When we have sex, our bodies go through predictable physiological states. Different researchers have categorized and labeled these states in various ways, but I most often come across William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s four phases.
Phase One: Excitement
Your body experiences increased muscle tension, an increase in heart rate, flushing of the skin, and hardened nipples. Due to increased blood flow, you’ll probably also experience swelling and hardening of the clitoris or penis. The walls of the vagina also swells, and it produces lubrication. Breasts may also swell in size. The testicles swell and elevate slightly, and the penis secretes a lubricating fluid, as well.
Phase Two: Plateau
Everything you experienced in phase one, intensified. Sometimes the clitoris becomes so sensitive that contact may be uncomfortable. The bladder closes to block possibility of urine mixing with semen, and muscles at the base of the penis start to contract so that semen can be expelled at orgasm.
Phase Three: Orgasm
This is the peak of excitement. There are involving involuntary muscle contractions in the vagina, uterus, base of the penis – even the feet! You’ll also have higher blood pressure, rapid breathing, and a faster heart rate. Ejaculation occurs and there is a release of sexual tension.
Final Phase: Resolution
The body returns to its pre-excitement status, with normal heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. There is a usually a general sense of happiness and intimacy, and a feeling of fatigue. The time it takes to return to phase one of the sexual response cycle, sometimes called the refractory period, varies from person to person and can be minutes to days.
Knowledge of our bodies’ responses to sex can help us understand our needs. Our sexual response doesn’t always line up with our partner’s – one person might be nearing the orgasm phase before the other is even fully excited. Or, someone might be in resolution phase while the other is still in plateau. Both of these things can be frustrating, and it’s important for everyone’s comfort level to understand and respect what their bodies are telling them.
A good example is in this Feronia post about ciswomen or transmen who attempt intercourse before they are excited and find that vaginal penetration is uncomfortable because they aren’t lubricated enough. I once met a ciswoman in a heterosexual relationship who expressed disappointment and embarrassment over a “medical problem.” She stated that during intercourse, she would orgasm before her partner, and then intercourse would become dry and painful. She felt guilty that she wasn’t able to immediately return to her excitement phase and enjoy sex with her partner. But of course, it wasn’t her fault, and there was nothing wrong with her!
Here are some tips to help you and your partner communicate about your bodies and what you need during sex:
- Tell/Ask: Tell your partner how you’re feeling, ask your partner how they’re feeling.
- Pay Attention: Is your partner lubricated? Are their nipples/clitoris/penis erect? Are they breathing fast? If your partner doesn’t seem to be having fun, doesn’t seem turned on, isn’t actively participating, then STOP. Find out if you need to go slower, or just stop altogether.
- Take breaks if needed: Sometimes, especially once someone is in the resolution phase, you might need to give them time before continuing, if they still want to. Remember, no one owes anything anything sexually and consent can be withdrawn at anytime.