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What Happens in Our Bodies During Sex: The Sexual Response Cycles

Updated: Oct 23, 2023


What Happens in Our Bodies During Sex: The Sexual Response Cycles

The topic of human sexuality has been the focus of scientific research and discussions for centuries. One unique aspect of the sexual experience that many people don't know about or understand though is the Sexual Response Cycle (SRC).

The SRC describes the physical and psychological changes the body undergoes during sexual activity...Spoiler alert...There's more to it than your boner and ejaculation! While the SRC is similar for both men and women, there are a few crucial differences worth noting.


If you guys want to last longer in bed, understand your erections, and improve your sexual experience and your partners, then you're going to want to stick around for this one.

In this blog post, we're going to dive into the SRC in detail and explore each stage of the process, the differences between the cycles for men and women, the erection process, premature ejaculation, and answer some frequently asked questions about our sexual response cycles.


Let's dive in!


Our Sexual Response Cycles (Men And Women)

Our sexual response cycles are a sequence of both physical and psychological changes that our bodies go through during sex. There are four phases:

  1. The excitement phase

  2. The plateau phase

  3. The orgasm phase

  4. The resolution phase

Historically, researchers have tried to put parameters on this process for both men and women, when in fact, it's not exactly linear. Although the cycle helps address the stages, "getting there" is a different story for everyone.

the four stages of the orgasm called the sexual response cycle

Recent research also suggests that "how we get there" when referring to sexual response and our sexual response patterns will vary for both men and women.


Some will respond faster than others while some may have different fluctuations of both heightened or lower response. Lastly, there are some individuals with lower responses than others.

Now, before we get into each phase, it's also important to note that there are times when we may not experience each or all of these phases. Whether that's from physical or mental "blocks" or sexual dysfunctions in both men and women.


Sometimes the "right" conditions for sex to happen like the environment, the chemistry, or the timing may NOT be right. Other times it could also be a negative mindset around sex that can prevent you from going through all the stages, which can be incredibly frustrating.


For instance, you may experience a scenario such as premature ejaculation, where you climax way too soon. Or, you may not reach the orgasm stage due to painful sex, reduced desire/arousal or the experience was not a good sexual encounter to begin with.


BUT, we'll get into that here in just a moment. First, let's talk more about sexual response and stimuli's and how they can be different for all individuals.


Sexual Desire Can be Spontaneous Or Responsive (or a mix of the two)


There is a misconception in our society that desire and arousal is supposed to be always automatic and that we should 'always" be "ready" to perform. Or that men are "hornier" than women when there is so much more to intimacy and arousal that involves psychological and other physical factors.


Desire doesn't just happen out of thin air. It's actually broken down into two desire styles:

Spontaneous desire and responsive desire.


  • Spontaneous desire is when the interest is already there and the response is the anticipation of pleasure.

  • Responsive desire is when pleasure comes first and then desire follows after the fact. You can sway back and forth between both. And both are totally normal.


spontaneous desire versus responsive desire by bdestyle.con


One might become sexually aroused by candlelight due to the learned association with sexual pre-encounters such as a romantic, candlelight dinner.


Sexual Behavior And Motivation


An individual’s sexual behavior may also be influenced by multiple types of motivation. Did you know that there are over 200 motivations to have sex? For instance, there are motivators for sex including boosting one's confidence, to cope with stress or "unpleasant" emotions. Some might have sex because they crave emotional intimacy, while others do it for reputation, revenge or for social status.


Sex could also happen from desire or feeling desired by your partner. Maybe the behaviors are influenced by celebratory reasons or the opportunity presents itself.


The point is, the reasons are endless and the way our bodies behave or respond to sexual encounters are influenced by psychological, biological and social factors.


Here are some examples of what that would look like in real life:

Think of men and erections. There is a big misconception in our society that everyone thinks an erection can just turn on like a light switch when really, there is a process involving psychological, neurophysiological and situational factors to produce one.


Erections can be "spontaneous" (build up of interest and anticipation) or "responsive" (you respond after "sexy things" start happening).


Not all men have "spontaneous" desire styles either...

Both are totally normal and it can happen to men regardless of the age. But think of it like a spectrum. Sometimes you might lean towards spontaneity and a wider range of contexts that has this "sexual build up" while others might lean towards conservative approaches or they respond to desire "sensitive" situations


( example: helping a guy with performance anxiety because he needs things to slow down. Or he needs to feel connected and relaxed so that leading up to sex, things are "just right", etc. for him to be erect).


Sexual response in women may require more than just desire


As for women, it's a similar concept. But not exactly a linear process. Limited studies tend to point out that women are not as "spontaneous driven" as men. There isn't an instrument or tool to accurately measure desire, but the consensus most researchers come up with is that men are more spontaneous driven than women based on other biological and hormonal factors.

intimacy model for sexual response in women by dr. rosemary basson and interpreted by bdestyle.com about the sexual response cycle

The limited studies we have challenged the old myths that women have "low" desire when the argument points out that they may just have a different "desire" type.


And sure, things like testosterone (male hormone) and studies point out that the higher drive in men can explain the quicker "spontaneous" desire whereas women may need the conditions and circumstances to be right:


For instance, "The power dynamics, the safety and trust, the reason sex is occurring, the eroticism available, her relationship to her body, pleasure and the presence or absence of stimuli that she finds arousing." - Rosemary Basson

But again, just because a woman is more responsive or she sways back and forth between spontaneous and responsive types (depending on the mood, context and other factors), doesn't mean she has low "desire".


Now let's explore the sexual response cycle and stimuli's that bring us there and what can disrupt these processes.


Sexual Response Cycle Phase 1: Excitement

The excitement phase is the first stage of the Sexual Response Cycle (SRC), and in this stage, you're going to see/want a combination of physical and psychological responses. This phase can last anywhere from minutes to hours, even days depending on how you want to do it #tantricsexanyone?

phase one: excitement of the sexual response cycle for men infographic

It is triggered by the start of arousal and anticipation of a sexual encounter or some form of sexual stimulation.


Sexual stimuli to consider:

  • The five senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing)

  • Fantasy (mental thoughts)

During this phase, both men and women can expect to experience a variety of changes. Some of the common sexual responses during the excitement phase include:

  • Increased muscle tension and contractions

  • The penis begins to form an erection

  • Increase heart rate and breathing

  • "Sex flushes" (which are red flushes or patches)

This sexual arousal is often triggered by the individual's mental and emotional state, as well as it can be some physical stimulation. For example, during the excitement phase, you can turn each other on through imagination, kissing, or engaging in early sexual contact with a partner.

The excitement phase plays a crucial role in the Sexual Response Cycle as it serves as a stepping stone toward achieving sexual pleasure and orgasm.

phase one: excitement of the sexual response cycle for women infographic

On a side note, a lot of people may think of this part as foreplay, but that's not till the next phase. HOWEVER, this is still a crucial part of turning yourself on as well as your partner. It's an incredibly important part of the sexual response cycle for women and helping them achieve an orgasm (Guys, if there is one thing you should try to work on more, it's this part).


Sexual Response Cycle Phase 2: Plateau

In this stage, your body moves from the beginning stages of arousal and anticipation to extremely turned on (horny and ready for foreplay/intercourse). Your breathing and heart rate will speed up even more, as your blood vessels dilate further. This is going to be a lot like what you feel in the first phase, but it's going to be much more "heightened".

phase two: plateau of the sexual response cycle for men infographic

During this phase, it's usually a combination of incredibly satisfying intercourse and foreplay ahead of time. Typically you'll experience things such as:

  • Heavy breathing

  • An elevated heart rate

  • A firm and full erection (Women may experience swelling around the clitoris and vaginal lubrication)

  • The muscles of the penis contract

During this phase, physical pleasure increases substantially, so it's important to take breaks if you need them and pay attention to your partner’s responses so you can continue stimulating them. This phase is all about getting ready to orgasm. This is also a crucial stage for those that may experience premature ejaculation. Finding ways to last longer in bed and prevent it, is critical here.

phase two: plateau of the sexual response cycle for women infographic

Sexual Response Cycle Phase 3: Orgasm

This phase is what everything has really been leading up to... orgasm. The orgasm phase marks the peak of sexual pleasure and is often considered to be one of the most important stages within the Sexual Response Cycle.

phase three: orgasm of the sexual response cycle for men infographic

During this stage, both men and women may experience an intense wave of pleasurable sensation, commonly known as an “orgasmic wave". This phase includes experiences such as:

  • Ejaculation and/or orgasm

  • Strong sense of euphoria

  • Multiple forms of clitoral/vaginal orgasms for women (Yes, women experience multiple orgasms)

  • Strong emotions of joy or contentment

Given that orgasm can come with many emotional responses it's important to make sure that your partner(s) are comfortable throughout this process and that they are receiving adequate pleasure while engaging in sexual activities.

phase three: orgasm of the sexual response cycle for women infographic

This phase usually only last for a few seconds but can last minutes as well. In which the next phase is almost immediately started after orgasm.

It's also important to note that not everyone is going to reach this stage. While you may experience it, your partner does not (or vice versa). WHICH we're going to talk about here in just a moment after the last phase.


Sexual Response Cycle Phase 4: Resolution

Resolution is the fourth and final stage of the Sexual Response Cycle, and it follows right after the Orgasm phase. Typically you will experience a gradual return to pre-aroused levels as your body starts to recover from an intense climax.

phase four: resolution of the sexual response cycle for men infographic

This stage commonly lasts anywhere from several minutes to hours and is often characterized by users experiencing sensations of relaxation and contentment. In men, during this phase they may experience:

  • Decreased sensitivity in the penis

  • The penis will return to flaccid

  • Fluctuations in hormones

  • Decreased heart rate and breathing rate

This is also known as the "refractory period". This phase can last from just a couple of minutes to hours and even days. There is research that points towards this time increasing as we age. But it all depends on quite a few different things, which we'll mention here shortly.

phase four: resolution of the sexual response cycle for women infographic

Can You Shorten The Refractory Period (Phase Four) - Men

Although women may not have to deal with a longer period before they're ready for round two, men on the other hand do... AND although we all HAVE TO go through this "refractory" phase after orgasm, there are ways we can shorten it so that we can jump back into the action.


Why is this important? Well, for example, premature ejaculation plagues a third of men based on research. Some of you guys have difficulties lasting longer than 1-3 minutes (this timeframe is what classifies "premature ejaculation" in most cases).


It's also important to know that PIV is not the only way to make a woman orgasm, and in most cases, clitoral stimulation is preferred. Some men AND women think sex ends after an orgasm (our education system and social learning environments are to blame for this misunderstanding).


Can You Shorten The Refractory Period (Phase Four) - Men

The truth is, it's not the destination, but the journey. The experience and consideration of each others pleasure is far more important than spraying your load and then rolling over to sleep.


The point is, even if you do ejaculate early, it doesn't mean you can't get to round two or that all other sexual activities like going back to foreplay, or pleasuring your partner (if they haven't finished yet) is off the table.

You can literally restart the sexual response cycle or focus on the eroticism of being in the moment with your partner and pleasuring them to get you back to round 2.


In addition to this, we're going to suggest other simple areas, medical grade and lifestyle choices that can help with getting back to round 2.


Medical Ways To Help Sexual Performance In Men

You've probably heard of Viagra and other forms of ED medication helping you either get hard or last longer. Although these drugs were not designed to get you to round 2 or help shorten your refractory period, the improvement in blood flow from these pills may help with your ability to restart that erection process again after ejaculation (how? the sensitivity, increase in nitric oxide part and watching your partner while you pleasure them will get you back in the mood, eventually).


A good approach is to initiate round 2 with a different sexual approach than you did in round 1 that is both stimulating and arousing or as equally as it was in round 1.
Rich advocating for penis enlargement using the bathmate penis pump

Another way to help with sexual performance and sexual confidence that has worked for many men, including myself is the Bathmate pump. Using a penile pump at least 1-2 hours beforehand not only gives you an improvement in blood flow, but it changes the overall dynamic of the sexual experience.


With bigger measurements coming in overtime from consistent use, both men and their partners experience more satisfying pleasure emotionally and physically. The confidence a man gains from using a Bathmate pump and the change in sexual dynamic can further encourage more pleasure for both you and your partner.


 

Another way to help with sexual performance or a decline that men face eventually is shockwave therapy.


Li-ESWT (scientific term) at-home devices like The Phoenix may help things become more responsive down there.


This is an at-home shock wave therapy device that can help restore sexual function in men who started noticing a decline in performance in bedroom like "trouble getting it up" or "keeping it up".

the phoenix device for men

Lifestyle Ways To Help Men With Refractory Periods

Besides the medical ways, lifestyle choices can have a huge effect on your recovery period between rounds. If you really want to shorten your refractory period, here are the major ways you can do that through lifestyle changes:

  • More Cardio (cardiovascular exercises help you gain more control of your body and improve blood flow)

  • Dieting & weight control (What you eat is crucial not just for your overall health but also your sexual health)

Combining these types of lifestyle changes with a device such as The Phoenix (which we've talked about in our review of The Phoenix), is one of the best and surest ways that you can be ready for round two.


We also highly suggest having a conversation with your partner about the quality of sex you both are having. Nothing is sexier than having these discussions and discussing ways to improve something that might already be good to something even better!

The Difference Between Men and Women During The Sexual Response Cycles

As we mentioned earlier, while both men and women experience the same 4 stages of the Sexual Response Cycle, there are some key differences in each stage.

For example, it's much more common for men to have a longer refractory period after orgasm (meaning they need to take a break before being aroused again and going for round two). Women on the other hand may be able to experience multiple orgasms without needing any sort of rest which can be linked to the Oxytocin released during female orgasms.

This, of course, can vary from person to person and depending on lifestyle habits such as:

  1. Overall health

  2. Your age

  3. The food you eat

  4. Frequency and quality of sex

Sexual Response Cycle Modifiers by bdestyle.com that can affect your sexual response cycle

All can have an effect on how long your refractory phase lasts and how soon are you ready for round two. If you want to be ready for round two soon, it's time to set up your lifestyle choices.

Additionally, for women, the clitoris can remain highly sensitive during the resolution phase even after an orgasm has been achieved. This means that stimulation during this phase can lead to further arousal and possibly another orgasm. But, you have to be sensitive yourself, especially when touching this area as you don't want to rush into it, otherwise it will cause discomfort for your partner.

As mentioned during the orgasm phase, women may experience multiple orgasms. Whereas men's bodies are designed to achieve a single orgasm (in some cases, some men report being multi-orgasmic).


What Stops You From Going Through The Sexual Response Cycle


The Sexual Response Cycle is a very powerful thing and it's important to remember that not everyone will experience all the stages. This can be due to many different factors such as:

  • Mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, or depression (it can delay sexual response or you might have trouble getting through the phases, including the orgasm phase because you're stuck in your mind)

  • Imbalances in hormone levels

  • Uncomfortable sexual positions (can shift you from plateau phases and back to the excitement/arousal stage, because maybe the technique or position is not pleasurable, making you tune out)

  • Medical conditions (sexual dysfunction such as delayed ejaculation, vaginismus,

  • Lack of arousal or desire for sexual activity (sex should not be rushed. Take your time and enjoy the experience)

  • Inadequate blood flow to the penis (erectile dysfunction)

  • Physical trauma to the penis (tissue damage)

  • Trauma from abuse (not feeling in control or control being taken away)

  • Situational ( It's not the right environment, etc.)

  • The right conditions are not met ( lack of trust and safety, undetermined relationship status, and other emotional components are nots met)


Sexual Response Dysfunction and things that can interfere with sexual response in some women

The Female Orgasm And The Sexual Response Cycle

I am also writing a blog on the orgasm gap because it's important to address female pleasure and the lack of research as it's only been limited to behaviors and traditional biological responses. The orgasm gap is also not a new phenomena or discovery. Historically, women's pleasure was not prioritized leaving many women unsatisfied in the bedroom or confused as to whether or not they're able to orgasm.


Compared to heterosexual men, only 65% of women experience an orgasm during sex as opposed to heterosexual men who experience an orgasm 95% of the time. When it comes to the research we have so far, it has been identified that men orgasm faster than women do and that women need more time and arousal to get through all the stages of the sexual response cycle.

the orgasm gap is real and men are experiencing more orgasms than women

As some sex experts and coaches point out that the "clit" or "clitoris" is the "only" key, or the same repeated general response "what works for one woman is different for others", the sexual response cycle is still not a linear process for anyone. Meaning that even if there wasn't a diagnosed sexual dysfunction in the mix, our society and culture have already done enough damage in misguiding men and women to believe that female pleasure is not that important or not equally as important as men's pleasure.


The education system is mainly to blame because schools lack comprehensive sex education programs to debunk a lot of the misinformation we see or hear about in movies, social media, pornography, etc. Our society has also perpetuated the idea that sex primarily focuses on "penetrative" sex and not other activities like oral sex or clitoral touch/stimulation, which have been proven to be driving factors for female orgasms.


Lastly, these statistics or the facts around female pleasure are limited to basic behaviors on achieving orgasm and frequency. Most experts are failing to address, the "how to close the gap" part while unintentionally restricting women to the limited research we have so far. They're failing to spark creativity to create positive and healthy conversations on how to empower all sexes to learn about female pleasure and encourage more orgasms.


The Challenges Of The Orgasm Gap And The Sexual Response Cycle For Women

It all comes back full circle. With a lack of sex education and most schools not requiring comprehensive courses, the generational cycle of "misinformation" about the topic of sex and female sexuality will continue...


Our society has primarily focused on "penetrative" sex, especially in "hook up" culture, for far too long. Statistics show that men can orgasm in 5.4 minutes (median, not average) whereas it could take up to 14 minutes on average for women to climax during partnered sex. And because our society and culture still primarily focuses on "penetrative" sex, it has been suggested/assumed in research that sex ends after the male orgasm. We can assume that because of this, it can prevent women from experiencing ALL the sexual response stages, if sex ends abruptly after a guy busts a nut.


You can read more about the orgasm gap and our perspective here, "The Orgasm Gap: Can We Close The Gap And Move Past The Discovery Phase?"

Talk about inconsideration for your partner's, guys. And statistics proves this, especially during first time hook-ups with a "wider" orgasm gap between heterosexual men and heterosexual women.


The only time the "gap" get's smaller is during long term relationships where sex includes more sexual activities, foreplay, clitoral stimulation, intercourse, and other emotional intimacy and chemistry building (which is to be speculated because of pair bonding, and other psychological factors promoting trust and safety when exploring sex with someone you're connected to versus a random stranger you hook up with from the club).


Sexual Response For Women And "Bad Sexual Encounters"


Let's say for instance, a woman has had "repeated" bad sexual encounters that pushes her back and forth between the excitement and plateau sexual response stages, resulting in not getting to the orgasm/resolution phase. Overtime, these repeated bad encounters can potentially make women believe that they can't orgasm, or that they fit the statistic of women who can't orgasm, when really, they just had a bad sexual encounter or have not explored enough to find out what works for them, both physically and mentally.


Because our society is still trying to demystify female pleasure and create balance, there are some women who think they're "broken". This might potentially lead women to develop "mental brakes", which may prevent them from exploring with their partners or with new partners. Not to mention, exploring themselves as they might have already adopted a negative outlook on sex. This might prevent them from taking the time to explore what could potentially work for them as well as be able to effectively communicate these techniques with their partners.


women discussing bad sexual encounters they've had that prevented their orgasms

They might tell their partners that they just don't orgasm or will have resistance in trying to find out how. On the same token, this might mislead some men to believe that their partners fit that demographic of women who can't orgasm, which in turn, might lead them to not put in any effort to help their partners or for men to only focus on their own orgasm while neglecting their partners.


In addition to this, the lack of school sex education on desire and pleasure, may also continue to lead men into believing notions like "sex ending after the male orgasm", or learning about sex from online spaces like pornography --- resulting in poor techniques and poor views on how sex should look like and how it should feel.

The generational cycle continues...

The point is, the gap and lack of knowledge around this topic is very real. We shouldn't limit people to "traditional" statistics nor should we assume that the locating the clitoris is the "only" key to making women orgasm. Sex is much deeper rooted than this and requires more than just communication. A healthier mindset around sex, enhancing emotional intelligence to cultivate better conversations and creating a positive and encouraging environment to explore sexually with your partner without judgement, shame or blame is the way to go.


Sex takes two to tango, especially when it comes to the "How to" part.


Again, if you read my take on the orgasm gap, you'll see that we must unite all sexes and empower each other to demystify female pleasure and sexuality and really hone in on the conversations to ask for more pleasure and effectively communicate better ways to explore and encourage orgasms.


FAQ On The Sexual Response Cycle


1. Do both men and women experience the same phases?

Yes, while the duration of each phase can differ from person to person, both men and women will experience all 4 stages of the Sexual Response Cycle (SRC).


2. Is the sexual response cycle different for males and females?

3. What stops you from experiencing all the phases of sexual response?

4. Can lifestyle habits affect the Sexual Response Cycle?

5. Can women experience multiple orgasms?

6. What if sexual trauma prevents me from finding pleasure again or response to future sexual encounters?

7. Why is it that some men and women have difficulty with sexual response?

8. My partner wanted me, but I couldn't get an erection (or in the mood) right away. Is there something wrong with me?


Taking Note of the Sexual Response Cycle


Rich explaining sexual intelligence and how you need to self reflect on sexual encounters to understand how your body works

The Sexual Response Cycle is a natural process that all people experience when they become aroused. While men and women both go through the same 4 stages, there are some key differences. Additionally, lifestyle habits such as overall health, age, diet, etc., can also have an effect on how long your refractory phase lasts and how soon you’re ready for round two.

One of the biggest reasons, we wanted to talk about this today is that by understanding the Sexual Response Cycle, desire types, the orgasm gap, and how our erections truly work, we can gain better insight into our own bodies and how we respond sexually. Not just for ourselves but for our partners as well!

Hopefully, this brought some insight into that and it can help you improve your sexual experiences. As always guys, if you have further questions on this topic, think that I missed something important to note, or anything else, feel free to drop a comment or send a message. We're here to build a better community around sexual health.

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