WILLIAMS: Sex and sadness

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As we enter the Lenten season, many of us are considering the spiritual consequences of our consumption habits. Many people give up the foods they most enjoy — meat, sweets, alcohol and coffee.

The difficulty of surrendering our habits, even temporarily, reminds us of the weaknesses of which our flesh is prone. We hope that by denying ourselves the pleasures of the flesh, we can pay more attention to matters of the spirit. How do we treat ourselves and our loved ones? What are we doing to alleviate the pain of the less fortunate? In this time of introspection, we must also consider the consequences of our sexual habits as well.

In a recently reviewed survey among young Australian women, almost 30 percent acknowledged feelings of sadness, restlessness and irritability immediately following sex. The results are notable because previous studies on the subject suggested something quite different — that both men and women experience feelings of relaxation and satisfaction following intercourse.

Why the different results this time?

The researchers believe “emotional characteristics” unique to the women themselves might be to blame. Another obvious contributor to the sadness could be a history of sexual abuse, although the study controlled for this to some extent and determined that such a history was a moderate factor at best.

So what accounts for the post-coital sadness?

In a sense, this is nothing new. As far back as the ancient Greeks, people noted that the passion and ardor that gave rise to sexual attraction often resulted in disappointment after the act had been consummated. According to Aristotle, “as a general rule the result of intercourse is exhaustion and weakness rather than relief.” Of course, Aristotle was referring to men and not women.

What is it about sex that makes women sad? I recently spoke with a young woman, who also happens to be a gynecologist, about the Australia study. Her answers were illuminating, though not in the way one might expect. She did not offer a medical explanation, but implied that the reasons might be primarily social or cultural.

“Most women,” she explained, “have been raised to believe that sex is dirty and taboo.” In other words, the post-coital sadness stems from feelings of shame.

I found this strange, especially in Western societies in which sexual liberation has loosened attitudes toward sex — especially premarital sex. Still, she insisted, those attitudes persist and even evolve in new ways. The doctor suggested that women, who are having sex at younger ages, are also having more partners. The data seem to corroborate this. One study of European women reported that, since 1970, a woman’s average number of sexual partners over a lifetime increased from fewer than two to five. The number of partners among younger women tended to be even higher.

In fact, if you imagine a person having extramarital sex twice a week with the same or different partners — hardly unrealistic with a sexually active young person — this adds up to an astronomical number of sexual encounters over a lifetime. This is especially true if you consider that many people are having sex at earlier ages than in the past and are waiting longer before getting married.

On the other hand, the same study said, “Young women are still educated to consider their entrance into sexuality as a sentimental-relationship experience.” By the time people get around to marriage, they may have had so many sexual partners that the idea of matrimony loses its special place. In fact, I’ve known couples who, after premarital counseling, have decided not to get married because of the number of past sexual partners disclosed by their mates.

This growing division between liberalizing social norms on the one hand and ingrained emotional expectations on the other may account for some of the post-coital sadness. After all, depression is most often associated with feelings of disappointment when our expectations are not met. And this is all the more true of sex, which is itself an emotionally and physically charged activity.

The link between shifting social factors and psychological stress is not new. It has been well-documented that some men feel depressed about the changing gender roles in the workplace and the fact that women are increasingly the breadwinners in traditional family structures. The changing nature of sexual habits therefore also may clash with traditional norms, thus increasing feelings of anxiety and disappointment when the behavior fails to live up to expectations.

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