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The refractory period is the time right after an orgasm when you’re basking in the afterglow/turning off the Netflix reminder screen, and before it’s physically possible for you to become aroused again.
- The male refractory period is the time between orgasm and when you feel ready to become sexually aroused again.
- Refractory periods vary widely, from minutes to hours.
- The refractory period can get longer as you get older.
- It may be possible to shorten the refractory period with lifestyle changes or ED medication.
It’s also known as the resolution phase. According to the legendary sex researchers Masters and Johnson, the sexual response cycle has four phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution.
(Streaming services have not yet been incorporated into the medical literature.)
What happens during the refractory period?
Biological males and biological females experience the refractory period quite differently.
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For biological females, the refractory period can be very short—they can become aroused and have additional orgasms during the refractory period if they’re sexually stimulated. This is why women can have multiple orgasms.* (But this isn’t the case for all women; some find their genitals become sensitive after orgasm and need recovery time before they’re ready for more stimulation.)
Biological males need some time to regroup—when it comes to ejaculation, it’s pretty much one and done before their erection subsides. During the refractory period, it’s physically impossible to get an erection, and the body doesn’t respond to sexual stimulation. Even thinking about sex might not seem very compelling. The refractory period ends when men re-enter the excitement (or arousal) phase.
Here’s why that happens: When men ejaculate, the brain releases a hormone called prolactin, which makes you feel relaxed and satisfied. Prolactin is also closely associated with sleep, which is why guys can feel sleepy after ejaculating. It also suppresses testosterone, which dampens your immediate sex drive. These prolactin levels decline as the refractory period tapers off (Haake, 2002).
The length of the refractory period varies widely. Some guys need just a few minutes. Others can need hours. Some men have no refractory period at all (Whipple, 1998). Few men are truly physically multiorgasmic (Wibowo, 2016).
* Some men claim to have orgasms without ejaculation (or “dry” orgasms), often via visualization and breathwork, a concept based in Tantra and Ayurvedic practices. That’s great! It’s also a whole other can of worms. For the purposes of this piece, we’re referring to male orgasm as the physical response of ejaculation.
Age-related changes in the refractory period
As men age, their levels of sexual desire and sexual response cycles can change. It can take more time to get an erection, and erections may not be as long-lasting. The refractory period can become longer as well.
What else affects the male refractory period?
- Cardiovascular health. Your overall health, particularly your cardiovascular health, can affect many aspects of your sexual health, including your erection quality and refractory period. If you’re fit and your heart and blood vessels are healthy, there’s a greater chance that blood is flowing where it needs to go more readily. That’s a huge plus when it comes to getting an erection, both before and after an orgasm.
- Your relationship. “Your refractory period can change day to day, week to week, and of course partner to partner,” says Seth Cohen, MD, MPH, a urologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City. “If you’re not into the person you’re with right now, it might be one and done, and it’s hard to get aroused again. If you’re with somebody you’re super-into, you might finish once and be ready to go right again.”
- Your sexual arousal level. If the sex is awesome, or it’s been a while since your last encounter, you might have a shorter refractory period than if you’re not as turned on during a particular session or are in a sexual routine.
But that, like the other variables involved in the refractory period, can very much … vary. Excellent sex with an exciting new partner doesn’t automatically mean you should have a short refractory period, and plenty of committed couples enjoy multiple sessions in close time proximity.
- How you’re feeling that day, your state of mind, the weather, etc. “There’s more to your refractory period than your testosterone level or blood flow—it’s about your total body chemistry,” says Cohen. “If you just ran a 15-mile race, you probably aren’t going to have a short refractory period; you’re probably going to be a little tired.”
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Can the refractory period be shortened?
As mentioned above, your erections will be best when you’re healthy. Getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and blood pressure, avoiding tobacco, and drinking alcohol only in moderation can improve your overall health, including aspects of your sex life like the refractory period.
Some research suggests that the refractory period can be shortened by off-label use of ED medications such as sildenafil (brand name Viagra). One study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that sildenafil reduced the refractory period (Mondaini, 2003), while another study found no difference with or without the use of sildenafil (Ekmekçioğlu, 2005).
Sildenafil and other oral ED medications are known as PDE5 inhibitors. They work by suppressing an enzyme called PDE5, which functions as an erection’s off switch. During an erection, a natural chemical called cGMP tells blood vessels in the penis to dilate and fill with blood. PDE5 breaks down cGMP, contracting blood vessels and making blood flow out of the penis. When PDE5 is inhibited, blood vessels stay dilated, prolonging an erection or making it easier to get one when you’re turned on.
This is the theory: Because sildenafil stays in the bloodstream for three to four hours—enabling blood flow to the penis all the while—it could potentially shorten the refractory period.
In Cohen’s experience, there’s something to this. He often prescribes sildenafil and similar medications for refractory period issues. “If Viagra is still in your system, those [penile] arteries will still be dilated,” he says. “So any small amount of stimulation—manual, visual, tactile—is going to kind of double that vascular flow and your refractory period will certainly shorten.”
“It won’t shorten your time to ejaculation,” he adds. “But it will allow you to keep going again for a second, even third attempt” if you’re aroused.