What does pleasure look like on your face? Is your mouth open? Do you have your head thrown back? Is there sweat on your temple? Are there tears in your eyes? If any of those details ring true, are they always a sign of pleasure, or does it depend on the sex you’re having?
Crying during sex isn’t as widely acknowledged as other expressions of emotion or physical release. In fact, most people would assume a crying partner is one that isn’t having a good time. But while tears are often a sign of distress, they aren’t always. Sometimes tears mean joy, or relief, or love. Sometimes they’re a response to intense stimuli. And sometimes it happens during sex.
As someone who’s a sadist (a person who enjoys causing pain in a consensual, kinky context), a great big sap, and an autistic with sensory sensitivities, I am no stranger to sex and crying. I have tied up and driven partners to tears with a mix of pleasure and pain. I’ve had sex so emotionally powerful I’ve sobbed as I came. And I’ve accidentally crossed my own sensory thresholds and ended up tearfully overwhelmed in the worst way.
Sex setting off the waterworks is more common than you might think. So what causes it (both good and bad), and how do we explain it to our partners?
Why did I cry during sex even though I wasn’t upset?
There are countless reasons someone might cry during sex. Some of us are easily brought to tears (even meme versions of “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good” make me cry), some of us are especially sensitive to the hormone soup of sex, and some of us are into kinky stuff that’s bound to produce a few tearful whimpers. Here are just a few specific reasons you might have shed some tears the last time you had sex:
Your body was reacting to all the hormonal, brain, and nervous system changes. According to Bustle, sex releases oxytocin (the “cuddle hormone”), dopamine (a euphoria-inducing neurotransmitter), and vasopressin (an attachment-related hormone) in the brain. It also engages the cerebellum (the region of the brain responsible for emotion) and the hippocampus (the memory region), and temporarily shuts down neural pathways and the orbitofrontal cortex (which “creates that out-of-body sensation sometimes experienced during orgasm.”) In other words, sex does all kinds of things to your brain. With such a complicated cranial cocktail going on, crying doesn’t seem that out of place.
You had a powerful orgasm. Just as there are different ways to orgasm, orgasms vary in intensity. If I don’t warm up before using a Satisfyer, for example, I orgasm too fast and it’s a weak little pop. If I work myself up slowly first (often with the lowest setting of a wand), my orgasm is a back-arching, full body shudder – and yes, sometimes there’s tears!
You were overwhelmed by the stimulation. Sex can be intense in a number of ways. It puts us in an emotionally and physically vulnerable position. It creates a heightened experience of intimacy with our partners. It can feel incredibly romantic, lewd, or even risky. And the physical sensations are all over the place! The powerful rumble of a good wand. The warmth and softness of lips on skin. The stinging pinch of a pair of nipple clamps. The aching stretch of fingers pressing deep. The toe-curling, lube-slicked closeness of a good stroker. There’s a lot going on, and you can become overwhelmed by the intensity of just one part, or the combination of all of it.
Your response to orgasms is unique. “One 2017 study identified many different kinds of “peri-orgasmic phenomena,” meaning “unusual physical or psychological symptoms subjectively experienced by some individuals as part of the orgasm response.” Crying was on the list, as were laughing, sneezing, headaches, and even foot pain,” writes Erika Smith for Refinery 29.
You just needed a good cry. “According to University of Queensland psychologist Lear Sharman and colleagues (2019), after a crying episode subsides, about 70% of people recall that crying was good for them, most often as a feeling of relief or catharsis,” writes Dr Susan Krauss Whitbourne. If you’ve been stressed, anxious, or recently overwhelmed and haven’t had time to decompress, the whirlwind of sex and orgasm might have been your body’s opportunity to finally release the tension. Thanks, sex!
Crying is one of the ways your body processes/expresses pleasure. I read a lot of erotica, and I quite enjoy the innumerable ways writers describe sexual ecstasy. There’s toe-curling, there’s back arching, there’s sheet grabbing, there’s the rippling of Quidditch-toned muscles. The most delicious details mentioned are the involuntary ones, spasms and twitches and unexpected moans, because they signal how caught up in the sex the participants are. Crying is most often an unconscious reflex, and it’s right at home with desperate whines and orgasmic thrashing.
If you cried during sex and you did feel bad, or you couldn’t identify what you were feeling, it might have been post-coital dysphoria.
What is post-coital dysphoria (PCD)?
Post-coital dysphoria is less abstract than it sounds – and more ordinary. Post-coital, of course, means ‘after sex’; dysphoria is a feeling of deep unease. A 2018 study conducted by Queensland University of Technology defined post-coital dysphoria as, “inexplicable feelings of tearfulness, sadness, or irritability following otherwise satisfactory consensual sexual activity.”
Post-coital dysphoria (sometimes called post-coital tristesse) can be caused by a number of things. It can be the result of surviving sexual assault or similarly impactful trauma, the lingering influence of a sex negative upbringing, sexuality related shame, or anxiety or dissatisfaction with one’s relationship or self. And despite how alienating or embarrassing it can feel, it’s actually an incredibly common experience.
“In one study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, Dr. Robert Schweitzer and colleagues looked at 230 female university students and found that 46 percent of those surveyed had experienced PCD at least once,” writes Lea Rose Emery for Bustle. “Recently, Schweitzer and his team looked into how PCD affects men. The researchers surveyed 1,200 men and found that 46 percent of them had experienced PCD at one point or another.”
If you suspect your crying may be due to an underlying stressor, talking to a therapist can help you discover the root causes and potentially address them (or finding coping mechanisms that will help you deal with them in a healthy, healing capacity.) While PCD may feel embarrassing or disruptive, it’s important to remember that crying is nothing to be ashamed of, and understanding partners – the only ones worth having – shouldn’t make you feel badly for how you process sex.
How can you talk to your partners about crying during/after sex?
Sex – like relationships themselves – is a collaborative effort, and requires a willingness to communicate and share vulnerability with your partners. Even casual arrangements benefit from open communication, because participants can rest assured they’re on the same page and the hookup is mutually satisfying. Letting partners know about how you experience and express pleasure is part of both the communication and vulnerability.
Because tears are generally assumed to signal you’re having a bad time, it’s important to tell your partner what sex-related crying means for you. If tears are a good sign, they’ll probably appreciate a heads up before you get to bed so the sparkling in your eyes isn’t misinterpreted as a reason to panic. And if they’re not a good sign, letting a partner know ahead of time that you might need to stop, slow down, or spend some time decompressing afterwards can help ensure you get the care and consideration you deserve.
How you decide to introduce the conversation with your partner depends on how frank – and how frequent – your normal sex chats are. Have you already discussed your intimacy needs and sexual interests? Then you already have a roadmap in place. But if if you’re shy and awkward about sex and don’t regularly talk about it outside of the bedroom, that’s okay too as long as you’re still communicating enough to have your boundaries respected and needs met.
To lessen the pressure, you can instead bring up the waterworks over text, or mention it casually while getting undressed or relaxing in bed… as long as you’re giving the conversation the room it deserves. Quickly blurting a few sentences and then diving under the covers might create more confusion rather than less.
A few points you might want to cover:
- Is crying during/after sex common for you, and if so, is it typically always for the same reason(s)?
- What does “good crying” (from pleasure, joy, etc) vs “bad crying” (pain, trauma, etc) look like for you?
- How would you prefer your partner respond to your tears? Is it okay for your partner to check in with you, or would you rather it go unremarked?
- Does crying during sex change how you want things to go afterwards, ie do you need space, a longer cuddle, etc?
Crying, just like other sexual expressions like moaning (or wincing, in the case of an unhappy response), is nothing to be ashamed of. You don’t need to apologize for it or justify why it happens. But you do deserve to be yourself in bed, water works and all.