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Socially Normal Sadness

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As we enter the Lenten season, many of us are considering the spiritual consequences of our consumption habits. Many people give up the foods they most enjoy – meat, sweets, alcohol, and coffee. The difficulty of surrendering our habits, even temporarily, reminds us of the weaknesses of which our flesh is prone. We hope that by denying ourselves the pleasures of the flesh, we can pay more attention to matters of the spirit. How do we treat ourselves and our loved ones? What are we doing to alleviate the pain of the less fortunate? In this time of introspection, we must also consider the consequences of our sexual habits as well.

In a recently reviewed survey among young Australian women, almost thirty percent admitted to feelings of sadness, restlessness and irritability immediately following sex. The results are notable, in that previous studies done on the subject suggested something quite different -- that both men and women experience feelings of relaxation and satisfaction following intercourse. Why the different results this time?

The researchers believe “emotional characteristics” unique to the women themselves might be to blame. Another obvious contributor to the sadness could be a history of sexual abuse, although the study controlled for this to some extent, and determined that such a history was a moderate factor at best.

So what accounts for the post-coital sadness?

In a sense this is nothing new. As far back as the Greeks, people noted that the passion and ardor that gave rise to sexual attraction, often resulted in disappointment after the act had been consummated. According to Aristotle, “as a general rule the result of intercourse is exhaustion and weakness rather than relief.” Of course, Aristotle was referring to men, and not women.

What is it about sex that makes women sad? I recently spoke to a young woman, who also happens to be a gynecologist, about the Australia study. Her answers were illuminating, though not in the way one might expect. She did not offer a medical explanation, but implied that the reasons might be primarily social or cultural. “Most women, she explained, “have been raised to believe that sex is dirty and taboo.” In other words, the post-coital sadness stems from feelings of shame.

I found this strange, especially in Western societies in which sexual liberation has loosened attitudes towards sex – especially premarital sex. Still, she insisted, those attitudes persist and even evolve in new ways. The doctor suggested that women, who are having sex at a younger age, are also having more partners. The data seem to corroborate this, with one study among European women reporting that since 1970 a woman’s average number of sexual partners increased from under two to five over a lifetime. The number of partners among younger women tended to be even higher.

In fact, if you imagine a person having extramarital sex twice a week with the same or different partners -- hardly unrealistic with a sexually active young person -- this adds up to an astronomical number of sexual encounters over a lifetime. This is especially true if you consider that many people are having sex at an earlier age than in the past, and waiting longer before getting married.

On the other hand the same study indicated that, "[y]oung women are still educated to consider their entrance into sexuality as a sentimental-relationship experience." By the time people get around to marriage, they may have had so many sexual partners that the idea of matrimony loses its special place. In fact, I’ve known couples who, after premarital counseling, have decided not to get married because of the number of past sexual partners disclosed by their mates.

This growing division between liberalizing social norms on the one hand and ingrained emotional expectations on the other may account for some of the post-coital sadness. After all, depression is most often associated with feelings of disappointment when our expectations are not met. And this is all the more true of sex, which is itself an emotionally and physically charged activity.

The link between shifting social factors and psychological stress is not new. It has been well-documented that some males feel depressed about the changing gender roles in the work place and the fact that women are increasingly the breadwinners in traditional family structures. The changing nature of sexual habits therefore may also clash with traditional norms, thus increasing feelings of anxiety and disappointment when the behavior fails to live up to expectations.

In America, sex is often divorced from its biological and cultural functions – childbearing and joining families and social groups for the survival of the species. Many people have sex for no other reason than to experience its immediate physical and emotional effects. Sex has become an industry, a commodity, and ultimately, a drug.

Here’s why: Many drugs, especially pain relievers and stimulants, are derived from plants, from which the curative properties have been isolated, concentrated, and in many cases synthesized in highly artificial environments. The problem with drugs is that they cause the body to flood itself with naturally occurring hormones, and then prevent the body from reabsorbing the substances. The result of misusing them is often a prolonged high that ultimately crashes into a depressing low.

When sex is abused as a drug – purely for pleasure – it creates a similar problem in the individual. Sexual arousal releases the hormone called prolactin, which in women is used to support a biological process – making milk. Men also produce the substance during sex. But when people constantly have sex for reasons other than procreation, the hormonal signals can get crossed. Prolactin gets released in the blood stream to counteract the stimulative hormones released during arousal, and could therefore be responsible for feelings of depression.

When that happens, normal sex begins to lose its luster. At first, like a new stick of chewing gum, it tastes fresh. But the more you chew it, the less flavorful it becomes. After a while it loses any value altogether, and it gets discarded. This feeling of declining worth from so much casual use may well account for some of the post-intercourse depression. If so, a return to more traditional living based on common sense and moral values can help cure us of these strange ills.

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