The Sexual Response Cycle




The sexual response cycle refers to a series of physical and emotional phases that occur when an individual becomes aroused or engages in sexually stimulating activities. Sexual stimulation during such activities is not limited to penile-vaginal intercourse. The full sexual response cycle can be experienced during masturbation, manual stimulation by one's partner, oral sex, or fantasy.  A comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the physiological changes that your body undergoes during a sexual encounter can help enhance your sexual experiences, deepen your relationship with a partner, or resolve the origins of a sexual problem.

Before embarking on our exploration of the sexual response cycle, there are a few points to consider. First, it can be difficult to avoid using these stages as a kind of personal checklist when observing our own sexual responses. Excessive use of these stages in evaluating our personal responses can lead to "spectatoring," when you seem to be a third person in the bedroom, watching and commenting on your own sexual responses. This preoccupation can detract from the pleasure both you and your partner might achieve.

A final note before we continue: The simplification of the sexual response into a small number of stages does not do justice to the richness and beauty of the individual variability in sexual responses. Everyone is different, and while the responses are biologically somewhat predictable, there is extreme variation in each person's subjective experiences.

Masters and Johnson's Four-Phase Model

The sexual response cycle as has four distinct phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Both males and females may experience these phases during sexual activity, but the duration of the phases may differ. This variability explains why it is unlikely that sexual partners will experience simultaneous orgasm or the same intensity levels at each of the phases. With communication, partners can better understand the differences in each other's sexual response cycles and enhance their sexual experiences.

Phase 1: Excitement

The excitement phase is the first phase of the sexual response cycle. Like all phases of the cycle, excitement varies from person to person and situation to situation. The characteristics of the excitement phase can last from less than a minute to several hours and include the following signs:

·      Myotonia (muscle tension increases)

·      Heart rate and blood pressure increase

·      Breathing accelerates

·      Skin becomes flushed, blotchiness may appear on the chest and back

·      Nipples become erect

·      Vasocongestion increased blood flow to the genitals, causes the swelling of the female clitoris and labia minora and the erection of the male’s penis

·      Vaginal lubrication begins and the labia majora begin to separate

·      Female breasts enlarge

·      Male testes swell and the scrotum tightens


Phase 2: Plateau

In the plateau phase, sexual excitement continues to grow. This phase can be very brief, typically lasting only a few seconds to a few minutes. Many people find that extending the length of the plateau period can lead to more intense orgasms. There is no clear point at which a person visibly shifts from the excitement phase to the plateau phase. In the plateau phase, the general characteristics of the excitement phase continue, but become more intensified. These characteristics include the following:

·      Increases in muscle tension spasms of the feet, hands, and face

·      Continued increase of heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate

·      The female clitoris becomes highly sensitive and retracts under the clitoral hood to avoid direct stimulation or contact

·      The male testes withdraw into the scrotum

·      The outer third of the vagina becomes especially engorged with blood and turns a dark purple color

Note that the word "plateau" is usually used to describe a leveling-off, an area of no real changes. In the sexual response cycle, however, the “plateau” is not a static, boring place. In this stage, both males and females experience powerful surges of sexual excitement or pleasure.

Phase 3: Orgasm

Orgasm is the climactic yet shortest phase of the sexual response cycle, typically lasting only several seconds. The general characteristics of this phase of the sexual response cycle include the following:

·      Involuntary muscle contractions, including spasms of the feet

·      Peak in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate

·      Flush may appear over the entire body

·      Sudden release of muscle tension

·      In a female, the vaginal muscles contract and the uterus undergoes repeated contractions

·      In a male, repeated contractions occur at the base of the penis and semen is ejaculated

While females can have a longer orgasm than males, the sensations of orgasms do not seem to differ by biological sex; that is, males and females feel quite similar things during orgasm. In one study, college students provided descriptions of orgasms. Researchers compared the descriptions using a standard psychological rating scale, and there were no distinguishable differences between male and female descriptions. Both males and females tended to describe orgasms with similar words or phrases such as "waves of pleasure in my body," referring to the rhythmic muscle contractions that occur during orgasm. In an earlier study, 70 expert judges could not reliably differentiate between the orgasm reports of males and females.

Phase 4: Resolution

In this phase, the body slowly returns to its original, unexcited state. Body parts return to their normal size and hue. Some of the changes occur rapidly, whereas others take more time.  The resolution phase is often accompanied by a general sense of well-being, intimacy, and fatigue. The resolution phase begins immediately after orgasm if there is no additional stimulation.

Refractory Period

The refractory period is the one significant difference between the sexual response cycle of males and females. The refractory period occurs during the male’s resolution phase. It is a length of time during which a male cannot become more aroused from any kind of sexual stimulation. This period can last from a few minutes to several days, depending on the male’s age, frequency of sexual activity, and additional factors. Females do not experience a refractory period, and they are capable of reaching orgasm again from any point during resolution. Females have the potential to experience multiple orgasms, but they may not always want to. Good communication can decrease the likelihood that misunderstandings will occur.


Paraphrased from Crooks and Baur (2002), Our Sexuality, pages 158-168; and from McAnulty and Burnette (2001), Exploring Human Sexuality, pages 108-110.

"Sexual Response Cycle: Sexual Arousal, Orgasm, and More." WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.


Last Updated: 30 October 2014.