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Going Deeper, Weird & Wonderful : Understanding Sexual Response Cycle

The sexual response cycle is a sequence of physical and emotional changes that explains what happens as a person becomes sexually excited and then participates in sexual activity such as, vaginal sex, oral sex, or masturbation. Different sex researchers have observed different response cycles, but the model described here is most commonly used.

Not all people will find their sexual response fits this pattern (it is okay if it doesn’t), but it you may find aspects of it fit your experience.

Understanding how your body responds during sexual excitement and activity can help be more connected with your sexual experience, enhance your relationship, or pinpoint the cause of any sexual problems.

The sexual response cycle has four phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Both men and women experience these phases, although the timing usually is different. For example, it is unlikely that both partners will reach orgasm at the same time. In addition, the intensity of the response and the time spent in each phase varies from person to person. Understanding these differences may help partners better understand one another’s bodies and responses, and enhance the sexual experience.

Keep in mind that during every sexual act, a person may not experience all 4 stages of the cycle, which does not mean there is an absence of pleasure.

Phase 1: Excitement

During the first stage of arousal, general characteristics, which can last from a few minutes to several hours, include the following:

  • Blood flow to the genitals increases, resulting in swelling of the woman’s clitoris and labia minora (inner lips), and erection of the man’s penis.
  • Nerves in the genital area become more sensitive to stimulation and pressure.
  • Heart rate quickens and a person may begin breathing more quickly
  • Skin may become flushed (blotches of redness appear on the chest and back).
  • Nipples become hardened or erect.
  • In women, the vaginal walls and inner lips being to lubricate. Some women produce a lot of lubrication at this stage, while other women produce more after more sexual stimulation.
  • The woman’s breasts become fuller and the vaginal walls begin to swell.
  • The man’s testicles swell, his scrotum tightens, and he begins secreting a clear, lubricating liquid.

Phase 2: Plateau

If stimulation continues, people move into plateau stage. General characteristics of this stage  include the following:

  • The changes begun in during “excitement phase” are intensified.
  • The vagina continues to swell from increased blood flow, and the vaginal walls turn a dark purple.
  • The woman’s clitoris becomes highly sensitive (may even be painful when direct pressure applied) and retracts under the clitoral hood to avoid direct stimulation..
  • The man’s testicles are withdrawn up into the scrotum.
  • Breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure continue to increase.
  • Muscle spasms may begin in the feet, face, and hands.
  • Muscle tension increases.

Phase 3: Orgasm

The orgasm is the climax of the sexual response cycle, which occurs with enough stimulation of the penis or the area in and around the clitoris. It is the shortest of the phases and generally lasts only a few seconds. General characteristics of this phase include the following:

  • Tension suddenly releases in a series of involuntary and pleasurable muscular contractions.
  • In women, the muscles of the vagina contract. The uterus, rectum, or the whole body may also undergoes rhythmic contractions.
  • In men, rhythmic contractions of the muscles at the base of the penis result in the ejaculation of semen.
  • Blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing are at their highest rates, with a rapid intake of oxygen.
  • Muscles spasms may occur.
  • A rash, or “sex flush” may appear over the entire body.

Phase 4: Resolution

During resolution, the body slowly returns to its normal level of functioning, and swelled and erect body parts return to their previous size and color. This phase is marked by a general sense of well-being, enhanced intimacy and, often, fatigue. Some women are capable of a rapid return to the orgasm phase with further sexual stimulation and may experience multiple orgasms. Men need recovery time after orgasm, called a refractory period, during which they cannot reach orgasm again. The duration of the refractory period varies among men and usually lengthens with advancing age.

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