What Is the Refractory Period?

The Temporary Loss of Sexual Desire and Function After Orgasm

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In human sexuality, the refractory period is the length of time after an orgasm during which a person is not sexually responsive. The refractory period can vary from one person to the next but is strongly influenced by a person's age, biological sex, and libido (sex drive).

The refractory period is more often used to describe the phase following an orgasm in which a male is physiologically unable to achieve an erection ("get hard") and have another orgasm or ejaculation. Depending on the individual, the refractory period can last for minutes to days.

Couple in bed holding hands

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Because females can often have multiple orgasms, it is generally thought that they either do not have a refractory period or that the refractory period lasts for only a brief moment.

This is not to suggest that a person's physiological makeup is the sole determining factor for how long or short the refractory period is. A person's psychological makeup also contributes to whether they desire sex or feel sexually satiated after orgasm.

This article takes a closer look at the refractory period in males and females and how physiology and psychology factor in. It also explores if there are ways to shorten the refractory period and achieve multiple orgasms.

Gender Definitions

In this article, "male" is used to describe people with penises while "female" is used to describe people with vaginas despite the gender or genders they identify with. The sex and gender terms used in cited material will be retained.

Refractory Period and the Sexual Response

The refractory period is one component of the four phases of the sexual response, classically described as:

  • Excitement: This is when you get sexually aroused by physical or mental stimuli such as touch, kissing, fantasizing, or viewing erotic images.
  • Plateau: This is the period of increasing sexual excitement during which the penis, vagina, and clitoris will engorge with blood and become highly sensitive.
  • Orgasm: This is the spontaneous release of sexual energy accompanied by rapid contractions of the lower pelvic muscles, including ejaculation (the forceful discharge of semen in males).
  • Resolution: This is when the body gradually returns to its normal level of functioning, and swelled or erect body parts return to their normal sizes.

Part of Resolution Phase

The refractory period is part of the resolution phase during which a person needs to recover before they can have another orgasm.

The term "refractory period" does not apply to just sex. The term is used in neuroscience to describe the span of time following the response of a nerve or muscle before it can respond again.

In this respect, the nonresponsive time following orgasm can be described as the physiological refractory period.

While this may suggest that the refractory period is mainly physiological, it is important to remember that hormones influence your emotions during the sexual response. Even beyond hormones, how you feel and behave can dictate whether arousal and orgasms are possible.

As such, your ability to have another orgasm is dictated not only by whether you "can" physically but also if you "can" emotionally. This might be referred to as the psychological refractory period.

Refractory Period in Males

The refractory period in males is poorly understood but is thought to be influenced directly and indirectly by several different hormones, including oxytocin, prolactin, and dopamine.


Oxytocin is a hormone that has many functions in the human body, including the stimulation of breast milk and the contraction of uterine muscles during labor. In males, oxytocin helps induce erections and ejaculation.

With ejaculation, the sudden surge of oxytocin stimulates the release of the "feel-good" hormone serotonin. This is the hormone that promotes feelings of sexual satisfaction, relaxation, and even drowsiness after sex. Serotonin in the brain can inhibit erections following ejaculation, but its influence on the refractory period is still under debate.


Prolactin, a hormone responsible for lactation (breast milk production), may also influence the male refractory period. During an orgasm, prolactin levels can surge in people of any sex. But in males, high prolactin levels can interfere with the ability to achieve an erection until the levels eventually subside.

Studies vary, with some suggesting that prolactin plays a central role in the refractory period and others concluding that it has no effect.


Dopamine is another feel-good hormone that helps facilitate ejaculation. But, after ejaculation, the hormone can also temporarily block sensory nerves of the penis, making it less responsive to stimulation. This is especially true after an intense orgasm.

The duration of this effect can vary from one person to the next and often for no apparent reason. This may account for why some males recover faster following orgasm while others take longer.

Average Refractory Period in Males

A small study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2019 suggests that the average refractory rate in males without sexual dysfunction is around 106 minutes. The period may be short in young males but gradually increases with age.

Refractory Period in Females

Oxytocin and prolactin are commonly more elevated in females than in males, and their impact on the refractory period is different than what occurs in males. These hormones do not interfere with the sensitivity or function of the vagina and clitoris following an orgasm.

Females are more likely to experience multiple orgasms than males. This doesn't necessarily mean that females have no refractory period.

In some females, orgasms can lead to hypersensitivity of the clitoris and vulva, making it painful to have sex even if sexual desire remains. This response may be regarded as a refractory period during which arousal and orgasms are difficult until the hypertensive sensation subsides.

Multiple Orgasms in Males

Multiple orgasms, which are facilitated by a short refractory period, are uncommon in males. Studies suggest that less than 10% of males in their 20s can achieve multiple orgasms, decreasing to less than 7% after age 30.

A 2020 study in Sexual Medicine Review suggested that certain factors appear to increase a male's ability to have multiple orgasms, including:

  • Practicing masturbation without ejaculation ("edging")
  • Using sex toys to increase sexual stimulation

Doing so may improve the odds of sporadic multiple orgasms (in which orgasms occur over a period of time) or condensed multiple orgasms (in which you have two to four orgasms, one after the next).

How Age Affects the Refractory Period

Younger males tend to recover and reengage in sex sooner following ejaculation than older males. While younger males may need only a few minutes of recovery time, older males may have a refractory period of between 12 to 24 hours. For some, the refractory period can last for days.

One explanation for this involves the seminal vesicles that produce and store semen. After ejaculation, the pressure within the seminal vesicles quickly dissipates. When this happens, nerve signals are sent to the brain to produce hormones like follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) that stimulate semen production.

Until ample hormones are produced and the tension in the seminal vesicles is restored, the refractory period in males can continue. The problem is that, as males age, the time it takes to restore tension in the seminal vesicles gets longer and longer.

Other Factors That Influence the Refractory Period

The refractory period may be influenced by age and sex, but other physiological and psychological factors can contribute to it, including:

  • Your general health: Having good health or poor health influences your sexual stamina and fitness.
  • Medical conditions: Diseases like diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis can affect the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary functions like the sexual response.
  • Sexual dysfunction: Problems like delayed ejaculation or premature ejaculation can undermine a person's sexual confidence and indirectly influence the refractory period.
  • The quality and frequency of sex: How much and how often you enjoy sex influences the "sexual pleasure cycle" and your ability to respond to sexual stimuli. This, in turn, can influence the refractory rate in males and females.
  • Number of sexual partners: Studies suggest that males are more likely to have quicker recovery times and multiple orgasms if they have multiple or new sex partners.
  • Mental health: Females, more than males, may experience a psychiatric disorder called postcoital dysphoria in which they feel fatigued, sad, depressed, or anxious after sex. Sexual performance anxiety, common in males, can also indirectly influence the refractory period.

It can be presumed that the quality of your relationship—how you feel about and respond to your partner—may also have a psychological and physiological impact on your refractory rate. Further research is needed.

Can You Shorten the Refractory Period?

The refractory period is not a sexual dysfunction like erectile dysfunction or female hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). It is simply the period of time when your desire and ability to have sex temporarily stop after an orgasm.

Even so, people often attribute sexual satisfaction to the intensity of their orgasms, the duration of sex, and, the frequency of orgasm and ejaculation.

While there are no surefire ways to reduce the refractory time, particularly in males, certain lifestyle changes may increase your sexual fitness and remove the barriers that stand in the way of a "second round" of sex.

According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion, this should include:

  • Engaging in routine exercise, which can improve cardiovascular fitness, libido, and sexual performance in people of any sex
  • Engaging in sexual fantasy, which intensifies orgasms in males and libido in females

It is also important to manage chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, that can affect sexual function and performance directly and indirectly.


The refractory period is the length of time after an orgasm when sexual desire and the ability to have sex temporarily cease. In males, the refractory period can last from minutes to days. In females, the refractory period may be brief or not occur at all.

The refractory period in males is heavily influenced by hormones. Women are not influenced in the same way but may still experience a decline in sexual interest or function after orgasm for other reasons, such as clitoral hyposensitivity or postcoital fatigue.

Certain risk factors may increase or decrease the refractory period, including your general health, mental health, medical conditions, sexual dysfunction, and the quality and frequency of sex. Routine exercise and engaging in sexual fantasy may indirectly influence the refractory rate by improving your sexual fitness, self-image, and sex drive.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By James Myhre & Dennis Sifris, MD
Dennis Sifris, MD, is an HIV specialist and Medical Director of LifeSense Disease Management. James Myhre is an American journalist and HIV educator.