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Afterglow can be defined as a blissful period of mental and physical relaxation after orgasm during which a person enjoys the rush of endorphins produced by sexual climax. As a result of the increased flow of blood, people may physically appear to glow, with flushed cheeks and skin. Afterglow is seen as a time of heightened emotional and psychological sensitivity during which the body is no longer open to further physical stimulation. Accounts include ecstatic feelings such as loss of self, intense connection with one's partner or surroundings, and timelessness. For this reason, practitioners of Tantric sex, who see intercourse as a spiritual and thoughtful union instead of a goal-oriented process, describe afterglow as one of the means through which enlightened sex can lead to a higher mental state.

Afterglow generally is considered the final step in the sexual response cycle defined in physiological studies of human sexuality. First explained in the studies of William Masters and Virginia Johnson (1966 and 1970), these stages are arousal or excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Afterglow thus often is grouped with resolution, the phase of the sexual act marked by the return to an unaroused state in which blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing decrease and blood leaves the genital area. Generally, the more intense the orgasm, the more intense the experience of afterglow. Afterglow also has been termed afterplay, the end partner to foreplay.

Although men and women enjoy afterglow similarly, physical and cultural distinctions are attached to this postcoital period. Physically, men enter a state called the refractory period after orgasm and ejaculation that limits their ability to become sexually aroused for a period ranging from five minutes to twenty-four hours or more. Women do not have the equivalent reaction and may remain open to continued sexual activity, potentially achieving multiple orgasms. Anecdotally, men are more likely to fall asleep during this period, whereas women are more likely to remain awake despite the intense relaxation they experience. Women thus may be more likely to see afterglow as conscious quality time with the partner. In support of this distinction, some researchers (Hardy 1981, Taylor 2002) have argued that women's attachment to afterglow is a result of maternal, nurturing instincts originally directed toward infants. In terms of survival, the female who keeps her sexual partner close to her after coitus protects both herself, her potential unborn children, and her existing offspring from physical danger. It is therefore in her best interest to continue being kind and physically attentive so the male will not leave too quickly.

Despite these gendered distinctions, cultural associations of afterglow show more commonality than difference. One association is pillow talk, or intimate conversation between partners that occurs in bed, often after sex. In addition, people enjoying afterglow stereotypically smoke cigarettes, since the rush of nicotine adds to the natural endorphin rush of orgasm. Thus, when films show couples smoking cigarettes in bed, this scene often stands in for the sex act, as the film may cut from foreplay to afterglow, leaving the audience to fill in the gaps. (Despite this common association, cigarettes have become less prevalent in American media in the wake of a 1999 federal lawsuit against tobacco companies.) In light of this function, the significance of afterglow as the final stage of sex often is emphasized in fictional narratives that, more than lived experience, rely on closure.

see also Coitus.


Hardy, Sarah Blaffer. 1981. The Woman That Never Evolved. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Masters, William H., and Johnson, Virginia E. 1966. Human Sexual Response. Boston: Little, Brown.

Pearsall, Paul. 1987. Super Marital Sex: Loving for Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Taylor, Shelley E. 2002. The Tending Instinct: How Nurturing is Essential to Who We are and How We Live. New York: Times Books.

                                       Michelle Veenestra


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Afterglow ★★ 1997 (R)

Romantic quadrangle skates by on the performances of its two veterans. Lucky Mann (Nolte) is experiencing marital boredom with his longtime wife Phyllis (the ever-beautiful Christie), a former B-movie actress. Meanwhile twentysomething Marianne Byron (Boyle), who is desperate to have a baby, is sexually frustrated by her workaholic hubby, Jeffrey (Miller). Repairman Lucky happens to come along to work on the Bryon's apartment and Marianne decides to throw herself at him. Then Jeffrey meets the sophisticated Phyllis and soon both couples have uncoupled and reformed. 113m/C VHS, DVD . Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jonny Lee Miller, Jay Underwood, Domini Blythe; D: Alan Rudolph; W: Alan Rudolph; C: Toyomichi Kurita; M: Mark Isham. Ind. Spirit '98: Actress (Christie); N.Y. Film Critics '97: Actress (Christie); Natl. Soc. Film Critics '97: Actress (Christie).


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af·ter·glow / ˈaftərˌglō/ • n. [in sing.] light or radiance remaining in the sky after the sun has set. ∎  good feelings remaining after a pleasurable or successful experience: basking in the afterglow of victory.