How Your Brain and Body Respond to Sexual Stimuli

If you’re reading this article, you probably have some experiences with sex. You might not have it yourself, you may have no interest in it, but you might know people who are sexual. Sex is something that affects every single one of us in some way.

Despite that, studies and research on sex are still discovering more and more about human sexual response. Sex only became a serious area of research relatively recently, and plenty of studies admit there is still so much to learn with sex research.

How human beings respond to sexual stimuli is a topic that research has been considering for quite a bit. And research has come up with a few different ways to explain how human beings respond to sexual stimuli. Before we get into explanations on those, let’s get this out of the way first.

What is a Sexual Response Cycle?

When we’re talking about sexual response models, we’re talking about how our brains respond to sexual stimuli, and how that creates the changes in our bodies for sex. When we refer to models for sexual response, it’s researchers looking to understand if there’s a pattern for how most human beings respond and if we can create a measure for it. So, a model would show the beginning, middle, and end of that cycle.

A rough example of a model for sexual response might include:

  • A start—which could be something like desire, arousal, or excitement
  • A middle—which might be multiple stages but it usually builds upon the starting phases while moving into physical reactions, such as having sex as opposed to becoming aroused
  • An end—which can be orgasm or the returning of the body to its pre-excited state

Each of these models shows this cycle in a different way. And, because human beings are unique, you might find that not all of them fit each person. While one model might sound like it fits your experience better, it may not fit your friends or your partner. So, which one do you think fits you best?

Masters and Johnson

William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson are well-known for several areas of sex research. And they were the first to document a template of sexual response in people. This cycle consisted of: Excitement, Plateau, Orgasm, and Resolution.

These stages all act a little differently and are meant to happen one after the other, making this a linear model. With excitement being the start, this is where sexual arousal would begin. In this model, it’s assumed that sexual response just starts at your body becoming aroused and preparing for sex. The plateau stage continues the excitement but also increases the body reaction. At this point, you might be having sex or masturbating, so your body has gone beyond just responding to sexual stimuli, and now you’re in the moment, so to speak. Plateau lasts until the orgasm phase, which is obviously where you have an orgasm. Most people might think this is where the sexual response cycle would end, but Masters and Johnson also included the resolution stage, which is usually the physical calming of the body as it returns to the pre-excited condition.

This model is still the most commonly known and referred to model, despite being suggested in 1966. We’ve learned a lot more about human sexual response since then. There are a few criticisms for this model, one being that it doesn’t actually suggest that our brains are what triggers sexual desire, which then causes the body to respond.

Kaplan

That point about desire starting in the brain not being mentioned above? Yep, that became key to this next model.

Developed in 1970, Helen Singer Kaplan suggested a sexual response cycle that consisted of only three stages: desire, arousal, and orgasm. The desire phase is different from the excitement stage in that it suggests that human beings can have a desire for sex, as opposed to just responding to stimuli. Desire recognized that human beings could feel a pull or urge for sex, something like lust. Kaplan was the first to recognize that there could be a psychological drive for sex at a time when sex could sometimes be considered just another duty within marriage. It also recognized that sexual response starts in the brain, and the body responds.

From there, arousal would occur. This arousal stage is similar to the excitement stage in the Masters and Johnson model. It covers all the physical changes and reactions that occur in our bodies during sexual excitement. So, it’s our bodies responding to our sexual thoughts and desire. Racing hearts, flushed skin, blood rushing to the genitals. After the arousal stage comes orgasm, which in this model is considered the height of sexual arousal. Once orgasm is achieved, the body starts to return to its pre-arousal state. So, in this model, there is no spot for resolution, or plateau, as arousal and orgasm cover the sexual actions and behaviors.

Whipple and Brash-McGreer

It wasn’t until 1997 that a new model came about, one that attempted to focus on women’s sexual response specifically. And this model, unlike the Masters and Johnson or the Kaplan ones, was circular. That meant that the stages didn’t necessarily happen in a straight line; the stages could be repeated, or one could jump between stages. The Whipple and Brash-McGreer model recognized that women can sometimes need more than what the linear models suggested. Sexual response doesn’t always go in a straight line, and it might rely on more factors.

There are four main stages in this model: seduction, sensations, surrender, and reflection. The seduction stage usually includes the desire phase, so it would be where you might start feeling aroused. Sensations is where you would start feeling the excitement and even the plateau stage. So, at that point, you’re having sex and enjoying the excitement and sensations that come along with it. Surrender is the orgasm point, while reflection is the resolution. But this reflection also includes a decision as to whether or not this sexual encounter was enjoyable. If it wasn’t, it might mean you decide not to engage in sex again.

Oh, and why is this a circular model? Well, this model—being that it was designed with women in mind—assumed that women required their sexual encounters to be enjoyable in order to go again. So, if they liked it, they would choose to engage again—thus creating a circle of sexual response. (The obvious other side is that if they didn’t like it, they might choose not to have sex with that partner again)

Basson

In 2000, Rosemary Basson’s described a new model focused on explaining the female sexual response. This model is a bit more complex, as it doesn’t have stages similar to the others. The base starting point of this model is sexual neutrality, where you might be receptive to sexual stimuli. Once you engage with sexual stimuli, it triggers both psychological and biological responses. This can lead to arousal or desire, which can also change throughout the sexual response cycle. This model doesn’t really discuss sexual activity or orgasm but suggests that the goal of sex might be emotional and physical satisfaction, as opposed to a strict focus on orgasm. This creates emotional intimacy and an environment where the sexual response might begin again at another time. If people are in a relationship, it might mean they don’t start every encounter at sexual neutrality; they might start at recognizing a sexual invitation or at arousal.

There are some unique points about this model in particular. First, it considers long-term relationship needs for sexual well-being. A couple that has been together for a long time is going to have a different sexual response than people who might be having more casual sex. This model acknowledges what might motivate those who have that long-term sexual relationship. But the Basson mode also recognizes that having a sex drive does mean fluctuations and changes. Not every sexual encounter is the same and we can hop back and forth between levels of interest. While this one might be more complex, it does address things that the Masters and Johnson model might not.

Final Thoughts

Sex is something a lot of us like knowing about. And research still has plenty it could teach us about our own sexual behaviors and identities. But hopefully, this has given you a little more insight as to how research currently thinks about sexual response. No matter what model you relate to the most, sexual interest usually starts in the brain. And where the brain goes, the body usually follows.

References

  • Basson, R. (2000). The Female Sexual Response: A Different Model. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 26(1), 51-65. https://doi.org/10.1080/009262300278641
  • Burris, T. (2021). Kaplan’s Triphasic Model. Encyclopedia of Sex and Sexuality: Understanding Biology, Psychology, and Culture [2 volumes], 363.
  • Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2016). Masters and Johnson. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Masters-and-Johnson
  • Damjanović, A., Duišin, D., & Barišić, J. (2013). The Evolution of the Female Sexual Response Concept: Treatment Implications. Srpski arhiv za celokupno lekarstvo, 141(3-4), 268-274. DOI:10.2298/SARH1304268D
  • Georgiadis, J. R., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2012). The human sexual response cycle: brain imaging evidence linking sex to other pleasures. Progress in Neurobiology, 98(1), 49-81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pneurobio.2012.05.004
  • Kingsburg, S., Clayton, A., & Pfaus, J. G. (2015). The Female Sexual Response: Current Models, Neurobiological Underpinnings and Agents Currently Approved or Under Treatment of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder. CNS Drugs, 29(11), 915-933. DOI:10.1007/s40263-015-0288-1
  • Mark, K., & Schrader, J. (2012). What We Can Learn from Sexual Response Cycles. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-pleasure/201211/what-we-can-learn-sexual-response-cycles

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