The Sexual Response Cycle: An In-Depth Guide

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The Sexual Response Cycle: An In-Depth Guide

In the midst of lovemaking, you’re not exactly thinking about the mechanics of it all. But have you ever wondered what is happening – chemically and physically – during sex?

Perhaps you’ve thought: What happens during arousal? What happens before, during, and after orgasm? Does my experience differ from my partners?

These are the questions that will be answered below in our overview of the sexual response cycle. So let’s dive in!

What is the Sexual Response Cycle?

The four steps below were first developed by sexual researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The steps have held up well throughout the decades.

In short, they’re a cycle of human sexual response from start to finish.

What are the Phases of the Sexual Response Cycle?

There are four phases of the sexual response cycle:

  1. Excitement
  2. Plateau
  3. Orgasm
  4. Resolution

This cycle is experienced by both men and women, though the timing varies. Partners rarely orgasm at the same time, for example, and the resolution period is usually quicker for women than for men. As you both learn more about each other, you’ll better recognize these phases in your partner. This can help you to be a better lover.

In some sexual encounters, these phases may be skipped or happen out of order. That could be a normal response for your partner, or it could change based on certain times during the monthly cycle (in women), stress, illness, or medication.

Phase 1: Excitement

The excitement stage has the greatest variation in length, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. It begins with either physical or mental stimuli, such as kissing, touching, or fantasizing about sexual acts.

In Men and Women

In both sexes, this phase is characterized by:

  • Increase in heart rate
  • Increase in respiration (breathing rate)
  • Rise in blood pressure

A sexual flush, or reddening of the skin, can also occur in both men and women though it’s more common in women.

In Men

In males, the excitement phase is further characterized by hardening of the penis, though the penis may harden and soften numerous times during this phase. The testicles will also usually rise during this stage to accommodate erection, and the scrotum may tighten and thicken as the penis becomes erect.

In Women

In females, vasocongestion (swelling of bodily tissues caused by increased blood flow) occurs so the genitals become engorged. This includes the clitoris, labia minora, and vagina. The breasts may also slightly increase in size and the nipples harden. Finally, the vagina will begin to produce a self-lubricant.

Phase 2: Plateau

The excitement phase leads directly into the plateau phase. This phase is essentially a continuation of the excitement phase, though with a buildup up toward orgasm.

In Men and Women

During the plateau phase, both men and women will continue to experience an increase in heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. There will also be increased myotonia, or muscle tension, as excitement continues to build.

In Men

The most noticeable physiological change during this time is the rhythmic contractions that begin at the base of the penis. It’s also during plateau that the urethral sphincter closes so as to prevent urine from mixing in with ejaculate. There may begin to be a release of pre-ejaculatory fluids.

In Women

There aren’t really new changes in women during this phase, though the changes that occurred during the excitement phase continue. For example, the clitoris will continue to sensitize and the vagina will continue to secrete lubrication fluids (thanks to the Bartholin glands).

Phase 3: Orgasm

The peak of pleasure for both men and women happens during the third phase, orgasm.

In Men and Women

In both men and women, orgasm is characterized by quick, rhythmic muscle contractions in the lower pelvic muscles. This includes the sexual organs as well as the anus.

In Men

In men, orgasms are most strongly associated with ejaculation. Each pulse is accompanied by a stream of male ejaculate which diminishes as the pulses become less intense.

In Women

While women can ejaculate, it’s not so common that it’s associated with female orgasms. Instead, the female orgasm is strongly characterized by uterine and vaginal contractions. Female orgasms vary widely, both because women experience orgasms differently and because different stimulations (e.g. clitoral vs vaginal) can cause different sensations. Overall, women experience a body-wide wave of pleasure that emanates from the groin.

Phase 4: Resolution

Post-orgasm, it’s time for the body to relax during the phase called resolution.

In Men and Women

The final stage of the sexual response cycle is resolution. In both men and women, this is characterized by muscle relaxation and a decrease in blood pressure. The body will calm itself down to its pre-excitement level.

In Men

It’s during resolution that the penis goes from erect to flaccid. It does so in two stages. During the first stage, the penis goes from erect to about 50% larger than its flaccid state. This occurs during the refractory period in which men cannot generally achieve orgasm again. During the second stage, the penis will go entirely flaccid.

In Women

Unlike men, it’s possible for most women to orgasm again immediately after orgasm. There is no defined refractory period for women, though some will have difficulty orgasming if the clitoris is too sensitive.


While it may not feel like it in the moment, sex really is a science.

There are actual benefits to knowing how the body works before, during, and after sex. You can use your newfound knowledge to your and your partner’s advantage such as by:

  • Noticing signs of arousal
  • Knowing when your moves are having an impact on your partner (or not)
  • Knowing when your partner is close to climax

So how will you put your new knowledge to the test tonight?

Laura Rose Halliday

Disclosure: Our content is reader-supported. This means if you click on some of our links, then we may earn a commission. We only recommend products that we believe will add value to our readers.

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