The Sexual Response Cycle

Female Orgasm Each person has a unique sexual response cycle, and any discussion of the abstract "human" sexual response necessarily must gloss over these differences. Sexual response is an extremely individualistic experience.

These stages in the sexual response cycle are not limited to traditional sexual intercourse. These steps describe reactions to masturbation, oral sex, fantasy, etc. Remember this when embarking on your exploration of your own sexual response cycle.

This list should not be used as a checklist when observing your own sexual responses. If one tries to act as an observer during sexual experiences, one will likely become a spectator – as if watching one's self engaging in sexual acts, noting and commenting on the events. This greatly detracts from your own and your partner's enjoyment of sex. Try to prevent this tendency in yourself.

Masters and Johnson : The Sexual Response Cycle

Pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson broke the human sexual response cycle down into these phases. A discussion of each individual step follows.

  • Excitement
  • Plateau
  • Orgasm
  • Resolution
  • Refractory Period

Sexologist Helen Singer Kaplan has developed an alternate vision of the sexual response cycle, which includes "Desire" as the first item on the list. Since not all sexual activity is prefaced by desire, we consider the traditional Masters and Johnson description to be more accurate.


This is the first phase in the sexual response cycle. As with all later stages, excitement varies in duration and intensity from person to person and even from sexual encounter to sexual encounter. This phase can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.

Vasocongestion and myotonia, two basic physiological mechanisms, affect both men and women during this and subsequent phases.

Vasocongestion is the filling up with blood and subsequent swelling of body tissues. Thus, the penis becomes erect in a man and in a woman the breasts, labia, nipples and clitoris swell. A sexual flush can occur on the cheeks.

Myotonia is the increased muscular tension that occurs during arousal. Some of these muscular reactions are voluntary while others are involuntary. The most obvious examples are the muscular contractions that accompany both male and female orgasms.

The penis may become fully or partially erect. The testes engorge with blood and move upward. In women, the clitoral shaft enlarges while the inner and outer labia separate and enlarge. Most women also produce vaginal lubrication at this stage (see vaginal dryness for more information).


In this stage, sexual excitement increases to orgasm. This phase can be very brief, from a couple of seconds to few minutes. Most people experience more intense orgasms when this phase of sexual response is lengthened.

All the physiological reactions mentioned above intensify. Heartbeat and breathing rate accelerate, muscle tension rises, and sexual flushes are more noticeable. The outer third of the vagina engorges with blood.

Despite the title, this plateau is not a static and boring place. The Masters and Johnson plateau is a thrilling spiral toward orgasm.


This stage lasts only a few seconds – the shortest in the sexual response cycle. Women usually have a longer-lasting orgasm than men.

For men, seminal fluids gather in the ejaculatory ducts and urethra. This produces a feeling of inevitability about the orgasm. Then the semen is ejaculated at the time of orgasm. Note that orgasm and ejaculation are two separate physiological processes in men, although they almost always occur simultaneously.

For women, the uterus and vagina contract in rhythmic waves. See other physical effects in the article Intro to Female Orgasms.

Interestingly enough, the feelings of orgasm do not seem to vary between the genders. Several studies in which men and women are asked to describe their feelings during orgasm have shown that reports cannot be classified by gender. Men and women alike tend to describe orgasm with phrases like "waves of pleasure in my body," which seems to describe the rhythmic muscular contractions that occur.


During this phase, the body slowly returns to its original, unexcited state. The resolution phase begins immediately after orgasm unless stimulation continues. Some of the effects of sexual excitement last longer than others.

Refractory Period

For men, the refractory period is the time during which they cannot reach excitement, plateau or orgasm through any type of stimulation. The duration of this period varies greatly, from a few minutes to a day or two.

Women do not experience this period in the sexual response cycle. Women are capable of achieving orgasm at any time during resolution – although many women don't find orgasms beyond the first to be as pleasurable. Women are truly capable of multiple orgasms because of this lack of a refractory period.

Please keep in mind that these stages of sexual response are as individual as human beings. There is no right or wrong way to experience the sexual response cycle. Instead, focus on exploring your own and learning more about your body and your personal sexual response.


This information adapted from Crooks and Baur (2002), Our Sexuality, and from McAnulty and Burnette (2001), Exploring Human Sexuality.