Understanding sexual response

Each person has unique sexual response experiences which are directly influenced by thoughts, fantasies, abilities, real life experiences, stage of life, relationships, medications, and physical and emotional wellness. No two people are the same in how they respond sexually; therefore, it is really important to know your self and your body well so you can be as aware and comfortable as possible with your process. This knowledge can help enhance your sexual experiences. A person may not be aware of every physical change that happens during sexual response. There are a number of theories about sexual response cycles; some older ( Masters and Johnson); some newer (Kaplan); and some gender specific (Basson, Whipple and Brash-McGreer). It’s essential to recognize that each person is individual in their expression and experiences of sexual response. We provide this basic information so you can be more educated and empowered about your sexuality.

Find out the basics about:


Sexual desire is often defined as a desire or want to experience sexual feelings and/or activities, intimacy or gratification  without or with a partner(s). There are many influences on sexual desire and it is achieved differently for different people but generally it involves re

Excitement – Sexual Arousal

Arousal is the next part of sexual pleasure, when a person is becoming sexually excited. Sexual arousal usually begins in the brain.The brain sends messages  throughout the body to prepare us for sex. This arousal can be stimulated by thought, fantasy, conversation, smell, touch, taste, sound, sight, etc. There is huge diversity in what a person finds sexually exciting and this may varies from person to person as it is influenced by culture, age, stages, relationships, cycles, etc. Sexual arousal may occur suddenly and intensely or it may be a slower progression. Each person is unique in their experiences of sexual arousal.

In all people:

  • Heart rate increases
  • Blood pressure increases
  • Muscles throughout the body become more tense
  • Nipples become erect
  • Skin may become flushed

Differing Genital changes:

  • vagina relaxes and begins to lubricate
  • the clitoris becomes larger and more erect
  • the inner labia swells and outer labia separate
  • the uterus and cervix retracts slightly
  • Penis becomes erect
  • Scrotum thickens
  • Testicles rise closer to the body


Contrary to the word, the plateau phase of sexual response is not a leveling off of sexual excitement; it actually continues to grow and this phase may last several seconds to minutes. A person may feel physical and emotional excitement and have physically sensations of sensitivity, warmth and even appear flushed. This phase can take a person to a level of altered consciousness – it’s often referred to as “the heat of the moment or the throes of passion.” It can feel incredibly intoxicating and be difficult to make intentional decisions at this point in the response cycle. This is why it is recommended to have safer sex  and/or birth control methods in use already as it may be difficult to ensure they are being used as well as they need to be.


Orgasm is an intense, pleasurable feeling that occurs at the end of the Plateau phase. Orgasm is usually the most intense peak of the sexual response cycle. It is also the shortest of all phases in the cycle. It occurs when the sexual and muscular tension(especially those in the pelvis) built up is released in a series of quick pleasurable contractions. It is the peak of sexual arousal, and is also called the climax. The experience of orgasm differs from person to person and experience to experience. It can feel quick and intense or slow and relaxed.  Not all sexual experiences result in orgasm; this is normal. This does not mean that a sexual experience cannot be pleasurable. There is often a lot of pressure (from many sources!) to achieve orgasm during sex and if a person does not experience this, they may feel inadequate or as if they’ve done something wrong. Having a comfortable relationship with your partner can challenge these feelings and reassure you. Orgasm and ejaculation in people with penises often occur at the same time but it is possible to ejaculate with an orgasm and orgasm without ejaculating.


The end stage of sexual arousal is called resolution. During the resolution period, a relaxation of the muscles as well as psychologically will occur. The blood that has moved into the genitals will drain out slowly. The body returns to the way it was before sexual arousal. Resolution happens whether or not someone experiences an orgasm.

When a person with a penis enters the resolution phase, they lose their erection and experiences what is called the refractory period.  This is the period of time it takes a person with a penis to experience another erection. the duration of the refractory period usually increases with age and/or other medical conditions. People with vaginas do not experience a refractory period, they may be sexually aroused again quickly.