In 1966, sex researchers William Masters, MD and Virginia Johnson coined the term. They defined four stages, or phases, of this cycle:
Phase 1: Excitement. As you get excited, your heart beats faster and your breathing becomes heavier. Your skin may blush. After some blood flows to your genitals. The clitoris swells and the penis stands. The nipples harden and the vagina can get wet. Muscles all over your body contract, increasing sexual tension.
Phase 2: Plateau. The changes in your body are intensifying. Breathing, heart rate and arterial pressure get up. Muscle tension increases even more. the vagina swells and its walls take on a darker color. The clitoris becomes hypersensitive to the touch. The testicles pull upwards.
Step 3: Orgasm. Sexual arousal reaches its climax. You experience a series of intense muscle contractions as your body releases tension. The muscles of the vagina and uterus contract. The muscles at the base of the penis tighten and relax, releasing sperm in an ejaculation.
Phase 4: Resolution. Now spent of your pent up energy, your body returns to its pre-sexual state. Your breathing calms down. The muscles relax. the penis and the vagina return to their original size and color. You may feel calm, satisfied, or tired.
This four-phase cycle is a fairly straightforward way of describing the human sexual response. In reality, human bodies (and minds) are unique. The way we respond to sex doesn’t always fit neatly into four neat boxes.
“From the Masters and Johnson model, we’ve learned a lot more,” says Kristen Mark, PhD, Joycelyn Elders Chair in sexual health training at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. “One thing that precedes another is quite inaccurate for the human sexual experience.”
New Perspectives on Sexual Response
On the one hand, not all sexual acts lead to orgasm. Some people have sex without feeling any arousal. Others have several orgasms in a row and don’t reach resolution.
The sexual response cycle model has received a few updates over the years. In the late 1970s, sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan, MD, PhD, added desire to the cycle. In her opinion, people need to be in the mood and emotionally ready for sex to be aroused and to have an orgasm.
In 2001, Rosemary Basson, MD, professor of sexual medicine at the University of British Columbia, literally rocked the whole model. She created a circular sexual response model. His main ideas are that people have sex for many different reasons, not just arousal. And each part of the cycle does not have to unfold in a particular order. For example, the desire can come late in the process.
Orgasm isn’t the only reward for having sex. There are many other reasons you can do this, such as increasing intimacy or making your partner happy. “Just because someone doesn’t have an orgasm doesn’t mean they don’t feel a certain level of satisfaction,” says Mark.
How is your sexual response cycle unique?
The cycle of sexual response does not differ much by gender or sexual orientation, said Marc. But that can change from one meeting to the next. “It’s super individualized and really unique with every sexual experience.”
For example, if you have wanted someone for a long time and you finally have sex, the arousal phase may be faster. At the start of a relationship, when the person you’re dating is new to you, desire can precede arousal. After you’ve been together for many years, you can get aroused before you feel the urge.
What can go wrong?
Problems can arise at any stage of the sexual response cycle. The desire may weaken, you may have a hard time arousing yourself, or you may not be able to reach an orgasm.
Sometimes a physical problem is to blame. For example, erectile problems or vaginal dryness can make sex more difficult or painful. In turn, a physical problem can trigger an emotional response where you don’t crave sex as much, Mark says.
But again, everyone is different. Even if you never get horny, you could be just fine with your sex life.
Whether there is a problem that needs help “depends on your quality of life and how important it is to you,” says Irwin Goldstein, MD, medical director of San Diego Sexual Medicine.
If you’re unhappy with your sex life, talk to your doctor. You might have a treatable medical problem, such as vaginal dryness or erectile dysfunction. Certain types of drugs can also hinder desire. Changing the dose or changing the prescription can help.
If the problem is not physical, your doctor may refer you to a sex therapist to help you resolve any emotional, relationship, or psychological issues that are affecting your sex life. The therapist can teach you and your partner ways to deal with issues such as lack of desire or difficulty reaching orgasm.
It also helps to know your body’s sexual response cycle. Pay attention to how you react. Are you feeling the excitement? What Kinds of Touching Make You Orgasm? By learning your own response, “you can have a more satisfying experience and communicate better or tell your partner what you like,” Mark says.