The Sexual Response Cycle 101

The Sexual Response Cycle 101

From the very first spark of pleasure to the crescendo of orgasm, your body goes through many changes during sex and masturbation. This sequence of changes is commonly known as the sexual response cycle, and understanding it can help women, men, and everyone in between optimize sexytime for the highest pleasure payoff. If this sounds like a good time to you, stick around as we get to know the four main phases of the sexual response cycle. 

Why Should I Care?

Maybe you’re wondering why understanding this cycle is worthwhile. After all, isn’t getting from point A to point B the most important thing? The truth is that understanding the different phases of the sexual response cycle can help you form an even deeper connection with your body and enhance your relationship with pleasure. Specifically, knowing how your body progresses through pleasure can help you identify your likes and dislikes in the bedroom with greater ease. Plus, knowing where you are in the cycle can help you identify sources of possible sexual dysfunction by narrowing in on a specific physiological response. 

It’s also worth mentioning that everyone’s experience with pleasure is unique. So if the way you experience the sexual response cycle is different, that’s okay! As long as you’re happy, healthy, feeling sexually fulfilled, and free of discomfort or pain, odds are you’re just fine. Ultimately, the sexual response cycle is a fantastic tool to reference as you continue deepening your personal relationship with sexuality. 

The Phases of the Sexual Response Cycle

Before we dive into each phase of the sexual response cycle, it’s important to know that experts are always exploring and refining their understanding of this process. We’ll walk through one of the more commonly referenced models so that you can dive head-first into self-exploration and discovery. 

Phase 1: Arousal

This is where the magic starts. Sometimes referred to as the libido, desire, or excitement phase, this first step kickstarts the rest of the sexual response cycle. The phrase, “one thing led to another” is a great way to remember what goes on during the arousal phase. At this point, your body and mind are getting sexually excited; acts like kissing, fantasizing, or looking at porn can jumpstart this process. Here are some of the physical reactions you may experience during the arousal phase. 
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Self-lubrication of the vagina or penis
  • Increased blood flow to the genitals 
  • Flushing or red blotches on the chest and back 
  • Quickened heart rate
  • Swollen vaginal walls 
  • Erection of the penis
  • Swollen testicles and tightened scrotum
  • Erect nipples

Again, everyone’s body responds uniquely to sexual arousal. While some people may experience many of the common physical reactions to sexual excitement, each of us will react differently to one another. And that’s completely normal! We hope you’ll use this list as a helpful reference point from which to understand your body and sexuality. 

Now that things have gotten hot and heavy, it’s time to move onto the plateau phase. But don’t let its name fool you! The plateau phase isn’t about stagnation or decreased pleasure. In fact, the plateau phase is all about continuing and heightening the pleasure of the previous arousal phase. Think of the plateau phase as the bridge that connects the starting point of arousal to the peak of orgasm. 

While in the plateau phase, you can expect the responses you experienced during arousal to intensify. Let’s talk about some of the common physical reactions associated with the plateau phase. 

  • Heightened blood flow and heart rate
  • Increased muscle tension and breathing rate
  • Increased sensitivity in the clitoris 
  • Darkened and expanded vaginal walls; elevated uterus 
  • Enlarged glans (head of the penis) 

Phase 3: Orgasm

It’s time for the big O. While orgasm isn’t an absolute requirement for stellar sex, it’s certainly an extremely pleasurable pitstop along the journey. But what exactly happens in the body during an orgasm? Long story short, a lot! In the brain, chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine are released and flood the body with a feeling of euphoria and well-being. 

Meanwhile, your body experiences involuntary muscle contractions and a release of tension which also contribute to the euphoric feeling of orgasm. People with vaginas may experience rhythmic contractions accompanying orgasm and even ejaculate through the urethra. For people with penises, contractions and the ejaculation of semen from the urethra are also common responses to orgasm.

Phase 4: Resolution

Now that you’ve summited the peak of pleasure, your body can begin the resolution phase. What goes up must come down, and the resolution phase helps your body calm down and reach a stable baseline after climax. At this point, you can expect your breathing and heart rate to return to pre-arousal levels. Muscle tension, blood pressure, and genital swelling also return to normal after orgasm. It’s common for people to feel especially relaxed or tired during the resolution phase. 

This phase also opens the door to the refractory period for people with penises, during which the penis becomes flaccid and doesn’t respond to sexual stimuli. This phase can last anywhere from mere minutes to several hours. Experts suggest that people with vaginas are able to forego the refractory period and have multiple, consecutive orgasms. However, it’s still very common for the vagina to need a bit of time to recover post-orgasm before beginning the sexual response cycle again. 

Each phase of the sexual response cycle offers new opportunities to experience pleasure in different ways. The steaminess of arousal blends seamlessly into the plateau phase, which intensifies pleasure to the point of orgasm before finally reaching the resolution phase. It’s a beautiful cycle that can help you learn about what your body responds to sexually. While everyone’s body can react differently to each phase of the cycle, we hope this has helped you understand what to may experience during sex and masturbation. Here’s to all the work our bodies put in to get you from the first feelings of arousal to post-climax bliss.


This article was written by Giselle Hernandez. She is a freelance sexual health and wellness copywriter with six years of experience writing blogs, website content, social media captions, digital ads, product descriptions, and collateral materials for clients. Check out her website to learn more about her work.
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