The refractory period is the span of time after having an orgasm during which a person is not sexually responsive. The refractory period can have both mental and physiological effects.
During the refractory period, a person might lose interest in sex, or they might not be able to have sex. It may not be possible for a person to get an erection, ejaculate, or orgasm.
Scientists have thoroughly documented the refractory period in males. In females, the refractory period is more controversial.
The refractory period occurs after the resolution stage.
During the refractory period, a male cannot get an erection. This type of response is a physiological refractory period, meaning a person is physically unable to have sex again.
Unlike males, many females can have multiple orgasms, suggesting they do not usually experience a physiological refractory period. Additionally, a female’s genitals may remain lubricated after sexual activity even if she no longer feels aroused, making sexual intercourse easier.
However, both males and females can experience a psychological refractory period.
This psychological type happens when a person does not want to have sex again. They may feel satisfied and prefer to avoid immediate sexual contact. Some people also feel tired during this period.
Brain imaging studies suggest that the cycle of a sexual response follows a similar pattern to other pleasurable activities. It begins with intensifying desire, culminates in satisfying that desire, and concludes with decreased desire.
During the refractory period, a male is unable to get an erection or ejaculate again. This physiological response usually accompanies a psychological refractory period, during which the person feels uninterested in sex.
The length of the refractory period varies greatly from person to person, from a few minutes to 24 hours, or longer.
Researchers do not fully understand what causes the refractory period or why it varies so much in duration from person to person. Additionally, not all males have a refractory period.
An older 2002 report on a 25-year-old male who did not experience any refractory period found that he did not secrete the hormone prolactin after ejaculating, as most males do.
This finding suggests that prolactin may play a role in determining whether a male can have multiple orgasms. However, as this was a small study, and females also produce more prolactin after orgasm, researchers need to continue investigating.
Similarly, some males find that they can orgasm without ejaculating, allowing them to have multiple “dry” orgasms and no refractory period.
While some females lose interest in sexual activity after an orgasm, they are usually physically able to engage in sexual activity again.
However, some women do report a physiological refractory period. One study from 2009 showed that after orgasm, a female’s clitoris can become too sensitive to continue sexual activity. Out of 174 females, 96% reported this symptom, and many did not want to have sex again as a result.
Most of the research into refractory periods to date has focused on males, so scientists know much less about the female response. Scientists will need to conduct more research to understand a greater variety of perspectives.
Sexual function tends to decline with age. People may need longer to get both physically and psychologically aroused as they grow older. They may also need longer to recover from sex, which may mean a more extended refractory period.
The refractory period a person has when they are young will also determine how it changes as they age. Someone with a long refractory period as a teenager may find it continues to get longer over time.
Many factors can influence the length of the refractory period, including:
- a person’s overall health
- relationship quality
- quality of sex
- frequency of sex
Dopamine plays a key role during sex. A review of the research suggests that dopamine levels may influence whether a male can get an erection. However, the review also notes that too much dopamine could cause sexual health problems as well.
Some of the same activities that improve overall health, such as exercise, may help regulate dopamine levels.
Other pleasurable activities may also boost dopamine, such as doing something new, enjoyable conversation, or mastering a new challenge.
Scientists do not completely understand the connection between dopamine levels and the refractory period.
The internet offers plenty of advice about how to shorten the refractory period. While message board strategies may work for some people, there is usually little research to prove they work.
The same strategies that improve overall health may boost sexual health. Cardiovascular health, in particular, correlates with sexual health.
A person who wants to improve their overall wellbeing and sexual function can try:
- doing cardiovascular exercise, such as walking, running, or aerobics
- maintaining a healthy body weight
- eating a nutrient-dense diet
- treating or managing underlying health conditions, such as diabetes
Some people try pelvic floor exercises to try and shorten the refractory period. People refer to these exercises as Kegels or pelvic floor muscle training (PFMT).
To try PFMT, a person should tense the muscles they use to urinate, hold for a few seconds, release, and repeat.
Some research has found that erectile dysfunction medication might shorten the refractory period for males.
A small, older 2003 placebo-controlled trial found that 40% of males participants reported a significant reduction in the refractory period when they used sildenafil (Viagra). Just 13.3% of placebo users experienced a similar reduction.
However, another 2005 placebo-controlled, double-blind study found that Viagra did not shorten the refractory period.
The refractory period varies from person to person. While the refractory period tends to increase with age, other factors may influence the time a person cannot have sex again, such as their cardiovascular health.
People can try easy techniques, such as PFMT if they wish to shorten the refractory period, but it is unclear if this can help. A doctor or therapist specializing in sexual health may suggest other strategies to improve overall sexual function.