Afterplay and the Importance of the Research "Outsider"
Male psychologists can discover things important to women
Posted Dec 13, 2016
Theresa DiDonato’s recent post, “What Do You Do Right After Sex? How you handle the intimate post-sex moments may have real consequences” certainly caught my attention because some 40 years ago my colleague James Halpern and I came up with an idea that would within three years become the first – and possibly only – book on this topic: Afterplay: A Key to Intimacy (published in 1979). The word “afterplay” barely existed before our work, and while it has a taken a while it is gratifying to see our book cited in articles on the importance of what happens after sex, and to see recent research corroborating much of what we talked about all those years ago (e.g., Denes, 2012, 2013; Muise, Giang, & Impett, 2014).
But it is the story of Afterplay, and the major findings from our research, that perhaps have a more general message about understanding others who are different from ourselves.
How the idea came to us is the way so many fruitful ideas come to people: It more or less arose out of the blue. On an October afternoon in 1976, James and I were joking around, and he (a social psychologist) said to me (with a strong behavioral background), “You know you could write a credible paper on almost anything. You could say that orgasm itself is not the most reinforcing thing about sex; it’s what comes after the orgasm that really matters.”
We laughed. How could anything be more reinforcing than orgasm? But after a minute or so, one of us said, “Do we actually know what happens after people have sex? Has there been any research on this?”
What followed was much discussion, a pilot study, a literary agent, a contract, research and writing, and, finally, nearly three years later, a book. Even the pilot study showed us that we soon called “afterplay” was seen as more important by women than by men. And while our research indicated that it was important for men too, women were far more aware of its significance.
So here is a general and somewhat counter-intuitive message that comes out of our research: Sometimes the most rewarding ideas and findings come not from people immersed in a field or those who are themselves subject to a particular phenomenon, but rather from the outsider. James and I were neither sexologists nor women.
There’s an ancient Chinese proverb which says, “If you want to learn about the ocean, don’t ask a fish.” Why didn’t a woman write a book about afterplay? Possibly it was because for women, its importance was so intrinsic, so much a part of their sexual lives – often marked by its absence, such as the man leaving or falling asleep immediately -- that it didn’t even seem like a distinctive phenomenon.
I thought I might have some of the same publishing success when, in the early 1990s, I did research on the personal phenomenology of female beauty, i.e., how it actually feels to be a beautiful woman. I felt that as a man, with no personal experience of being a woman, either beautiful or otherwise, I could approach the subject quite objectively. Through questionnaires, but mainly through interviews, I learned a great deal about what it felt like to be a beautiful woman. I had thought that perhaps one unspoken inspiration for Naomi Wolf to write her 1990 bestseller, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, was the fact that Wolf herself was beautiful, and was trying to deal with some issues around that. Having found in my research that a problem beautiful women often experienced was extreme jealousy and often outright hostility from other women, I couldn’t help feeling even more strongly that part of Wolf’s motivation was indeed a kind of “please don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” plea.
Having finished my research (and my proposed title was Beautiful Women: Where Feminism Meets Femininity), I sent my proposal out to several (female) agents, and not only had no success, but sometimes encountered outright hostility. In one instance I got a response that said a major reason they could not represent the book was because of my gender. And I had thought that my gender would be a main selling point.
I have recently written about Cassie Jaye, a self-identified feminist, who, after three years of talking to people in the men's rights movement, made a film which is sympathetic to men and boys, and probably looks at the movement on their behalf in a way that men, especially those immersed in the movement, could not articulate the way she did.
There is a growing concern in academia for viewpoint diversity as well as ethnic, racial, and gender diversity. And one good motivation for encouraging both kinds of diversity is that listening to what the curious, interested, and compassionate researcher or observer who is not of your gender, ethnicity, or race, or who may have a different politics than you do might inform you about yourself and your group could be very helpful.
Halpern, J. & Sherman, M.A. (1979) Afterplay: A Key to Intimacy. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein & Day Publishers (paperback by Pocket Books, 1981).
Denes, A. (2012). Pillow talk: Exploring disclosures after sexual activity. Western Journal of Communication, 76, 91-108. doi:10.1080/10570314.2011.651253
Denes, A. (2013) Engaging Pillow Talk: The Challenges of Studying Communication After Sexual Activity. International Journal of Communication, 7, 2495-2506.
Muise, A., Giang, E., & Impett, E. A. (2014). Post sex affectionate exchanges promote sexual and relationship satisfaction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43(7), 1391-1402.