Aftercare: Determining and Negotiating your Aftercare Needs
“The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.” -Irving Berlin
Aftercare is the time after a period of intense physical, psychological, emotional, and/or spiritual experience where you honor the intensity of the experience, the toll it may have taken on your mind, body, and soul, and create space to rest, heal (if necessary), and care for yourself and anyone involved in the experience with you.
While we often hear aftercare discussed in a sexual, or even specifically kinky/BDSM context, the practice is one that applies to any situation that’s been especially taxing to us or our partners. Aftercare can take many shapes and forms. It can last for minutes, hours, days, or even weeks. Aftercare is such a socially pervasive concept that a Google Search for the word “aftercare” returned over 23,000,000 results – though the very first result is about BDSM. Even science has documented the usefulness and importance of aftercare across myriad domains. A GoogleScholar search for just the word “aftercare” returned more than 101,000 results.
Despite the thoroughly documented importance of aftercare, I often see folks in non-normative sexuality and relationship communities, particularly in BDSM and polyamorous spaces, treat it like an option. I remember reading a quote from a “Dominant” online that basically said I don’t do aftercare and I think it’s absurd for a sub to expect it. I saw another quote in a polyamorous group where someone said they refuse to “process” with their partners. 
I agree – but only in part. Aftercare (and other similarly nurturing and emotionally intensive behaviors) is the kind of support that should be negotiated, not expected. Sometimes our partners, no matter how much they want to please, love, or care for us, will be unable to support us in all the ways we need to be supported. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect a healthy partner to want to engage in some kind of aftercare with us, but it does mean we shouldn’t assume what that will be like. Like every other part of the exchange, aftercare should be negotiated.
Note: Aftercare considers the physical, practical, and emotional needs of all the parties involved in the intense sexual, romantic, or intimate experience. For example, it’s not just about submissives, bottoms, the partner you left at home while you were on a date, etc. It’s also (to extend our example) about Dominants, Tops, the partner out on the date and maybe even the person they’re on the date with.
Consent must be informed. This means providing each other with the information you need to say “yes” to an exchange, and this includes what happens AFTER the exchange. Don’t assume your partner will just *know* what kind of support you need or be willing or able to offer you the support you need. Think about what you need to feel supported – even on a basic level – and discuss with each other as part of your relationship, sexual, or scene negotiation. Include any discussion of physical or emotional needs that need to be considered, like chronic pain, illness, or disability accommodations. That doesn’t mean situations won’t ever surprise you, but you’ll be on much better footing to handle unforeseen consequences if you’ve broached this topic early on.
If a sex or relationship partner is unable or unwilling to provide you the practical or emotional support you need to feel safe moving forward with the scene, sex, or relationship, you have a few options:
- You can invite a trusted friend, other partner, or professional to help support you. Maybe your scene partner has enough time to play but not enough time to hang out afterwards and cuddle. If you need that cuddle, consider who else in your network would be willing to come over with blankets and help you build a fort. Maybe your partner is nervous about going to the doctor with you to get that pregnancy test. Line up your bestie to tag along instead! Perhaps the aftercare you need is lengthy or on-going. Set up an appointment with your sex educator, coach, or therapist for a day or two after your planned “intense experience” so that you have that support on-the-ready and built in to your game plan. Support comes in all shapes and sizes, do don’t rule out that the many people in your life that want to be part of your team.
- You can set up coping and support systems that you engage in alone. Some folks prefer to engage in aftercare alone. They have a jar of bath bombs and their favorite tunes all lined up and they’d rather retreat into a private space of introversion and self-care than engage with another person. If this sounds like you, make sure you’re checking in with a partner *in advance* to come up with a plan to make sure their needs are also met. Even if you don’t prefer the alone time, solo self-care is a life skill that serves all of us very well. Make sure your first aid kit is well-stocked, your Advil bottle has a couple of doses left, your favorite pajamas are clean and dry, and your chocolate stash is plentiful. This is another time building a relationship with an educator, coach, or therapist can be so helpful. Part of our jobs as pros is to empower you with the skills you need to engage in a solid self-care plan.
- You can decide not to move forward with the sex, scene, or relationship. Sometimes your partners’ inability to offer support is temporary or situationally specific. This is something you might choose to work around if you can find support in another way, or if you know you’re both working to end up on the same page. Sometimes, however, your partner is unable to support you in a way that’s pervasive, major, or necessary to ensure your sense of safety and security in the relationship/encounter. On the flip side, you may have a partner who’s asking you for majorly important support that you are unable or unwilling to provide. Additionally, if you feel inclined to keep your needs a secret out of fear you’ll be judged unfavorably, that’s a big ole shiny red flag that you’re on the highway to the danger zone. Even in a one-night stand, is a partner that would shame you for your physical or mental healthcare needs really someone worth your time? It’s completely appropriate and valid to decide that any of these concerns make you incompatible for each other and/or the dynamic you’re trying to negotiate. Much better to determine this early on than to figure it out accidentally when you or your partner need that support the most. That’s what informed consent is all about.
Let’s talk about some of the applications for aftercare in your sexual, romantic, and otherwise intimate relationships and elements to consider as you
- determine your needs vs your wants,
- determine what you’re able to provide vs unable to provide
- determine what you’re willing to provide vs unwilling to provide,
- and negotiate these terms with your partners and loved ones.
I’d wager a guess that this is what many folks are thinking of when they think of “aftercare,” at least at first. Basic physical/practical aftercare considers the physical/practical needs of all the folks involved.
- Basic Needs and Creature Comforts:
Sometimes, after a very intense exchange, you feel (and are) dehydrated, hungry, sore, or tired. Aftercare often includes making sure you’re getting something to eat and drink plenty of water. Because very physically and emotionally intense intimate experiences often cause a rush of adrenaline, being prepared for adrenaline crash is important. Adrenaline crash can make folks feel shivery, cold, tired, and very sore. Having a favorite hoodie, blankets, or pair of fuzzy socks can be a practical and compassionate addition to your aftercare plans.
Because these experiences are characterized by a heightened state of arousal over a somewhat lengthy period, some folks need to incorporate specific aftercare practices that address the physical symptoms of arousal come-down, stress, and anxiety. A long, slow walk, a warm bath, some cannabis or CBD, or an uninterrupted nap in a cozy blanket pile are just some ways people physically transition from intense experience to aftercare.
- Medical Health Care:
Beforehand, this includes discussions about STIs, HIV, and pregnancy. It also includes being clear about accommodations that may need to be made to address physical limitations, disability, low blood sugar, or other healthcare concerns.
Afterward it means responding to those pre-negotiated needs as necessary, and checking in to see if new or unexpected needs have
arisen. Check for bruises, cuts, abrasions, welts, or bumps – accidentally or purposefully obtained – and check about any unseen bodily harm or discomfort (e.g., pulled muscles, pinched nerves, headaches). Next, provide the necessary and appropriate steps for cleanliness and medical care; ice for pulled muscles, bandages for cuts, aspirin for headaches, ibuprofen for swelling.
Aftercare that considers these things might include all the “basics” and a few extras. It might include scheduling a follow up visit to someone in your professional support team to check in (a therapist, doctor, coach, educator, etc.). It might include making sure your partner keeps extra supplies on-hand for emergency situations like plan B, an Epi-pen, some wrapped candy, a knee brace, Narcan, or any other number of things that even I might not be considering now.
Depending on the intensity of the situation, aftercare might include a quick trip to an urgent care, emergency room, or pharmacy. Please don’t let shame, stigma, or embarrassment keep you from getting any care you need after a particularly intense sexual encounter.
It’s not unreasonable to expect that a caring partner person will make sure you’ve been connected to the resources you need to ensure your physical safety – regardless of the longevity of your relationship to each other, and even if that’s not something they can personally provide you with. This might mean going with you to buy Plan B, waiting with you while a friend picks you up, or helping you wrap a bandage.
This one is sometimes harder than the above, because it can often require a level of intimacy and emotionally maturity that all parties in the exchange may not be able or willing to provide. I suspect that when folks are protesting “aftercare” and “processing,” it’s this kind of aftercare to which they are referring. This doesn’t mean that you don’t need emotional aftercare and shouldn’t ask for it. It might mean that your resources for emotional aftercare may include support systems other the partners who participated in your “intense experience” alongside you. Basic emotional aftercare considers the emotional needs of all folks involved
- The Basics:
Above we touched on adrenaline crash and other kinds of high-arousal come-down. Prolonged states of heightened arousal, good or bad, can be particularly emotionally taxing for most humans. Depending on the circumstances of your experience, your brain is flooded with any number of feel-good/reward hormones like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. It can also be flooded with hormones meant to help you cope and survive stress, like cortisol. When the experience is over, your brain doesn’t need to compensate for all the arousal and so it withdraws the influx of hormones it was previously pumping out for you. This rush and flush experience can feel a bit like a mental gut-punch for folks – leaving them feeling winded and drained, even under the best of times.
- Mental and Emotional Health Care:
Some folks may experience a kind of see-saw experience where they go from an extreme emotional high to an extreme emotional low. Mental illness, exhaustion, physical illness, chronic pain, and other physiological considerations can exacerbate this sensation. Before agreeing to the encounter, discuss your mental health care needs. This means being honest with partners about issues that might come up where you will need care beyond what they could reasonably anticipate. If you know that certain circumstances may be trigger a physical, mental, or emotional response that needs exceptional (and potentially expert) attention, withholding that information is denying your partner the opportunity to provide informed consent. It also puts you in danger if you end up a situation with people who are ill-fitted to take care of you. It would be like failing to mention you’re allergic to peanuts before going to someone’s home for dinner – unfair and dangerous to both of you.
Just like taking care of your physical health, aftercare that considers your mental and emotional healthcare sometimes goes beyond the “basics” of fuzzy blankets, freshly brewed tea, or a warm bath. It might include keeping a therapist or coach on standby, or making sure your partners have emergency contact info for folks in your mental and emotional support team. Thorough mental and emotional aftercare often involves creating space for discussions about the exchange – how did it make everyone feel, does anyone have new considerations for next time, is everyone feeling safe and okay? Sometimes we don’t know that something is a boundary or a trigger for us until we experience it – that’s why trigger warnings can often be completely useless. Psychological aftercare includes the opportunity to talk about boundaries, triggered trauma, and other events in a safe and supportive space – whether that’s with your sex partners, best friend, or a pro.
Timing is everything.
Part of your negotiation should include how much time you have together, and if you want or need to check in with each other in the days and weeks that follow your encounter. Don’t just assume your partner will call or text the next day. They could just as easily be waiting for you to call or text, maybe they got busy, or it’s possible they never intended to communicate past the day or night of your encounter. None of this is inherently malicious. Often hurt feelings around these things come from situations where folks have built expectations without identifying and/or communicating their needs.
It could also be the case that you or your partner is not able to offer immediate aftercare but would prefer/is better able to plan a time to connect in the days or weeks that follow. Knowing you have that plan can be very helpful after an intensely intimate experience.
Build an aftercare kit.
Aftercare kits are a lot like first aid kits that include supplies to meet our emotional needs as well as our physical ones. Aftercare kits can vary in size and scope based on the situation. You’d build a different first aid kit to keep in a math classroom than you’d build to keep in a chemistry laboratory than you’d build to take with you on a climbing expedition in the Rockies. So, too, should you build your aftercare kits with your sexual and romantic needs in mind. Here are some items (or, kinds of items) you can consider including in your aftercare kits.
- First Aid
- Comfort items
- Stuffies; blankets; socks; a favorite hoodie
- Bath salts; lotion
- Your favorite brand of tea or coffee
- A journal and pen
- Calming activities
- Games; adult coloring books; favorite movies; a favorite book
- A change of underwear/clothes
- Money for an uber
You can build these for yourself or build them together with your partners as part of your negotiation. Building aftercare kits together can be a fun and exciting way to get to know each other better and make sure you’re covering all your bases. Also, just like first aid kits, once you have them built don’t forget about them. Check to make sure they stay stocked up and that nothing in them that could expire will expire.
Incorporating aftercare into your sex and romantic life can include rituals and protocols, or it can be a fluid thing that changes from situation to situation, partner to partner, scene to scene. However you do it, whatever you need, please have these conversations with your partners early and often.
I hope this has given you some good ways to start thinking about aftercare and discussing it with your partners. How do YOU like to engage in aftercare? Do you have questions about how this applies to you? Can I help you brainstorm some aftercare that’s personal and specific to you? Would you or a partner like to develop a coaching relationship as part of your self-care and aftercare plans? Reach out.
 “Processing” refers to the emotional and relationship labor of thoroughly discussing the practical and emotional impacts a behavior, situation, or other experience has had on one or more members of the relationship. Folks sometimes refer to this as an 80/20 phenomenon, where they spend 80% of their time talking about a thing and 20% of their time actually doing the thing.
*This article first appeared in the Kink Crate handbook. For more information, or to join, check out KinkCrate.com.