The sexual response cycle describes the physical and emotional responses a person has to sexual stimulation. The cycle has four phases that describe what happens to the body during solo or partnered sex.
A person’s experience of the four phases will vary, as no two people’s responses are the same.
This article looks at the sexual response cycle, its phases, and how a person can gain sexual satisfaction in each phase.
A note about sex and gender
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.
The sexual response cycle
The phases of the sexual response cycle are excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution.
These phases take place in response to all types of sexual behavior, including masturbation, anal, vaginal, or oral sex.
The sexual response cycle’s phases are the same for all genders. However, people may respond differently to stimuli depending on their sexual organs.
Sexual excitement, also called arousal, is the first phase of the sexual response cycle. This phase happens in response to thoughts, sensations, or events that make a person feel aroused.
Examples of things that can trigger the excitement phase include viewing pornography, having sexual fantasies, or kissing.
During the excitement phase, a person may experience:
- increased heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure
- increased muscle tension
- increased blood flow to the genitals
- increased sensitivity to touch
- nipple hardening
- an erection in those with a penis
- the start of vaginal lubrication in those with a vagina
- enlargement of the testes and tightening of the scrotal sack in those with testes
If a person continues to receive sexual stimulation after the excitement phase, they move into the second stage: plateau.
In the plateau phase, the responses initiated during the excitement phase intensify. Blood flow, heart rate, muscle tension, breathing rate, and sensitivity continue to increase.
People with a vagina may also experience:
- darkening of the wall of the vagina, which expands, elevating the uterus
- increasing sensitivity in the clitoris
- increasing lubrication of the vagina
People with a penis may release some pre-seminal fluid, also known as pre-ejaculate or pre-cum, or experience further drawing in of the scrotal sack to the body.
The plateau phase ends when the third stage, orgasm, begins.
The orgasm phase happens when a person is at the peak of sexual excitement. It is also known as a “climax.”
This phase happens when a person continues to receive sexual stimulation after the plateau phase. Stimulation that may cause an orgasm includes touching the genitals, breasts, nipples, and other body parts.
However, not all people necessarily reach this stage.
Features of orgasm include involuntary muscle contractions, a feeling of euphoria, and a release of tension.
During the orgasm phase, a person with a penis may also experience contraction of the penile muscles and ejaculation, which is the release of semen from the urethra.
A person with a vagina may experience contraction of the pelvic muscles and a release of muscle tension.
As well as these physical changes, the brain releases a chemical called oxytocin, which results in emotional well-being and the forming of social bonds following the orgasm.
The brain also releases dopamine, which results in a state of relaxation following intercourse.
Find out more about orgasms.
Do females ejaculate?
People with vaginas may ejaculate from the urethra.
Researchers believe that ejaculate may gather in the bladder and that some people with a vagina may release the liquid during arousal or orgasm.
Not all people release the ejaculate, however. In some cases, it may stay in the bladder, and people may release it with urine.
The resolution phase returns the body to its pre-aroused state. In this phase, a person “recovers” from sexual intercourse and orgasm.
A person’s heartbeat and breathing slow down, blood pressure and muscle tension return to normal, and the genitals become smaller and less engorged. A person may feel satisfied and tired.
After orgasm, a person enters the refractory period.
What is the refractory period?
The refractory period refers to a period after an orgasm where a person’s body no longer responds to sexual stimuli.
In people with a penis, the penis becomes flaccid, and the person no longer responds to stimulation.
How long a person’s refractory period lasts depends on their age, how often they have sexual intercourse, how intimate they are with their partner, and the newness of the experience.
Most researchers suggest that people with a vagina do not experience a refractory period and can therefore have multiple orgasms.
However, tiredness after an orgasm can make a person with a vagina temporarily lose interest in sex.
Learn more about the refractory period in males and females.
Sometimes, something can disrupt the sexual response cycle during one of the four phases. For example, a person may have problems achieving arousal or orgasm or experience a lack of sexual desire.
Disruptions to the cycle may result from a lack of sexual satisfaction with the experience, underlying health conditions, or other causes.
Anyone who engages in sexual intercourse may experience a disruption to the cycle. However, it is more likely to happen to older people and those with health conditions.
In general, things that can disrupt the sexual response cycle include:
- mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression
- pain during sex
- negative mood or feelings
- a lack of sexual desire
- chronic pain
Other things that can disrupt the sexual response cycle for those with a penis include:
- having difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection, known as erectile dysfunction
- being unable to ejaculate, or ejaculating too early
- being unable to achieve orgasm
- developing a low libido or a lack of interest in sexual activity
- experiencing performance anxiety
Things that can disrupt the sexual response cycle for those with a vagina include:
- vaginal dryness
- conditions that cause pain during sex, such as endometriosis or vaginismus
- difficulty reaching orgasm
- female sexual interest/arousal disorder
A person should speak with a doctor if they experience any of these symptoms or conditions. The doctor may be able to provide treatment and advice.
Learn more about sexual health.
Where there is dysfunction during sexual intercourse, the person involved is more likely to miss out on one of the phases, which may affect the whole experience and create sexual dissatisfaction.
Some things that may increase sexual satisfaction include:
- expressing sexual concerns and wishes to a partner
- both or all partners having the confidence to initiate sex
- having a healthy relationship with a sexual partner or partners
- being satisfied with other aspects of life
Where possible, a person may take steps to increase their sexual satisfaction by contacting a therapist or counseling service. Many services provide counseling for couples and individuals.
Learn more about how to increase sexual satisfaction and well-being.
The sexual response cycle is a model that categorizes the body’s physical and emotional responses to sexual stimuli. Understanding the phases of the sexual response cycle can enable people in sexual relationships to ensure that everyone involved achieves satisfaction.
Sometimes, physical and mental health conditions can disrupt the cycle. However, treatments are available for this.
It is important to seek medical help if sexual issues are causing a person distress. A doctor can switch their medications if necessary or recommend new therapies to improve the person’s sex life.
The best way to achieve sexual satisfaction is for partners to communicate freely and openly. This can encourage feelings of intimacy and enable people to face and deal with possible issues that could disrupt the cycle.
Age need not be a barrier to a fulfilling sex life. People in a sexual relationship can support each other to have sexual satisfaction regardless of issues they may face.