This is the fifth and final article in the five-part series; Why Gender Matters. In it I discuss what sexual response is all about and how your mind plays a critical role in it.
If you ask the average person which body part is most important regarding their sexual response, they’ll probably say, the penis or the vagina or something else related to their genitals. Most of us equate sexual response to genital functioning, something that goes on between our legs. In fact, the most important body part involved in your sexual response is located between your ears. Your brain, not your genitals, is the seat of your sexual response. Sexual response begins in your mind by fueling desire and ends there with feelings of satisfaction and desire. It is a complex interaction of psychological and physiological factors that starts in your brain and spreads through the rest of your body, including your genitals (Blonna & Carter, 2018).
The Sexual Response Cycle
Most of what is known about human sexual response comes from the work of Masters and Johnson, who in 1996 published their ground-breaking book, Human Sexual Response. They were the first researchers to conduct large-scale laboratory studies of the actual sexual processes involved in human sexual activity. They found that human sexual response was divided into four sequential phases:
They found that this sequencing of sexual response was the same regardless of the type of sexual activity (masturbation, intercourse, and so forth) or sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual). Let's take a closer look at the phases.
Desire and arousal combine to form excitement, the first stage of the sexual response cycle. Desire is the mental component that triggers arousal, the physical part of excitement. Your sexual response starts with your mind's perception of desire. This involves your thoughts and feelings about yourself, your partner, and the nature of your sexual encounter (the context). Your thoughts and feelings about your sexual self set the stage for how you respond to your partner in any given context. If you feel good about yourself and have helpful self-talk and positive feelings, this fuels desire, and your brain will initiate sexual arousal. If your mind is filled with troubling thoughts, painful emotions, and unhelpful self-talk, you’ll have difficulty feeling desire and becoming aroused.
Once you feel desire, then arousal begins. Two key processes are involved in arousal — vasocongestion and myotonia. Vasocongestion is the process that causes the erectile tissue in your genitals to engorge with blood. Myotonia is the build-up of muscle tension throughout your body.
During vasocongestion, the blood flow into your sex organs is greater than outflow. The increased blood flow fills up the spongy tissue that makes up your internal and external sex organs. As this tissue fills with blood, it becomes engorged, enlarging in size, deepening in color, and increasing in sensitivity. If you are a man, this causes your penis to get erect and your scrotum (balls) to darken in color. If you are a woman, this causes your labia (vaginal lips) and clitoris to swell and deepen in color, and your breasts to enlarge and become more sensitive. The extra blood flow also produces lubrication in your vagina.
Myotonia is responsible for the gradual build-up of tension in your skeletal muscles. This gradual build-up of muscular tension is progressive and pleasurable and occurs throughout your entire body including your genitals. If you are a man, muscle tension in your scrotum causes your testes to elevate and move closer to your body. If you are a woman, the inner two-thirds of your vagina expands, and your uterus (womb) is pulled backward.
During plateau, the processes that were set into motion during the excitement phase reach their maximum levels. You experience peak levels of genital engorgement, color changes, lubrication, and muscular tension. If you are a man, your penis becomes fully erect, your testes become completely elevated, and a small gland near your prostate called the Cowper’s gland releases clear, slippery, pre-ejaculatory fluid (pre-cum) signaling intense sexual arousal. You'll also experience a sex flush, a rash-like reddish tinge to the skin of your chest and back associated with dilation of the blood vessels and increased blood flow in these areas.
If you are a woman, your labia and clitoris reach their maximum size, and your clitoris retracts under its protective hood at the top of your vaginal opening. You will also experience the same sex flush that a man would get.
Plateau is the most variable stage in the cycle in terms of time. In general, if you are older and more sexually experienced, you will be able to prolong the plateau phase if you want to. If you are younger and less sexually experienced, you will probably have shorter plateau periods. You can also learn how to prolong plateau through Tantric sex practices.
If your mind is still sending you positive thoughts and feelings about yourself, your partner, and your sexual encounter and you are getting the right kind of stimulation, you will move on to orgasm, the third phase of the sexual response cycle.
Orgasm is characterized by the dramatic release of tension and a decrease in your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and the other physiological processes associated with the excitement and plateau stages. During orgasm, most of your sexual organs undergo rhythmic, muscular contractions. These are responsible for the pleasurable release of pent-up muscular tension that you feel. In addition, orgasm triggers ejaculation in men and squirting in some women. This release of fluid contains sperm (in men) and other liquids from your internal sexual organs.
During resolution, the next phase of the Masters and Johnson sexual response cycle, your body returns to its unaroused state. After you have an orgasm (or orgasms if you are a woman), the engorgement of your genital tissue with blood, and the build-up of muscle tension throughout your body reverses.
Orgasm also triggers your brain to normalize your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow. If you are a man, this causes your erection to shrink and the color and size of your genitals to return to normal. If you are a woman, you will begin to stop lubricating and the color and size of your genitals and breasts to return to normal. In addition, the release of muscular tension and expenditure of energy results in a generalized relaxation response throughout your body.
Masters and Johnson coined the term refractory period to describe the time required after an orgasm before you could get aroused again. They found that there was tremendous variability in refractory periods between men and women, and among individual men. Their key finding was that women did not have a refractory period. As long as the women in their study received the right type and intensity of stimulation, they could continue to stay aroused and have multiple orgasms.
Masters and Johnson found that all men needed some downtime before they could have another orgasm. The amount of downtime varied tremendously, with the two biggest variables being age and time since the last orgasm. In general, they found a younger man who hadn’t had an orgasm in some time would become re-aroused much more quickly than an older man who recently had an orgasm.
In 1980, Zilbergeld and Ellison discovered a five-phase sexual response cycle that emphasized the role of thoughts and feelings in sexual response. In addition to the stages identified by Masters and Johnson and others, they added a fifth stage — satisfaction — which was entirely subjective and reflected the individual’s personal level of enjoyment or fulfillment in the sexual encounter.
Since then, it has become accepted among sex experts that thoughts and feelings play the critical role in all phases of sexual response. Your thoughts and feelings about yourself, your partner, and the sexual experience itself get and keep you aroused, impact whether or not you will orgasm, and determine your level of satisfaction with the whole experience. This is why I started my series of articles with a thorough discussion of how your mind thinks about sex.
In my next article, I will tie all of this together and show you how it relates to sexual mindfulness and great sex.