Sexual Response Cycle

The Sexual Response Cycle was developed by sex researchers Masters and Johnson in 1966 after observing patients during various sexual activities. Although this model was developed so long ago, it is still widely taught as the way our bodies respond to sexual activity. In general, this model can help us understand what’s happening in our bodies when we experience sexual arousal and desire, but human sexuality is nuanced and varies widely, so this model isn’t perfect. I do think it does a great job of helping us understand generally what’s happening in our bodies when we experience sexual arousal. It is important to note that people of all genders experience the cycle, but in different ways and at different times. You and your partner likely won’t experience the exact same phases at the exact same time, and that’s okay. 

Excitement Phase

The first phase of the cycle is excitement. The excitement phase can last anywhere from several minutes to several hours and includes experiencing muscle tension, a faster heart rate and faster breathing, blood starting to flow to the genitals. This cycle can start even before you physically see or touch your partner, which I think is so cool! 

For example, if you’re dating someone and every time you’ve seen one another so far you’ve had sex, simply seeing their name pop up on your phone on the day of a date together can start this cycle because your brain associates them with sex. How wild is that!? As I mentioned, this phase can last anywhere from a few minutes to hours, and of course, can vary in levels of intensity. Sometimes your mind can feel desire, but perhaps your body doesn’t yet, or vice versa. 

Plateau Phase

The second phase is plateau. During the plateau phase, all of the experiences from the excitement phase continue but slowly increase with intensity. Perhaps the feelings you initially feel thinking about seeing your partner later increase when you actually see them or when they kiss you hello. This phase could also occur when you and your partner(s) actually start being physically intimate with one another. 

All of the things in the excitement phase are continuing, and the genitals get more filled with blood. Your breathing and heart rate increase even more, as well as your muscle tension. Some people also experience muscle spasms during this phase in other parts of their body besides their genitals. Even though this phase is called “plateau,” the arousal and sensations in the body are still increasing here little by little. 

Orgasm Phase

The third phase is orgasm. A very important note to make here is that not everyone experiences orgasm every time or even most of the time they have sex with a partner. Orgasm shouldn’t be the only goal of sexual interaction, pleasure should be! Although this is included in the response cycle, I want to acknowledge that this is not accurate for a lot of people. 

During orgasm, people can reach the climax of their sexual experience. This climax can include orgasm or involuntary contraction of the muscles and genitals. Blood pressure heart rate and breathing are all at a high, and a great release of sexual tension can occur. The vagina and uterus involuntarily contract here, and the penis can ejaculate. Some people also experience a flush of color on their face or body in this phase. 

Resolution Phase

The final phase of the cycle is resolution. During resolution, the body slowly returns back to its natural resting state. The heart rate slows, the muscles relax, and the increased blood flow to the genitals returns to its resting state. During this phase, people may feel relaxed, more connected to their partner, or even snuggly and tired. This phase is a great opportunity for partners to discuss aftercare, or ways to feel safe and comfortable after sex. People with vaginas should always pee right after sex during this period. 

What if I experience the sexual response cycle differently?

Generally speaking, this is the cycle our bodies go through during a sexual encounter with someone else or ourselves. As I mentioned, this model isn’t totally accurate to how people experience sexual arousal, but generally speaking, it can give us an idea. This model presents the sexual response in a very straightforward, linear way, and that is not always accurate. For example, orgasm might not be part of everyone’s sexual response, and that is normal. 

Perhaps there are some encounters where you experience the excitement and then resolution, never experience a plateau or a climax. That is normal. It is also normal to not experience these phases at the same time, in the same way, or at the same level of intensity as your partner or partners. For example, it is not likely that everyone involved in a sexual encounter will experience orgasm at the same time. One partner might naturally spend more time in the excitement or plateau phase before reaching a climax. One partner might feel more energized during the resolution, while the other might feel sleepy. All experiences are normal!

My favorite thing I’ve learned in studying the sexual response cycle is learning more about the excitement phase. I love knowing that this phase can start by even just seeing your partner without physically touching yet. That is so cool! 

Are there other models of sexual response?

Since this cycle was first established in 1966, other researchers have written and observed more accurate ways to describe the sexual response that accounts for all of the variations in sexual experience and desire people have. These different models can be found with a little extra reading, but the Masters and Johnson model still remains the most widely taught, despite its shortcomings. Other models developed in the years after Masters and Johnson account for acknowledging desire, pleasure, and satisfaction as part of the sexual response and someone’s interest in seeking out sexual activity with a certain partner again. 

Next time you experience the sexual response cycle, it might be interesting to tune into your body and see how you’re really feeling. Notice if the excitement phase starts by simply knowing you’ll see your partner later that day, for example. Think about what makes you feel totally cared for a safe during the resolution phase. Once you reflect, share that information with your partner for a more connected sexual experience.

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