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TW: discussions of sex, sexual trauma and hookup culture

Sometimes I forget men have feelings. It sounds cold, harsh or even selfish, but it’s true. I’m not unkind to men, but when they hurt me, romantically or otherwise, it makes me wonder if they have the same feelings that women do. But then my male friends will approach me about some feeling or girl problem they’re having, and I realize we are not that different. My best guy friend asked me the other day if I’ve ever felt sad or depressed after sex. I told him that “Of course, I did (don’t all women?). He responded and admitted he felt the same way. I was astounded because I figured men, especially if they’re participating in casual sex with multiple partners, were just there for the sex and felt nothing – even admitting this makes me feel silly for being so close-minded. I explained to him that if I’m treated well after casual sex, I don’t feel that way –  meaning if I had received the proper aftercare. 

Feeling sad or irritable after sex has a name – it’s called postcoital dysphoria (PCD), and it’s quite common among men and women. A study on male postcoital dysphoria found that about 40% of males have experienced PCD in their lifetime. Another study on female PCD found that number fell about 46% for females. Although these studies were just confined to men and women, PCD and aftercare are not confined to this binary nor to heterosexual sex. I explain my experience with it in this context because I am heterosexual, but it is important for all sexual encounters regardless of orientation or gender. 

I’ve felt it numerous times before. The sex is good, great even, and with a person I like, but I feel dirty and unwanted afterward and all I want to do is cry or crawl into a deep, dark hole. I’ve found that this happens when the man I’m sleeping with treats me indifferently afterward. Not necessarily unkind (although that surely doesn’t help) but just without affection or real attachment. Earlier this semester, I met a rather charming and handsome man (who shall remain nameless) at a party. He seemed mildly interesting, so I gave him my number and told him to text me if he wanted to see me again. Sure enough, we texted back and forth for a few days – nothing personal or deep, simply getting to know each other on a cursory level. I tend to get attached to men I reveal too much information to, even if I know they will probably hurt me. So I intended to remain detached, sharing basic information and having a good time. In hindsight, this seems like an ideal way to get my feelings hurt and ego damaged, but I didn’t see that at the time. I successfully remained emotionally uninvolved, but after having sex with him, I still felt sad and unwanted. He clearly wanted me to leave immediately after – he didn’t even let me use the bathroom first, which placed my self-worth at an all-time low and made me feel like a girl he’s ashamed of. This is simply a symptom of hookup culture – the inevitability that some men will simply not be kind to their partners. But I also felt so poorly after because I didn’t receive the aftercare I know I need after sex despite me explicitly asking for it. Needless to say, I will not sleep with him again. 

Aftercare (and no, I’m not talking about after-school programs for young children) are care activities or actions done after sex for another partner to make them feel safe. It’s usually associated with the BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance and submission) community, but aftercare is an important, and necessary, component after intense physical exertion, like sex. Aftercare involves caring for wounds because of sex, especially after BDSM, but it’s not bound to this distinction and is an important part of any intimate act. Aftercare is flexible: It’s simply anything you and your partner need to feel safe and cared for. It is not confined to just relationships or committed, exclusive partners but it’s for all sexual encounters. Common care activities can include cuddling, getting your partner water or food, watching television or a movie, getting food for your partner or simply talking. These seem like small acts, but they help establish trust and help partners “come down” after sex. As for me, I’m a cuddler. I need physical touch and affection to feel wanted and safe. Sex puts you in an incredibly vulnerable place, and it helps me trust my partner. 

Kimberly Atwood, a licensed counselor and certified sex therapist, refers to aftercare as a “bookend” to sex; without it, sex feels unfinished. She explains that because sex can often have an abrupt ending, some sort of cooldown is necessary to bring you down from the high sensation of sex. Atwood also explains that if sex ends without climaxing, aftercare is even more important because you or your partner may feel incredibly embarrassed or frustrated –  those small acts of caring ease the situation. 

“Ideally, aftercare is an essential part of most sexual encounters,” she said.

You can incorporate aftercare, like any other part of sex, into the conversation you would usually have with a partner before having sex. I discuss it alongside my expectations and STIs questions. 

At first, I didn’t think I needed aftercare. I thought wanting affection was because I wanted a relationship, and it felt inappropriate for me to ask a person I wasn’t dating for affection. However physical intimacy, like something as simple as cuddling, doesn’t equate to emotional intimacy, like that found in a committed relationship. I realize now that if my sexual partner feels like cuddling after sex is too “relationshipy” or doesn’t listen to me when I explicitly tell them my needs, they will not see me again. It’s for this reason that I no longer participate in hookup culture because my partners were just not fulfilling my needs. 

Although I discuss aftercare in the context of nonexclusive partners, it is not confined to hookups. It’s important in relationships too. So, whether it’s your lover, your friends-with-benefits, your boyfriend, your friend or your casual hookup, aftercare is important and, indeed, a need. It’s not some oddity or quirk you should feel ashamed to ask for but a part of sex that your partner should feel ashamed for not fulfilling. This goes for you as a partner too. If you find yourself unwilling to perform aftercare or are insensitive to your partner’s needs, consider trying it out. I can tell you from personal experience how it has wildly improved my sexual encounters.

Delaney is a fourth year English major at the University of Florida, with a focus on children's and young adult literature. Her favorite articles to write are book reviews and anything about women's issues, including writing about her often disastrous college dating life. When she isn't reading vampire novels or sipping tea, she can be found buying second-hand clothes or baking cookies.
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