Navigating the Sexual Response Cycle
Most sex scenes in movies and TV shows begin with two people quickly removing each other’s clothing. But do you know about the human sexual response cycle? And that it starts way before any clothes come off?
The sexual response cycle was missing from my sex education. Unfortunately, this is the case for most teens. But learning about it can help people make informed decisions and allow anyone who chooses to engage in sexual activity to have more positive and safe experiences.
What is the Sexual Response Cycle?
During the 1960s, researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson created a four-stage model of human sexual response: excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution. Given the time period and stigma surrounding sex (something we still, unfortunately, see today), the study of human sexuality had largely previously been avoided. However, the findings of Masters and Johnson emphasized that having sex is healthy, natural and can be pleasurable.
While this model is still widely used today, later researchers noted a few drawbacks. One main critique is that the cycle is completely linear, meaning the assumption is that one phase has to lead to the next. This isn’t completely realistic; not everyone experiences the phases in the same way. For example, not everyone always experiences orgasm. It’s also normal for partners not to reach orgasm at the same time. Additionally, Masters and Johnson only described physiological aspects of sexual behavior, without considering intimacy or emotional and cultural factors. Despite this, their model is still often used as a guideline.
There are four phases of the human sexual response cycle: excitement (or “desire,” which takes a more holistic view), plateau/arousal, orgasm and resolution. This framework for understanding sexual behavior explains physiological and emotional changes that individuals may experience. While there are slight variations in the phases depending on the source, the general stages are similar.
Why is this important to learn about? Knowing how you might respond to various sexual stimuli—both physically and emotionally—can not only help you better understand your body, it can also help you recognize the significance of establishing boundaries and communicating with a partner.
Phase One: Excitement/Desire
Imagine you’ve been fantasizing about your first kiss. Leading up to a date, you might experience “butterflies” in your stomach, or a thrilling feeling of anticipation. You might also find that fantasizing about the kiss is almost as pleasurable as the reality.
Desire can start to build before anything physical happens between two people (or one person, if masturbating). Yup, that’s right, the sexual response cycle really does start before any clothing comes off!
Individuals may also experience physiological changes during this phase, including increased breathing and heart rate as well as vaginal lubrication and blood flow to the genitals (leading to swelling of the clitoris and labia minora or erection of the penis). Sometimes people feel embarrassed about this but it’s totally normal.
On the other hand, it’s also normal not to experience these changes. Either way is OK. Sexual experiences not only vary from person to person but also between encounters. Remember to take your time. There’s no rush!
Phase Two: Plateau/Arousal
During the arousal stage, physical changes continue to build. The clitoris may become more sensitive, breathing and heart rate continue to increase and individuals may experience muscle tension in different areas of the body.
What movies and TV don’t typically show you is that arousal can also vary from person to person. Sometimes, people with a vulva take longer than people with a penis to reach arousal and orgasm. Even if you may be mentally ready to have sex, your body may need some time to catch up.
This is important because for penile-vaginal and anal sex, lubrication should be considered. If individuals rush into penetration without lubrication—whether natural or added lube—it can cause discomfort or tearing, increasing the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections.
If someone is not exhibiting all of the signs of arousal, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not attracted to their partner. If someone’s body isn’t responding it could be for many reasons, including anxiety.
Phase Three: Orgasm
Orgasm is the climax and also shortest phase of the cycle. This stage involves a sudden release of tension and may include muscular contractions of the vagina, ejaculation of semen from the penis and vulvar ejaculation (sometimes referred to as “squirting”).
It’s important to note that sometimes orgasm doesn’t occur. This is OK. When this happens, there is no harm to the body. While some people with testes may experience slight discomfort if they were close to ejaculation—you may have heard this described as “blue balls”—it only lasts for a short period of time and does not damage the body. This should not be used to pressure anyone to continue having sex if they don’t want to.
Phase Four: Resolution
During resolution, physiological changes subside and the body returns to baseline levels of functioning. Heart rate and breathing will return to typical levels and blood flow to genitals will decrease. Some people may experience a sense of pleasure and/or fatigue.
Know how sometimes in movie sex scenes, both partners are immediately ready for round two? If you’ve caught on to the theme of this article, you might already have guessed that this isn’t completely accurate. While some people with a vulva are able to return to the orgasm phase quickly, people with a penis typically experience what’s called a refractory period, during which they cannot reach orgasm again or possibly even achieve an erection. This also varies between person to person and sexual encounters.
Arousal Does NOT Equal Consent
Important point: even if someone is aroused physically, they may not want to engage in sex.
Everyone deserves to feel respected and safe when it comes to sexual behavior. No matter what kind of sexual activity, consent comes first. Enthusiastic consent can be conveyed verbally with a “yes” and nonverbally through positive body language like smiling and eye contact. Communication is key.
Including the sexual response cycle in sex education can clear up misconceptions about sexual assault. Consent should not be based on physical arousal; someone could simultaneously be physically aroused but otherwise uncomfortable. Just because someone’s body is responding (erection, lubrication, etc.) doesn’t mean they’re consenting to sexual behavior.
By learning about this, young people can be empowered to better recognize consent and be respectful towards their partners. They can better recognize their own physical and emotional responses to sex. Education helps decrease the likelihood of sexual assault.
A Vital Part of Sex Ed
Teaching that sex and pleasure are different for everyone is a vital part of comprehensive sex ed. The more information available to teens, the better the chance that they will have safer, more fulfilling relationships.
Remember—sexual behavior doesn’t have to look exactly like what you see on a screen. Do what feels right for you and your partner.