(Reuters Health) – In a recent survey, almost half of young women said that at some point in their lives, they’d experienced feelings of melancholy after sex.
Most research on female sexual function has focused on arousal, orgasm or pain before or during sex, while little has focused on emotional expression after sex, the researchers say.
So-called “postcoital dysphoria,” or feelings of sadness after consensual intercourse, may not be a “medical” problem, per se, but a human experience on the continuum of sexual experiences one can have, said lead author Robert D. Schweitzer of Queensland University of Technology in Kelvin Grove, Queensland, Australia.
He and his colleagues used online survey responses from 230 female university students, who answered questions about sexual function, experiences in close relationships, psychological distress and sex-specific emotional experiences.
In addition, the researchers asked the women whether inexplicable tearfulness or sadness following consensual sexual intercourse – symptoms of postcoital dysphoria – had ever been a problem for them, either in the last four weeks, or at some point in their lives.
About five percent of women had experienced those symptoms over the previous four weeks, and more than 46 percent had experienced them at least once in their lives.
Only two percent reported having these symptoms most or all of the time.
These numbers are higher than some previous studies, suggesting that postcoital dysphoria is still under-recognized and under-researched, the researchers wrote.
There is good evidence that there is a genetic component to the symptoms, as they are more common in identical twins, and breastfeeding may be associated with dysphoria, Schweitzer said.
Age and relationship length were not related to postcoital dysphoria symptoms in this study, but a history of childhood or adult sexual abuse increased the risk of the distress symptoms after sex.
The link between postcoital dysphoria and a history of childhood sexual abuse points to the fact that there are probably psychological factors involved, in addition to genetic factors, Schweitzer told Reuters Health by email.
“What we have observed is that there is a wide variation in the prevalence of dysfunction and its impact,” said Dr. Chandra Singh of Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, who was not part of the new study.
“I am working in India and in this male dominated society, the sexual expectation of the woman is quite low,” Singh told Reuters Health by email. “As a result, though the prevalence may be high, the impact on the individual varies based on their expectations.”
Some dysphoria could be due to a recent stressful event and may not need to be magnified beyond that, he said.
Men likely also experience these symptoms, Schweitzer said.
People who experience postcoital dysphoria should not feel alone or abnormal, he said.
Both Schweitzer and Singh said that being honest with one’s partner is the best approach to postcoital dysphoria. Because it’s been studied so little, there aren’t any proven therapies for it. Furthermore, both researchers emphasized that temporary or persistent dysphoria may be on the “healthy” spectrum of human sexuality, and it would be dangerous to label it as a disease.
“One woman wrote to us, she had been married for 20 years and always went to the bathroom following sexual intercourse and would cry,” Schweitzer said. “She reported relief to learn that she was not the only person with this experience.”