Does Anyone Still Smoke After Sex? The Surprising History of Post-Coital Nicotine

Does Anyone Still Smoke After Sex? The Surprising History of Post-Coital Nicotine

Nicklaus Weinheimer, a 26-year old information technology contractor in Stockton, California, enjoys two things very much: sex and cigarettes. "Pretty much every time I have sex, [I smoke] right after," he told Mic. "It just kind of curves the edges of all the other shit going on."

He first made the association after seeing it in the movies.

If that strikes you as archaic, it shouldn't. In 1988, Philip Morris USA, one-third of the Big Tobacco triumvirate, asked more than 400,000 smokers about their smoking habits, and found that more than half of respondents regularly lit up after sex.  

Nearly three decades later, the practice is not only very much alive, but has evolved with trends.

Mycal Felix Bassett, a 27-year-old graphic designer from Houston, told Mic he favors weed over nicotine after a roll in the hay. "It's like taking another sip of a glass of wine," he said. Bassett, who admitted he was high throughout our conversation, even said he smoked during sex, though "usually not mid thrust." 

And in an AskReddit thread from earlier this year, redditor Taylor_Kittenface wrote, "Never been a smoker after sex, but I vape. The little bit of nicotine makes my orgasm go through the roof!"

As much as our parents, educators and the best-intentioned public service announcements have tried to tell us otherwise ...

Smoking After Sex Is Very Much Alive in America

Whether it's Mad Men's Don Draper sucking on a Lucky Strike after a go with his flavor of the week or Pulp Fiction's Mia Wallace gazing seductively into the camera, her black bob framed by the smoke curling off of her Red Apple, our culture has yet to fully shake the concept that sex and smoking pair nicely together.

The story of how a slender stick of rolled tobacco that will stain your teeth, destroy your breath, shorten your life span and actually lower your libido came to achieve sex symbol status is no accident. Rather, it's one of the great successes of modern advertising.

"The cigarette companies, they really invented modern marketing," Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, told Mic. "They also were very early to understand the importance of embedding the behavior in the society."

But before smoking would become a staple of the nightstand, the cigarette industry had to get its product into both the coat pockets and the pocketbooks of all Americans. In short, Big Tobacco had to catch the eyes of women.

Lighting the "Torches of Freedom"

While the feminine root of the product's name might make an etymologist assume cigarettes were always meant to target women — cigars for males, cigar-ettes for females — prior to the 20th century, smoking was taboo for women. "Smoking by women in North America and Europe had long been associated with loose morals and dubious sexual behavior," wrote authors Amanda Amosa and Margaretha Haglund in a 2000 study of women-targeted tobacco advertising. "As far back as the 17th century, Dutch painters had used tobacco and smoking to symbolize human folly."

This was a problem for cigarette companies at the dawn of the modern advertising age, who recognized the enormous potential market if these gender-specific taboos and associations could be overcome. In 1928, George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, brought in public relations expert Edward Bernays to try and solve the problem. Today, Bernays is considered the godfather of modern advertising and one of the best admen to ever ply the trade. 

To bring women smokers into the mainstream, Bernays made smoking into a feminist issue. During New York City's 1929 Easter Sunday parade, he orchestrated a "spontaneous" show of women smoking while marching down the parade path.

Cigarettes? No, these were Torches of Freedom. Watch Bernays explain it himself decades later. 

The campaign was so successful that few remember the taboo ever existed at all. Today, while men still smoke more than women, the gap is much narrower, with 15 out of 100 American women and 20 out of 100 American men classified as smokers, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

All those saucy women pushing the envelop and lighting up came just in time for another critical development in the story of the post-sex cigarette.

Hollywood

The above image of Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson is familiar to anyone who has watched the iconic 1967 film The Graduate. In the movie, hardly a scene goes by without Bancroft taking a lusty drag after one of her many sexual encounters with the bumbling young Ben Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman.

"The idea that you do it to relax, to culminate, to capstone your sexual experience, that is something from the late '60s, early '70s," Robert Proctor, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and author of the book Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, told Mic. The Graduate, Proctor says, was one of the first overt unions of sex and smoking on the American big screen. "They developed it to make smoking seem even more sexy and glamorous and that included things like smoking after sex."

While showing outright post-coital puffing may be on the more recent side, sex and smoking had been entwined in the public imagination for decades prior. In fact, the trope stems from the Hays Code, a set of rules authored by 1940s and '50s Hollywood censors to restrict, among other things, any sexual imagery. Unable to depict sex in film, creative directors and screenwriters had to find subtler ways to get those newly liberated, progressive — and sexualized — women on screen. Given Bernays' efforts decades earlier, the cigarette was an obvious accoutrement.

In another iconic scene, Paul Henreid, playing Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance in the 1942 classic Now, Voyager, lights two cigarettes in his mouth before passing one to his paramour, Charlotte Vale, played by Bette Davis. Closing out the film, with rich strings wailing over the dialogue, it was about as sexual as you could get on screen during World War II.

"The mingling of smoke becomes a sexual symbol already in the '40s," Proctor said. 

By the late '60s, however, scientific research on the dangers of nicotine were catching up with the industry. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law a ban on cigarette advertising on radio and TV. The Marlboro Man and the rest of the iconic cigarette "smokespersons" took their final drags. So did model Veronica Hamel, whose spot for Virginia Slims aired during a New Year's Day 1971 episode of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. "You've come a long, long way," said the voiceover, as Hamel strutted away from the camera and into history.

The decision by the feds preceded a new flowering of paid product placement for cigarettes in Hollywood that would become rampant in the 1970s and '80s. Decades of previous sexual associations combined with increasingly risque content from Hollywood inevitably led cigarettes more and more consistently into the bedroom. 

(For a glimpse of just how enmeshed the cigarette became in Hollywood during that time, one need look no further than the UCSF's Truth Tobacco Industry Documents library. The online archive contains some of the industry's dirtiest secrets, many of which were only made public after the landmark 1998 tobacco Master Settlement Agreement between the country's five largest tobacco companies and attorneys general from 46 states, five United States territories and the District of Columbia.)

"What we know for sure is that no one really talked about smoking after sex, or cigarettes after sex, until the '70s," Proctor said. A look at Google's Ngram viewer showing the prevalence of the phrase "smoking after sex" roughly bears out Proctor's assertion.

Despite government efforts, the seeds — decades of public relations and product placement — could not be unsown, and by 1988 the results of Philip Morris' smokers survey made plain the staggering extent of their achievement. Hollywood and Big Tobacco could officially congratulate themselves on a job well done.

The powers, however, could only put the idea in consumers' heads. It was ultimately up to average Joe and Jane camels around the country to mimic the habit. Once they did, they liked it. And part of the reason why has much less to do with the silver screen and much more to do with proven facts.

The Science

The physiological reasons why an after-sex puff might feel so good are not entirely clear. Academics, physicians and other cigarette researchers Mic contacted said they had no idea, and those who did hazard to speculate said the roots lay in addiction, Hollywood or both.

"There has not been a lot of good research on this topic," Neil E. Grunberg, a professor of military and emergency medicine and medical and clinical psychology at the Uniformed Services University, told Mic. Given the complications of rigorously controlling the variables — sex means different things to different people — Grunberg added that it would be "difficult to do a true controlled experiment" investigating the question, but offered a tentative hypothesis.

"Nicotine, the drug of addition, is only one of 7,000 chemicals you inhale when you smoke a cigarette," he said. Among the resulting chemical effects he cited were the release of dopamine, serotonin and endorphins — or, put another way, the father, son and holy ghost of naturally produced feel-good chemicals.

Grunberg added that smokers' psychological and physical dependence on nicotine also played a significant role, in many ways becoming a pleasure comparable to the original sexual activity.  "The other point I would postulate is the effect of smoking the cigarette is going to be extremely similar in the brain to the positive aspects of the sex itself," he said. "It's the most addictive drug in the history of mankind."

Pamela Clark, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health who is affiliated with the school's Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science, also cited addiction and nicotine's unique properties as one reason why smokers might like to light up post-coitus.

"[Nicotine] works on the same part of the brain as cocaine does. So if you're up it brings you down; if you're down it brings you up. It mellows everything out. It's very relaxing," she told Mic. "If you start to smoke as a kid particularly, you have a smoker's brain. You actually change your brain to accommodate being a smoker." Clark added it is unclear just how much the pleasurable effect of smoking after sex is linked to smokers' relief at feeding their addiction.

But Michael B. Siegel, a professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, dismissed physiology entirely. "My gut feeling would be that this is a social phenomenon that is probably reinforced by the media, that it is kind of a created association," he told Mic. "I am not aware of any kind of physiological reason why there would be a particular need for nicotine after sex." 

Sex and Smoking in the 21st Century

Today, there is plenty of research to show that nicotine's grip on Americans is weaker than ever before, and a number of regular smokers told Mic that they prefer simply passing out after a romp. Still, the practice of smoking after sex persists enough to suggest that it remains, in 2015, a recognizable phenomena.

The golden age of smoking in movies, though, is in the distant past. In the 21st century, studios have increasingly bowed to pressure from anti-smoking groups to remove cigarettes in films marketed to young people. In 2015, Disney issued a blanket ban on smoking imagery in its films. 

"What you're seeing is kind of a residuum of a widely sanctioned behavior that is now no longer widely sanctioned," Glantz said. 

Nevertheless, despite mountains of evidence and innumerable campaigns against smoking, the residuum endures. The mythology of cigarettes created by Bernays almost a century ago, and then propagated by Hollywood for decades, simply refuses to die. With the screws tightening in Tinsel Town, the allure of cigarettes has once again embraced the subtle and subversive ethos of the 1940s. In September, French luxury retailer Christian Dior launched a new lipstick called "Addict." A subsequent ad campaign starring Jennifer Lawrence was more than a little suggestive. 

Smoking remains "the most successful advertising campaign in history by far," Proctor said. "It's kind of like we're in their matrix."

Dior notwithstanding, there is also evidence that the end of cigarettes may be coming, at least in the U.S. With fewer and fewer Americans taking up the habit, the big cigarette makers have increasingly trained their sights — and their advertising machines — on foreign markets with less sophisticated consumers. Nevertheless, the toll in the U.S. remains high. According to the CDC, more than 480,000 Americans die of smoking-related illness every year. "It's still, by far, the leading preventable cause of death," Glantz said.

That alone should be enough to put the tar in anyone's libido.