What Is the Most Important Part of Sex?
Hint: The answer is not orgasm.
Posted Sep 16, 2018
Sexuality is significant in promoting happiness and satisfaction in enduring romantic relationships. But how can relatively brief and infrequent sexual experiences be so important for enduring romantic relationships? The answer seems to be less connected to the “hard-core” sexual activities, and in particular orgasms, than to the “soft,” affectionate experiences, like kissing and cuddling, that are associated with them.
“Charm is a glow within a woman that casts a most becoming light on others.” —John Mason Brown
Sexual afterglow is the good feeling that lingers after pleasurable sexual experiences — a kind of intense shining that is both attractive and infectious.
Research suggests that it is sexual afterglow more than orgasm that determines how people feel about their sexual partner. Although sexual afterglow is less intense than orgasm, it plays a greater role in enduring romantic satisfaction. Spouses who have experienced stronger afterglow report higher levels of marital satisfaction, both at baseline and over time, compared to spouses who have not. It appears, then, that sexual afterglow is a mechanism through which sex promotes pair bonding (Meltzer et al., 2017).
After-Sex Affectionate Activities
“My married lover was cut off emotionally the moment he ejaculated. The speed by which he left me emotionally and physically was incredible. He actually left the bed to drink something and did not return to the bed.” —A divorcee
Studies indicate that romantic partners view the time after intercourse as important for bonding and intimacy. Indeed, frequent physical affection, such as kissing, cuddling, and hugging, has been found to increase the duration and the quality of the relationship. The value of these behaviors is particularly high after sex, since they confirm that the relationship bond is deeper than a brief, superficial physical act. After-sex affectionate activities prolong the duration of sexuality, thereby enabling it to have a greater impact on the relationship. It seems that after-sex affectionate activities are crucial to sexual afterglow, and they play a more important role in sexual and relationship satisfaction than foreplay or the duration of intercourse (Muise, et al., 2014).
Along these lines, it has been found that within cohabiting marriages and romantic relationships, increased kissing significantly decreases total cholesterol and perceived stress, and significantly increases relationship satisfaction (Floyd et al., 2009).
Orgasms and Sexual Afterglow
“No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor.” —Betty Friedan
We can distinguish between romantic intensity, which is typically a snapshot of a momentary peak of passionate desire, and romantic profundity, which goes beyond mere romantic intensity and refers to the lover’s broader and more enduring attitude (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).
Applying this distinction to the sexual realm, we may say that orgasm is the most typical example of sexual intensity, whereas sexual afterglow and after-sex affectionate activities help to deepen and extend the sexual bond. Indeed, in a study of newlywed couples, sexual afterglow remains for about 48 hours after sex, and those with a stronger afterglow had higher overall marital satisfaction. No wonder that it is the afterglow, rather than the number of orgasms, which best correlates to the length and quality of the relationship (Muise, et al., 2014; Danovich, 2017).
The French famously refer to orgasm as “la petite morte” or “the little death.” Once orgasm is reached, it is, in a sense, the end of the experience preceding it, and hence, it is a little death. Along these lines, it has been claimed that “All animals are sad after sex.” These ideas reflect the momentary impact of orgasm. However, once after-sex affectionate activities are added and then supplemented by promoting romantic activities, the momentary peak can initiate a process that enhances enduring love.
When It Rains, It Pours
“While having an affair, I was sexually aroused and began to notice other men noticing me. Even my husband was more attracted to me. When it rains, it pours.” —A married woman
We have seen that sexual afterglow promotes enduring, high-quality romantic relationships. However, afterglow also attracts other people to the individual’s radiant sexual arousal. Thus, one study found that the merest interaction with a member of the opposite sex can bring a glow to a woman's face. Even nonsexual social interactions with men caused a noticeable rise in the temperature of a woman's face, without them even noticing it (Hahn et al., 2012).
The pleasant sexual afterglow involves the wish to have more sex; this attitude in turn attracts other people to this person. Sexual glow is a kind of spell emitted by the individual that hits other people, who are attracted to the individual much as insects and butterflies are attracted to light.
Sexual glowing experiences seem to make sexually rich people even richer. Those who enjoy sex are more likely to enjoy it more, thereby enhancing their current romantic relationship. However, since sexual glowing attracts people beside one’s partner, it might well ruin low-quality relationships.
Eleanor Roosevelt once quipped that “A woman is like a tea bag — you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” The phenomenon of sexual glow indicates that Eleanor was not entirely correct. You can feel the love of women (or men for that matter) not merely when they are in intense, hot romantic experiences, but also — and perhaps more so — before and after such hot experiences.
Sexual interactions are important in enduring romantic love, since they involve more than the momentary peak of an orgasm. Even more important for such love are the affectionate activities associated with orgasm that last longer and express more genuinely the partner’s loving heart. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we can say that orgasm is not the end of love. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning of love.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time. University of Chicago Press.
Danovich, T. (2017). Afterglow: Is what happens after sex more important than foreplay or the orgasm? Aeon, 21 November 2017.
Floyd, K., Boren, J. P., Hannawa, A. F., Hesse, C., McEwan, B., & Veksler, A. E. (2009). Kissing in marital and cohabiting relationships: Effects on blood lipids, stress, and relationship satisfaction. Western Journal of Communication, 73, 113-133.
Hahn, A. C., Whitehead, R. D., Albrecht, M., Lefevre, C. E., & Perrett, D. I. (2012). Hot or not? Thermal reactions to social contact. Biology letters, rsbl20120338.
Meltzer, A. L., Makhanova, A., Hicks, L. L., French, J. E., McNulty, J. K., & Bradbury, T. N. (2017). Quantifying the sexual afterglow: The lingering benefits of sex and their implications for pair-bonded relationships. Psychological science, 28, 587-598.
Muise, A., Giang, E., & Impett, E. A. (2014). Post sex affectionate exchanges promote sexual and relationship satisfaction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43, 1391-1402.