Sexual Response Cycle—What’s That?

When a person becomes sexually aroused, their body may go through what is called the sexual response cycle. There are several models of sexual response, but this one is relatively common:

Sexual Response Cycle

For many people, sexual response begins with desire; they are interested in engaging in sexual activity. During this period, the body and mind starts to go through changes. Heart rate will start to increase, and breathing may become faster. Blood begins to travel to the genital area. This often leads to vaginal lubrication in females and an erection in males, among other changes. 

During the excitement phase, the changes to the body that happen during desire increase: more blood travels to the genital area, creating a stronger erection for males and increased vaginal lubrication for females. In females, the labia and clitoris will swell, and the vagina expands to accommodate penetration (if that happens). For some females, the clitoris may become very sensitive. In males, the scrotum and testicles draw closer to the body.

During the plateau phase, all the changes that happened in the excitement phase continue and may become more intense.

With enough stimulation, a person will transition into the orgasm phase. Pleasure peaks and the body experiences involuntary muscle contractions. For males, this often leads to ejaculation. Not everyone experiences this phase, and that is okay! Orgasm does not necessarily have to be the goal of every sexual encounter. It is important to note that males do not have to orgasm. If a male does not orgasm, he may experience some discomfort (usually called “blue balls”), but that will go away after a period of time. “Blue balls” is not harmful and should not be used as a reason to continue sexual activity if the other person is not interested. 

If stimulation stops, then the person enters the resolution phase. During this phase, blood leaves the genital area and muscles relax. In males, there is a refractory period, which is the time after orgasm where a male is not able to orgasm again. This time will vary person by person and is affected by age, among other factors (older males tend to have longer refractory periods than younger males). If a person does not have an orgasm, they will go into the resolution phase if stimulation ends. 

People will go through the sexual response cycles differently. Some people may not experience all of the cycles or may spend more time in one cycle compared to another. Every time someone engages in a sexually arousing activity, they may experience the cycles differently. All of this is normal. 

There are some things that can impact the sexual response cycle; physiologically, the body may not respond to sexual stimulation the way a person wants. Things that can impact sexual pleasure and response include:

  • Not getting enough sleep 
  • Depression and anxiety (and their medications)
  • Certain chronic conditions, like heart disease and cancer
  • Certain medications, such as antihistamines, decongestants, and some types of birth control
  • Stress

If you find that you have a difficult time becoming sexually aroused when you are interested in sexual activity, you should speak with your health care provider.

Despite what many may think, alcohol has a negative impact on sexual function. In low amounts, it may increase desire and arousal, but research shows that at higher levels, sexual functioning is lowered while drinking. Alcohol impacts the body in the following ways:

  • Difficulty getting and keeping an erection
  • Less firm erection
  • Less vaginal lubrication

Alcohol may also lead to doing things you wouldn’t otherwise do if you weren’t drinking. It can also make it difficult (or impossible) to give or get consent. It’s best not to mix alcohol or drugs with sexual activity, but if you do decide to drink, stick to low-risk drinking.