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Getting Brain: Why Your Dick Isn’t Always Ready for Round Two

A sex researcher explains why the male refractory period is not some kind of biological cuckoo clock

There’s a myth that a man’s refractory period operates on some sort of set interval. That like a biological cuckoo clock, a new erection magically appears 20-something minutes after the last one gave way to an orgasm.

This is wrong.

Or better put, it’s only right for the men whose refractory periods last 20-something minutes and who are most likely responsible for spreading that myth in the first place.

I have no idea how many such men exist, however. Nor does anyone else who studies sex. The truth is we don’t know much about the male refractory period, but we can assume there are probably far fewer men with shorter refractory periods than with longer ones. Few men test their refractoriness. And if they do, they usually don’t tell their friends. Or their doctor.

Similarly, refractory periods are difficult for academics such as myself to study since a lab scenario is about as far from a real-world re-creation as you can get — someone in a white coat, with a stopwatch in hand, marking time before you get hard again. It basically has the exact opposite effect of Viagra.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t get a sense of refractory periods from men’s anecdotal evidence. So here’s what we do know:

Women can be multi-orgasmic. Men usually aren’t. The reason is simple. When guys cum, they release sperm-rich semen, which, biologically speaking at least, is only meant for reproduction. Female orgasms, on the other hand, are unrelated to babymaking. (A quick refresher: Pregnancy for women is all about the egg they release each month; it has nothing to do with their orgasms.) Which means women can have a lot more orgasms — and in rapid succession. Men, however, need a refractory period to rest and regenerate their sperm count in order to produce enough to get to that female egg.

It wasn’t always like this. Before boys are able to ejaculate, they can get erection after erection, with the time between erections nearly nonexistent. But during puberty, a hormonal change occurs that causes the brain to send inhibitory messages after a man’s orgasm. The brain is essentially telling the dick, “No, not yet.”

The length of this pause usually depends on a combination of his age, how aroused he is and the sex acts he’s about to participate in. Translation: Age is just one factor. In fact, when older guys become more sensitive to their own refractoriness, it’s usually because culture has made them develop a fear of losing their boners.

The hotter the sex, the shorter the refractory period. In highly arousing situations, the refractory period a man experiences might be a lot shorter. For many men, highly arousing equals new stimuli. This new stimuli could be as innocuous as having his nipples touched or as high-octane as group sex. Similarly, a new partner might allow a man to experience a shorter refractory period than he’s used to — but so can experimenting with a partner he’s been with for years.

Unless the sex is so hot that his refractoriness can’t handle it. On the flip side, mind-blowing sex can also extend male refractoriness. A guy might want to fuck again, but he can’t get hard. That’s not necessarily impotence. It could very well be that he was so amped up from that mind-blowing sex that his post-cum comedown is as strong and long-lasting as his orgasm — and nobody can wake the dead.

Uppers might be able to speed up erections, too. Certain stimulants (e.g., cocaine) do have the ability to shorten the length of a refractory period by amping up the level of hormones and neurotransmitters in your brain. But getting hard is only half the battle. Men who have coked-out sex usually experience difficulty ejaculating, making the experience fairly lackluster.
Chronic masturbators need to chill. Sustained refractoriness can occur in men who masturbate in frequent, chronic or obsessive ways. When a guy is jacking off all the time, he’s less likely to notice sexual cues and more likely to experience weaker orgasms. If this sounds familiar, the best thing to do is to stop cranking it for a while.

The brain is to blame for everything above. When a man is having sex, all of his senses drive him toward orgasm — including his brain, which starts producing high levels of dopamine to help get him to the finish line. (When it comes to sex, dopamine is the desire molecule.) After he cums, however, the brain’s dopamine production crashes, dulling his awareness of sexual cues and removing the mental encouragement for his dick to get hard again.
At the same time, an orgasm increases the male brain’s production of serotonin and opioids. Both serotonin and opioids weaken a man’s chance of having another orgasm — and for a very long time. A guy can visit my lab 12 hours after having sex and still be experiencing an opioid holdover that affects his ability to get an erection. Some scientists would call this holdover part of his refractory period, while others might not.

The truth is we as scientists have yet to put a time limit of the refractory period and figure out exactly where it ends and impotence begins. So don’t worry so much. There’s nothing wrong if it takes a few hours to re-load.

—As told to Tierney Finster