it's not over till it's over

SEX , DRUGS, AND ROCK 'N' ROLL Just when you thought it was safe to rol l over and get some sleep, the sex therapists have come up with yet another challenge: afterplay
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recently Michael Douglas, Hollywood star and self-confessed sex addict, was asked by comedian Dennis Pennis whether his sex life was like his bank account. Pennis explained: "I mean, do you lose interest when you withdraw?"

The greatest lovers, both male and female, can be au fait with foreplay and educated about erogenous zones, but in our goal-fixated society, what happens after the big O can seem a waste of time. Afterplay isn't subject to a How To approach; there are no bits to twiddle or buttons to press - it's a time when hands and tongues are still.

But just when you thought it was safe to leave the double bed, sex therapists are reporting that what happens afterwards is as important as the act itself. "Up to now the focus has been on how to get It... the business... penetration," says John Lenciewicz, director of the Institute of Sexuality and Human Relations, "but sex without afterplay is like an open sandwich - there's nothing to keep the whole thing together."

It seems that by ignoring the emotional quality of afterplay, we are missing out on a very important bonding time. This is ancient knowledge revived - according to the Kama Sutra, sexual union has not ended until the couple have eaten "sweet, soft and pure" food and hung out together looking at the night sky. "It's all about making sex more touching and memorable," says Lenciewicz. "Because intercourse involves such intimate conduct, afterplay is a barometer of the relationship. If one partner misses cuddles and pillow talk then that needs to be looked at."

We tend to see women as the ones who want affection while men roll off and go to sleep. But isn't there a biological imperative behind a man's need to sleep? "Men have a refractory period when they need to recharge their batteries," says Lenciewicz, "but unless it's late at night, the sleepiness could be compared to the effect of a glass of wine. Let's not exaggerate; we're talking mild fatigue here, not post-coital narcolepsy."

Drifting off into a slumberland is not reserved for males, as Misha Halu, who with her husband teaches the "ancient and modern secrets of sexuality", points out. "A woman, too, may be tired and relaxed and there is nothing better than for both partners to sink into a deep, nourishing sleep." Husband Zek chimes in with an injunction to keep contact by holding hands. "Afterplay is a magical time when a couple can build on their togetherness," he enthuses.

For some time, it's this very insistence on union which induces claustrophobia. "It can be scary when a woman gets that dreamy look," confides a male friend. "I feel as if I'll get lost in a swamp of lovey-doviness."

If you're not getting on well, intimacy after sex may be the last thing a warring couple find comfortable. "I could rev myself up for the bonk," says a female friend, recently separated, "but afterwards I just wanted to sleep or get up and do something. We seemed to have lost the capacity (if we ever had it) of lying down naturally together and feeling OK about being that close."

Lenciewicz argues that even brilliant afterplay doesn't guarantee a good relationship. "The sex addict may feel enormous relaxaton after having sex with a stranger. Likewise, manipulative charmers may be very good at sweet nothings, generating dependency before clearing off."

Afterplay not only can reveal the nature of the present relationship but can also bring up past hurts. In the tender aftermath of sex, recollections of a miscarriage or a jilting girlfriend can evoke poignant feelings of loss. Sometimes the memories go beyond adulthood. "Afterplay is also a barometer of ancient memories not quite in consciousness," says Lenciewicz. "If we were brought up to feel that sex is dirty or that all men are horrid, this will colour the interaction."

"Our first big feelings connected to being held and being close were when we were babies," says Zek Halu, "and our future experiences as adults will be influenced by that. I had a typical central European upbringing, fed strictly to schedule and swaddled so tightly I couldn't move, so ingrained in me was this feeling that being close to a woman wasn't safe."

It's these unresolved, buried feelings which may account for that sense of post-sex sadness, that "Is that it?" feeling. In the old days, we would have lit a cigarette and gazed mournfully into the distance. Now we are in the emotionally aware, no-smoking Nineties, those feelings of post- coital tristesse could be seen as a key to larger issues.

By looking more closely at the difficult feelings which emerge in the wake of sex, there's every chance that you can learn more about what makes you tick. "In a committed relationship," says Zek Halu, "sex can help heal you."

For one woman friend, Julia, feeling sad after sex gave her useful information. "It made me notice that there were two types of sex for me and my husband. There's exotic bonking - fun at the time, but which leaves me feeling very sad and empty and I just want to switch off. But when sex is about feeling truly loving and connected to Nick, then the feelings afterwards are completely different. I feel nourished and glowing. The next morning I look at Nick in a new way and that special loving feeling can last for days."

"I've had some acrobatic sex in my time," says Malcolm Stern, NHS psychotherapist and relationship expert. "It fills you up for 10 minutes but leaves an emptiness. It's taken me years to learn that sex is not about releasing tension but about a deep meeting between two people. If we can take the risk of surrendering, afterplay is a wonderful melting time, like a delicious dessert after a lovely meal." Stern admits that he was dragged "kicking and screaming" to this awareness, thanks to his wife's guidance. "There was a lot of resistance because the male ego likes to be in charge, which is opposite of being open."

Nick, Julia's husband, also admits to the civilising effect of responding to his wife's needs. "I've learnt through years to be more sensitive. I now realise that it matters not to pull out too soon but to stay connected and entwined afterwards. Sex has become less about a quick bonk and more about being in a relationship, which has made afterplay a more fulfilling experience."

Woman tend to see sex as a way to build relationships, while a man's macho training encourages him to go for goal and not get too tender. But all is not lost, according to Misha Halu. "Women are beginning to know what they want and men are beginning to respond."

Misha Halu suggests setting time aside (preferably before sex) to talk about mutual needs in afterplay. "It's a question of asking yourself: what do I need? What does sex mean with my partner? The important thing is to stay connected."

If you still doubt the benefits of afterplay, think of its long-term effects. "Afterplay is the foreplay of the next time we make love," says Frankie, a woman friend. "How well I feel treated after sex determines whether I want to do it again."

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