female refractory period

Yes, Women Have a Refractory Period Too

It's just not what you think it is

There’s a thing that happens in sexual relationships where, if you’re lucky, you spend all day in bed for sex purposes. In between doin’ it a lot, in all kinds of ways, you might take a nap, watch TV, order some food or bask in the reflected afterglow of a good sexual connection. It’s associated with the first part of a relationship, because it’s off the thrill of novelty and the excitement of lust that you can keep going, and going.

For some couples, that sex-a-thon becomes a hall-of-fame day in the relationship history. A guy I knew in college made a T-shirt with the number 5 emblazoned in green felt on the back — that was the number of times he allegedly boned his girlfriend in a single day. This guy was ostensibly counting his own orgasm stats — it’s usually the man who sets the pace — as the singular metric for his virility, based on his ability to bounce back and reload.

But for one thing, that’s overrated as a general male quality. You can find celebrations and laments in equal parts around “my boyfriend has no refractory period” as well as “my boyfriend has a really long refractory period.” (Also, men can have great sex — in multiple sessions — without orgasm!)

For another, it’s not really true. Women, too, need a minute after getting off. We just never really think about it that way, and by framing women’s downtime only in terms of how it’s not like men’s, it seems like a superpower when really it’s just a technical advantage.

In scientific terms, that timeframe is part of the resolution phase of sex called a refractory period, and it’s widely believed that only men have one. Women, we’re told, are “multi-orgasmic” and men, well, are not, which implies we could just lie there cumming until dawn.

For men, we’ve explained the why before:

When guys cum, they release sperm-rich semen, which, biologically speaking at least, is only meant for reproduction. Female orgasms, on the other hand, are unrelated to babymaking. (A quick refresher: Pregnancy for women is all about the egg they release each month; it has nothing to do with their orgasms.) Which means women can have a lot more orgasms  —  and in rapid succession. Men, however, need a refractory period to rest and regenerate their sperm count in order to produce enough to get to that female egg.

But women also have a resolution phase, where, as Masters and Johnson defined it, “the body slowly returns to its original, unexcited state.” And if a refractory period is “defined as the length of time during which a male cannot become aroused from any kind of sexual stimulation,” well, there are plenty of women who can’t get turned on right away again after they get off, even if there’s nothing technically preventing them from having another orgasm in terms of the mechanics of their bodies.

For women, getting one orgasm is often hard enough, but the ability to keep having them over and over and over is misleading. Or rather, just because you can doesn’t mean you’d want to. Over at Savage Love, a man writes in that in his relationship, it’s an unusual dynamic: He can go again right away, but she can’t:

I have never experienced drowsiness, lessened sensitivity, or quickened loss of erection after orgasm. My wife, on the other hand, doesn’t even like me kissing her bits after orgasm. She says they feel tender and sore afterward, and this feeling can last for hours. Is this normal?

Savage explains that it’s perfectly normal, so long as they are okay with it (though it’s possible they just need lube, or his dick is painfully large, or he’s rubbing her with sandpaper). Men may have a wide-ranging refractory period that goes from 15 minutes to 24 hours, or days, while some men can and do have multiple orgasms (though, to be clear, it’s not common).

He explains about women:

…most orgasmic women are capable of having multiple orgasms — but most women ≠ all women. (I’ve always loved what groundbreaking sex researcher Mary Jane Sherfey wrote in 1966: “The more orgasms she has, the more she can have — for all intents and purposes, the human female is sexually insatiable.” Emphasis hers.)

But what the wife is talking about here is not that she can’t cum again and again, it’s that it doesn’t feel good to try right away regardless. In other words, her refractory period is that her lady parts are too sensitive to get off again immediately after resolution, even if she could.

Women get sore from a lot of fucking, particularly without lube. And any woman who’s gone for multiple orgasms can tell you that, even with a vibrator, they don’t all come flooding out like dominos every time. Some are harder to get to, and you can get sort of numb, or just irritated from all the friction. You could stay in bed with a vibrator all day and keep it cumming, but for some women you just get numb, and for some women, it just makes it harder to get off any other way.

It’s easy to see why men would be jealous of this ability, but it’s not the slam dunk it seems like. Yes, it feels good to have multiple orgasms, but it often takes work, and there’s only so much time in a day. It’s like when men say if they had tits they’d just fondle them and stare at them all day. Of course, that’s what we do! But then you have to get to your job.

Still, we peddle this idea of the sexual insatiability and endless cum-ability because it’s technically true for lots of women. “As long as she’s aroused and lubricated, a woman is physically capable of having sex as many times as she wants without a break in between,” Drogo K. Montague, M.D., told Cosmopolitan about second helpings.

Other sex education sites get closer to reality: Women’s refractory periods are not like men’s; however, “fatigue after orgasm can make them lose interest in sex temporarily. This can happen after one orgasm or multiple orgasms.”

Other women explain online that their refractory period is simply catching your breath after a body-rocking orgasm and returning back to a resting state. In a post at Quora asking why women don’t need a refractory period, one woman explains, “We do.” She continues:

From my own personal experiences, after having an orgasm, I can’t even catch my breath. If it was via penetration, all I’m able to do is lie there like a dead fish, at least until my body stops shaking and I can catch my breath. This doesn’t mean my partner has to stop because it doesn’t take much for the arousal to return which means more orgasms. Yay for me!

If it’s a clitoral orgasm, then do not touch me there until I give you the green light. It’s just way too sensitive.

Plus, you have to consider how long it takes for a woman to get off, and how much might be involved. If the first orgasm took 40 minutes to achieve, it’s not like the rest of the orgasms just spit out like coins from a slot machine. You still gotta get back in there and get to work.

If we included this in our baseline explanations of how sex works for women, perhaps it would do more than simply help men better understand women’s bodies. It would also stop perpetuating the idea that one of us is a sexually insatiable horndog that just doesn’t want sex but could have it all day long, and the other is a sexually insatiable horndog that just can’t get hard again fast enough to get it all day long. The truth is, we’re closer than we think: We are both insatiable horndogs working with slightly different equipment.

So what if she can’t cum again? We might be bored, sleepy, sore or really really hungry. So why don’t we order some food, catch up on The Good Place and see what happens in an hour or two? We can make our hall-of-fame T-shirt next time.