners. Consequently, I feel most in control when I’m taking charge of sexual moments — when I’m engaged in partnered sex, I’m one of the main driving forces and I’m able to determine what happens. It’s my attempt to gain control through sex, to remind myself I’m not merely an objectified bystander.
But when I’m masturbating, there’s only me. I’m so used to partnered experiences, even the bad ones, that when I’m both the only one in control and the only one being controlled I don’t know what to do. This unease around the unfamiliar is part of what I believe causes my PCD. This could be why a lot of my fantasies during masturbation revolve around sexual practices and behaviours that I wouldn’t want to entertain with a partner.
This relationship between masturbation and internalised discomfort with myself is further reinforced when I take into account my gender identity. For years I’ve not felt connected to it and so, when I’m alone, I’m more openly at war with my body.
I’m forced to live in a body I don’t always like or feel fits who I am, which in itself is distressing at the best of times. Then when you add sex into the mix it becomes even more challenging. When I’m alone, I can’t ignore the “womanly features” of my body, the parts that people have used as an excuse to take advantage of me and to mark me as a woman. I can’t escape that feeling; I’m genderfluid, but to society’s standard heteronormative gaze, my body looks anything but that.
In this regard, for me, PCD is a symbol and embodiment of inner conflict — I’m not at peace with myself in certain ways, and this more easily manifests when I’m alone and vulnerable. For some, partnered sex might leave them feeling more vulnerable, however, I find I feel far safer when with my partner than when I’m alone.
When it comes to PCD, I don’t have an answer to explain it away. However, if you experience PCD, what I can do is assure you that you’re not alone in these feelings: our experiences may vary, but the validity of our feelings doesn’t.
Featured image is an illustration of a person sitting on their bed in their underwear. They are sitting on their legs with their back to the camera. There is an artistic blue splash of paint over the back of their head, to give a sense of the negative emotions they may be feeling
Page last updated February 2021
- Schweitzer, R.D., et al., Postcoital dysphoria: prevalence and psychological correlates, Sexual Medicine, December 2015, vol 3, issue 4, pp 235-243
- Bird, B.S., et al., The prevalence and correlates of postcoital dysphoria in women, International Journal of Sexual Health, 2011, vol 21, issue 1, pp 14-25