Ayden Ferstenberg, Psy.D.
Understanding the sexual response cycle
If movies and TV shows were to be believed, sex happens when two people spontaneously need to have each other right now, and spontaneously begin hugging, kissing, or touching each other. And, sure, this is possible…just not so common. Let’s back it up a bit to understanding how the sexual response cycle works.
The earliest model of the sexual response cycle was proposed by Masters and Johnson in the 1960’s and described sex as a linear model of response. Through their research, they identified four stages: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. In the excitement stage, you’ll notice the first physiological signs of arousal, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, and signs of sexual arousal. In the plateau stage, all physiological reactions from the excitement stage intensify and stabilize. The vagina expands and the uterus elevates, with additional lubrication produced by the Bartholin glands in and around the vagina. Testicles are drawn further toward the body and pre-seminal fluid may start being secreted. In the orgasm stage, the peak of sexual excitation is reached. Various muscle groups tighten involuntarily, breathing, pulse, and blood pressure become more rapid, and you experience a sensation of sudden release of tension throughout the body. In men, expulsion of the semen occurs. The final stage, resolution, is the return to baseline physiological functioning. Muscles relax; heart rate, blood pressure, and pulse return to their typical rate; blood flow to the genitals returns to normal and the erectile tissues go back to baseline. At this point, there is a refractory period where achieving another orgasm is impossible. Men have a longer refractory period, while women have a shorter refractory period and are capable of returning to the plateau stage and having successive orgasms before entering the resolution phase.
This model was later expanded to include the role of desire (i.e. wanting to have sex), making note of the importance of psychological factors in understanding sexual response. In this addition, Kaplan (1979) proposed that desire serves as a precondition for excitation and arousal. In other words, one must have an interest in sex or have an appetite for sex in order for physiological arousal to occur.
Now, physiologically, this all makes sense and explains how sympathetic and parasympathetic arousal work together to make sex work. But there are still some very important limitations in this understanding of the sexual response cycle. First, this model describes sex as a linear experience: sex has a clear beginning, middle, and end. But sex is a lot more amorphous than that–when you give your partner a passionate kiss after work, but then need to move onto making dinner, cleaning the house, putting the kids to bed, and getting ready for bed before you can have alone time, did sex start the moment you had the passionate kiss, or when you got into bed and started touching each other? Did the warm feeling inside you as your partner brought you dinner contribute to having sex later that night? When you snuggled up together on the couch to watch a movie and tell each other about your days, even if sex wasn’t on your mind, weren't you creating the right conditions for sex to happen? Sex doesn’t have a clear beginning, and so describing sex linearly disregards the context with which people work to make sex occur. Furthermore, when you think of sex so linearly, can you skip a step? Or go backward? What happens when you’re in the plateau stage--feeling well and truly aroused, getting close to climax, when–BAM!--the baby starts crying or the phone rings and you get pulled out of the sexually or emotionally intimate moment. Psychological and physiological arousal may be lost. Does this mean sex is therefore over becuase the sexual response cycle has been disrupted?
Another criticism of this model of the sexual response cycle is the assumption that desire and arousal are spontaneous and automatic. You say, “Sex?” and your body says, “Yes please!” But sex isn’t always so spontaneous. In fact, this conceptualization of desire and arousal as an automatic experience often doesn’t fit in with how many women experience their sexual response. When you think of sex as an automatic drive, such as hunger or thirst, you think about something you do to keep a certain homeostasis. When you’re hungry, you eat. When you’re full, you stop. The basic drives we have are essential for our survival. Sex, while natural, normal, and healthy, does not always manifest in the same manner. If you don’t have sex for some time, you might feel pressured to seek out sexual satisfaction, but you can’t die from not having enough sex. Sure, you might feel frustrated, irritated, tense, uncomfortable–desperate, even–but it’s not essential for survival they way eating and drinking are. But when sex gets categorized as a do-or-die drive, it’s easy to think of it as something that spontaneously occurs unexpectedly and unknowingly when you haven’t had it in a while, builds and builds until it’s satisfied, and then goes away until hunger strikes once more. But sex isn’t always spontaneous and automatic.
A final difficulty of this traditional model is the emphasis on the physiological components of one’s sexual response, and a de-emphasis on the emotional, cognitive, or psychological components of sex. But, as we know, sex isn’t just a button that’s turned on or off. There are contexts that facilitate arousal (think romantic candlelight dinner, for example), and contexts that don’t (think getting chased by a bear through the forest). If you think about this from a purely physiological perspective, getting chased by a bear results in much of the same physiological arousal that occurs when you’re sexually aroused, but I bet sex is the last thing on your mind when you’re running for your life. Clearly, sex is a lot more complex than pure physiological arousal.
In response to all these criticisms, Rosemary Basson introduced the circular, or non-linear, model of sexual response, specifically to take into account women’s experience of their sexual responses in long-term relationships. In this circular model of sexual response, Basson describes how desire isn’t always spontaneous, but can actually be a response to the environment. In this model, desire can respond to environmental stimuli, creating physiological arousal, and the desire for more arousal. These environmental stimuli don’t even have to be sexual! Nonsexual stimuli, such as moments of emotional connection, romance, feeling confident about yourself, etc. are all different factors that can influence one’s sexual response. In other words, this model suggests that you can be in a neutral state and exposed to various stimuli that you can then respond to and subsequently experience sexual desire and arousal. Because this is circular, desire can feed arousal and arousal can feed desire: sexual desire might come before or after arousal occurs. Then when one engages in a sexual act, they might then experience psychological, emotional, or physical satisfaction, producing greater emotional intimacy and relationship satisfaction, making it more likely they will engage in sex in the future. Importantly, in this model, orgasm isn’t instrumental. Although orgasm may contribute to satisfaction, it isn’t necessary because the goal isn’t a physiological release, but rather personal or relationship satisfaction.
Unlike the traditional models, this model highlights that sexual desire doesn’t always precede sexual activity. Rather, sometimes, people engage in sexual activities and the desire for sex follows. This model also prioritizes relationship factors as an important role in your sexual responses.
In Basson’s model, sexual functioning isn’t as direct as "feeling aroused leads to intercourse". Many psychological, emotional, and social factors can interfere or facilitate sex, including satisfaction with the relationship, feeling good or bad about your body, previous discomfort when having sex, or a negative sexual encounter. Engaging in sex isn’t always just because you have an appetite for sex. You might want sex to feel closer to your partner, as an effort to increase intimacy or emotional closeness with a partner. In this case, it could be the desire for closeness that prompts you to become sexually aroused, and once aroused, desire for sex emerges and the sexual encounter continues.
If you experience responsive desire rather than spontaneous desire, instead of feeling a pull toward having sex, you might just find yourself feeling neutral about sex; a "take it or leave it" type of feeling. You’re the type of person that doesn’t really initiate sex, but if your partner expresses interest, you won’t necessarily say no, and then after the fact you’re glad you did it. Although this type of responsive desire isn’t as trendy as spontaneous desire in pop-culture, it is a very normal and very common way of being!
There is no one reason to have sex. People might experience spontaneous desire and feel motivated to pursue a sexual activity. Others might want to have sex to feel close to their partner, and get aroused after they start a sexual activity. You might be feeling sad and want comfort. You might feel lonely and afraid. You might feel unattractive and want validation. You might feel sexy in your new dress. There’s an endless number of reasons you might want to have sex, including “because my partner wants to”. Expanding your definition of sexual response away from a pure spontaneous, automatic, compulsive urge to a complex, emotionally nuanced response opens the door for new ways of connecting with yourself and your partner. It encourages an environment of creating the moment you're looking for instead of waiting for it to occur on its own. It challenges you to find agency and empowerment in your own sexuality.
If you have responsive rather than spontaneous desire, take time understanding what factors press on the "gas pedal" and what factors press on the "brakes". Make a point of figuring out what exciting things will move you from neutral to interested, and allow yourself to engage in those things for your own pleasure and satisfaction. Reflect on past experiences that created satisfaction for you. If you’re partnered, explain to your partner what responsive desire is and work together to find ways of creating satisfying sexual experiences for both of you.
If you would like to learn more about your sexual responses, reach out to a professional today.