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Is my boyfriend's penis sensitivity normal, and what is a refractory period?

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feministconundrums asks:

My boyfriend's penis gets very sensitive after ejaculation. I've looked everywhere and all I found some information about a refractory period but I don't really understand what that means. Is his sensitivity, and maybe even pain, normal?

Jacob replies:

Hi feministconundrums,

Genital sensitivity -- and sometimes sensitivity of some other body parts, too -- is common for many people after orgasm.

The length of time after an orgasm that it can or does last varies from person to person, experience to experience and it can often vary with age too.

It sounds like your boyfriend is experiencing this type of sensitivity.

The refractory period, however, is a term specifically used to describe the time after an orgasm that a person might be physically unable to achieve another genital erection and/or orgasm. "Hyper-sensitivity," like what your boyfriend describes, often stops stimulation from feeling good. It's pretty common for people to describe that feeling like touch or stimulus that just feels like too much, or touch or stimulus that feels like being tickled in the uncomfortable way, not the fun way.

The refractory period is something that most likely occurs because of neurochemicals in our bodies that get revved up with orgasm, and which temporarily change the way we respond to things, or the way things feel to us. The refractory period, as something that makes erection or orgasm impossible for a period of time, is also primarily something that's about people who have penises. Because of this, many sources say that many men will be physically unable to orgasm again for 15-30 minutes after ejaculation but that this can vary from person to person; it can be a much shorter or longer period of time.

Everyone's pleasure and orgasms are different, but to help describe common themes, there are sexual response cycle models, like Masters and Johnson's model. The refractory period is part of that model so it might be useful if I explained what the phases in that model are. If someone's orgasm or sexual responses don't fit this model it doesn't mean there's anything wrong, it just means the model is imperfect, which is bound to be the case with any model that tries to describe everyone's experiences, since people, their bodies, their sexualities and their sexual experiences are all so very diverse.

The sequence of events for the orgasm described as the Sexual Response Cycle generally go something like this:

  • The excitement phase
    This is the steady state of feeling turned on, and physically, people's genitals will typically swell and/or become erect, heart rates get higher, we might look a little red in the face or elsewhere on the body.
  • The plateau phase
    This is where those feelings of arousal and excitement build, and we are usually on the edge of experiencing orgasm; heart rates and breathing rates are higher, certain muscles in our genitals might tighten or tense, we might find ourselves moaning involuntarily.
  • The orgasmic phase
    This is when our sexual response reaches a physical peak; muscles of and around the pelvis, rectum, vulva or penis typically contract, ejaculation may occur and finally...
  • The resolution phase
    This is when the refractory period usually occurs, when it does. It's the phase which describes the body gradually going back to the state it was at before the excited phase--normal resting heart rate, loss of erections etc.

The refractory period, as you can see, is just something that often happens. It isn't something that needs to be a problem if we're approaching sex with two-way-communication and openness in mind, and with the understanding that bodies have limits and things that are out of our control.

You've asked if it's normal and, while I've said it's common, I think it's very important that normality isn't taken as an ideal.

Even if your boyfriend was the only person in the world to experience sensitivity after ejaculation would that be a bad thing?

I'd argue that it still wouldn't be a problem.

After all, we are, each of us, the only person in the world who experiences physical pleasure -- or anything really -- the exact way we experience it, so how different would it really be if we literally were the only one to ever experience something? Being unique is just a lovely testament to the fact that none of us are normal or average.

Not only do our bodies all look different, they also feel different and behave differently. It's why it often works so much better to approach sex with the aim of finding out, through what you do together, what feels good and what new sensations can be found from your playing, than expecting to know already. That expectation that our bodies need to behave in one normal way, where there is actually no normal, can hold us back.

It's okay to have thought that way and it is the message we're most often given, but is one-sided and leaves much hidden. Hopefully I can help fill in some gaps.

What we see in plenty of movies, for example, quite often implies that passionately falling into somebody's arms is enough stimulation to allow sex to suddenly happen. The off-camera genitals must somehow just find their own way wherever they need to be amidst moans, few words of communication and background music before a fade to black. It's a set-piece that many of us recognise as fictional, but that doesn't mean it isn't tempting to idealise it as an example of good sex. In reality not only do we learn an array of communication skills which make good sex possible, first-time-sex with a new partner, most often depicted as automatic, generally requires even more communication than that.

One place in particular genitals can sometimes be shown as somewhat indestructible, unphased by physical force and able to keep going for almost forever, is in a lot of porn. This illusion is created through a careful selection process to find performers with those rare physical abilities as well as clever editing, and certainly not showing the hours through which performers aren't able to do what you see on camera, or any prior agreements which allow performers to avoid stuff that they're just not into.

So it's important to remember that, if perhaps it's having any influence over our expectations of what bodies are typically able to do. Most of us aren't capable, nor should we need to be, of doing exactly what is shown. However all of us have the potential to be great at the different skill of being awesome at sex, and becoming experts at the stuff that works for us.

Let's take another example: Movie actors can be amazing at playing scientists on the big screen, but that doesn't mean they're any good at nuclear particle physics (although they might be too). Likewise, porn performers are acting out specific sexual roles; roles which may not represent what we, or they, do in real life. Yet, what we see there might feel like a clue as to what good sex might entail.

So, if you have found yourself with any of these expectations, it's worth remembering that popular culture representations of sex, as well as porn, and messages from other sources make it appear to us that being good at sex must come from knowing what will always feel good for 'the average partner' before we have sex, rather than from knowing how to find out what feels good to your partner while you have sex. The worst parts of this are firstly that not communicating can make sex really rubbish and secondly that we may find ourselves pressuring our lovers (or ourselves) into being 'the average partner' to enable our sex-skills to work.

Escaping this thankfully only takes a relatively small shift in how we do sex. Primarily, the best way to actually have good sex is simply to ask questions.

When you try something you can ask things like...

  • "I like this, Does this feel good? Is it too sensitive?"
  • "Shall we kiss for a while instead?"
  • "I'm really happy, lets stop, you want to watch tv now?" (it's good to offer alternatives)
  • Anything else that helps both of you know what the other is feeling, and how to accommodate that feeling

It's also not just you who needs to do the asking. Things that are uncomfortable are not only things your boyfriend doesn't need to do, they also sound like things he might not want to do. This want and the pleasure it represents, is your best guide for enjoying sex and getting better at it together. So, if you're not already, I think it might be great if you made sure there was space for him to come up with some ideas of things he likes and to ask the question of whether you like them too, but also, if these moments where he doesn't feel physically comfortable with contact to his penis are also moments where he doesn't want to be having sex any more, it's incredibly important to respect that.

Sensitivity at one moment on one body part is something that doesn't even need to be directly addressed when sex is following the guiding light of what feels good. That is, what feels good for everyone.

As well as asking questions, our openness to a variety of answers is also important.

I like to think of things musically. Good sex doesn't just follow one rhythm, like a one-way crescendo of stimulation which ends in one finale. Instead it can follow a number of other different rhythms, an improvised going back and forth between different things you enjoy, a long slow relaxing afternoon rumble, a quick tumble, or something which you enjoy to begin with, enjoy what you can from, but then draws to a stop because your feelings have changed and it's time. Sometimes you might both want to orgasm, sometimes one, sometimes the other, perhaps some other times neither will want to orgasm and you will opt for the physically sensual and emotional stimulation that sexual experimentation can offer.

Your sex life and sexual experience, finally, don't need to revolve around orgasms, and therefore don't need to be completely defined by the effects of orgasms, like physical sensitivity, sleepiness or increased arousal. Those things are your starting points, just like body shape, physical ability, existing understanding, limits to each of your desires and the limitations of things outside of your sex-life. Those things make up the components--your (sexual) musical instruments--and no matter what they are, if you both want to, there is always more, wonderful, new and different music you can make with them.

From refractory periods to fractured limbs, the answer is just to be careful, attentive, find out what feels good, and then do it.

Here are some articles which might also help:

written 15 Jul 2012 . updated 23 Feb 2013

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