- Jess O'Reilly, PhD, sexologist and relationship expert
I know, I know... I picked a winner, as many men think there are at most two phases of sexual response: excitement and orgasm. You'd be forgiven for thinking that, too, as neither formal sex education nor porn features much else.
Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast, covers the phases of sexual response in her Mindful Sex E-Course. "Early sex researchers [William H.] Masters and [Virginia E.] Johnson divided the sexual response cycle into four sections: excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution," she explains. "Helen Singer-Kaplan [later] proposed a three-phase model (desire, excitement and orgasm), noting that sexual response is also cognitive and psychological." Others, she said, have since added "anticipation" to this updated model.
Before we delve into the details of each phase, Dr. O'Reilly notes that each sexual experience is different, and that you shouldn't expect to experience all four stages in every scenario. The below, then, is simply a general guide to help you better understand your body's behavior before, during, and even after sex.
If you're too focused on orgasm, you may miss the rest—these are the 4 phases of sexual response, explained
Phase 1: anticipation
As most of us know, anticipation is often the sexiest part of sex. "Just like planning a vacation, the preparatory rituals—reading hotel reviews, shopping for resort wear, and scouting out the top attractions—can be just as exciting and satisfying as the vacation itself," says Dr. O'Reilly.
While you may not notice changes in your body during this phase, stuff is happening. "Anticipation of reward has been shown to activate several parts of the brain, including the nucleus accumbens of the ventral striatum, which is considered the the pleasure center and controls the release of dopamine," says Dr. O'Reilly. "Scientists also believe that as we anticipate sex in our minds or based on observable cues and rituals, our bodies become better prepared for the physical experience."
Anticipation as a phase of the sexual response cycle is essential from a pleasure perspective, since dopamine levels can be higher here than in any other phase. "It follows that anticipation doesn’t necessarily precede pleasure; anticipation is pleasure in and of itself," says Dr. O'Reilly.
Desire often precedes excitement, and that it just as often needs to be cultivated. "If you wait until you’re in the mood to have sex, you may never find yourself in the mood," she says. "I recommend that you make a Fire and Ice List. In the Fire column, list everything that might possibly lead to the desire for sex. And in the Ice column, list everything that might detract from your desire for sex. Consider a range of factors that relate to practical (a lock on your door, a white noise machine, music, lighting ambience, etc.), spiritual, physical (sleep habits, diet, exercise, overall health, etc.), relational (releasing tension, communicating needs, etc.), emotional (stress levels, etc.), and lifestyle (division of labor, workload, responsibilities, etc.) elements of your day to day."
Phase 2: excitement
"Oftentimes, we refer to this phase as 'foreplay,' but it’s important to note that foreplay and sex mean different things to different people," says. Dr. O'Reilly.
In this phase, you may start to feel things in your *swimsuit areas* as your body undergoes visible changes. According to Dr. O'Reilly, these include: blood flow to the genitals, breasts, and lips, which results in swelling and color change in these areas; blood flow to the surface of the skin, which produces flush; lubrication of the vagina as the clitoris swells and the uterus tents upward; erection of the penis and elevation of the testes as the scrotum contracts; hardening nipples; and increased breath, heart, and blood pressure rates.
This stage, she says, is essential to building arousal and pleasure. "Some people find that they prefer to take their time in this stage, as it helps them to relax and cultivate the presence required to further increase arousal and build toward orgasm," she says. (Amen, sister.)
Phase 3: plateau
This part of the process sounds a little boring, but according to Dr. O'Reilly it's anything but. "During the plateau phase, signs of excitement heighten further," she says.
You might notice any or all of the following physical changes: the clitoral gland retracts beneath its hood; the outer third of the vagina swells and the uterus continues to tent upward; muscles tense and may begin to spasm; the testicles elevate closer to the body; and heart rate, breath, and blood pressure continue to increase.
"Some people work their way to the plateau phase and then slow down to decrease arousal as they edge their way to orgasm," says Dr. O'Reilly. "Others work their way through plateau as quickly as possible, because they’re focused on 'finishing' up with orgasm." If you're prone to the latter, it might be worth giving the former a try. "Sex can be highly pleasurable and satisfying as an experience independent of orgasm. You might find that prolonging the plateau phase leads to new sensations, heightened sexual tension, and a more intense orgasm when you decide to take yourself over the edge."
Phase 4: orgasm
"Orgasm is often framed as the 'goal' of sex, but sex can be highly pleasurable regardless of whether or not you have an orgasm," says Dr. O'Reilly. "Of course, orgasm can feel great, too, and is associated with its own set of benefits including feelings of relaxation, a good night’s sleep, a deep sense of connection, and an elevated mood."
Contrary to popular belief, orgasm is not one standard response you can expect to experience in exactly the same way each time you have sex. "The experience of orgasm varies greatly not only from person to person but also between each sexual episode," says Dr. O'Reilly.
This diverse array of physical reactions might include: a sense of pleasurable release of sexual tension as your mind becomes wholly focused on the physical experience; involuntary muscular contractions throughout the pelvic region including the vagina, uterus, anus, penile base, prostate and pelvic floor (these contractions are spaced at an average of 0.8 seconds beginning at 0.6 seconds and slowing down thereafter); dilation of pupils; ejaculation, which refers to expulsion of fluid through the urethra. (I'm guessing that saying, "I'm going to expel fluid through my urethra" during climax is on just about everybody's Ice list.)
As you likely already know, however, the pressure to orgasm can result in difficulty orgasming and detract from the experience of sex overall. "Pressure is the antithesis to pleasure, as when you worry about your body’s sexual response cycle, it can lead to the release of stress-related chemicals in the body which can, in turn, impede sexual response," says Dr. O'Reilly. Focusing on the other three stages of the process instead of this fourth can not only increase your overall experience of pleasure but can also, counterintuitively, increase the odds of an orgasm.
Bonus: If you do climax, there is a mini fifth phase wherein the body returns to its unaroused state. "Some people experience fatigue and others can return rapidly to sexual activity," Dr. O'Reilly says. "Folks with penises often need time to recover, known as the refractory period which varies between individuals and tends to increase with age." Not for nothing, but this last bit is yet another argument for focusing less on—or even altogether skipping—phase four: just ask my 40-something boyfriend, whose vocabulary does not include the words "refractory period."
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