• Dagmara Svetcov LMFT CST

Human Sexual Response Cycle

Updated: Feb 27, 2019

Q: “What happens to my body when I get ‘turned on’?”


A: Sexual stimulus (i.e., what turns you on), whether an erotic thought or sexually stimulating image, or touch or scent (or any other sexually relevant trigger), puts in motion a series of reactions and physiological changes in your body. These reactions occur in stages which together comprise what is called a Human Sexual Response Cycle.


Human sexual response cycle was first conceptualized by Masters and Johnson in the 60s. It was then modified by Kaplan in the 70s. And still later, developed by Janssen and Bancroft at the Kinsey Institute and in the 90s, Dual Control Model added to our knowledge of the processes involved in sexual response.


Masters and Johnson’s Model


William Masters and Virginia Johnson were pioneers in the field of sex therapy. They introduced the concept of sexual response cycle. They proposed that sexual response was a process that began with excitement (or arousal) which progressed to a plateau, and with continued stimulation, peaked with an orgasm, then lastly, ended with resolution.


What happens in your body throughout the sexual response cycle?


According to Masters and Johnson, during the excitement phase, after stimulation has begun, heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate increase, blood is pumped to various parts of body (e.g., penis, clitoris, labia minora, breasts, lips… even earlobes!) increasing their size and, frequently, sensitivity to stimulation.

The plateau phase is a continuation and escalation of the same changes evident during the excitement stage, with both men and women experiencing involuntary muscle contractions. Orgasm, which concludes the plateau phase, is accompanied by quick cycles of muscle contraction in the lower pelvic muscles surrounding both the anus and the primary sexual organs in both men and women. Orgasms are often associated with other involuntary actions, including vocalizations and muscle spasms throughout the body, and a largely ecstatic sensation as well as a sudden release of tension.

Finally, during the resolution phase muscles relax, blood pressure drops and the body slows down. In men, the refractory period, which accompanies the resolution phase, is the time when men are typically unable to orgasm again. Though, unlike men, women have the ability to orgasm again very quickly, some research suggests that women can also experience a refractory period during which continued sexual stimulation does not result in excitement.


Masters and Johnson’s model became a foundation for the understanding human sexual function and treating individuals with various sexual difficulties.


Kaplan’s Model


In time, however, it became apparent that some sex therapy clients, those that complained of little or no interest in sex (i.e., low libido), were not responding to treatments informed by the Masters and Johnson’s model. Based on those unsuccessful treatment outcomes, Helen Kaplan modified the model by adding a new initial phase, combining excitement and plateau phases into one stage, and getting rid of the resolution phase altogether. Her three-phase model included Desire, Arousal (Excitement + Plateau), Orgasm. Kaplan defined desire as “appetite" for sex.


These days, sexual dysfunctions such as ED, premature ejaculation, sexual interest/arousal disorder and other sexual challenges are diagnosed based on difficulties experienced in any of these three phases of sexual response: Desire, Arousal, Orgasm.


Dual Control Model


Though Kaplan’s three-phase model continues to guide clinicians in their diagnosing and treatment of various sexual disorders, in the 1990s two researchers at the Kinsey Institute, John Bancroft and Eric Janssen, proposed a new model called Dual Control Model. And like before, this new model improves on those that came before it and offers a more comprehensive understanding of the human sexual response process.


The previous models, Masters and Johnson’s and Kaplan’s, saw the emergence of sexual arousal (i.e., whether a person is “turned on”) as a result of only one factor: excitation (i.e., sexual stimulation). Dual Control Model proposes that a person’s sexual arousal, in any given situation, depends on the balance between that person’s sexual excitation (all things that turn you sexually on now) and sexual inhibition system (all things that turn you sexually off now).


This means that whether and to what extent we get sexually aroused depends on two things: activating our excitation system (supplying the turn-on's) and the suppression of the inhibition system (minimizing our turn-off's). Imbalance, or significant emphasis on one of these systems over another (e.g., not enough stimulation or too many distractions) may lead to sexual difficulties in desire, arousal or orgasm.


Learn more about Dual Control Model: One Man’s Turn-On Is Another Man’s Turn-Off.

Dagmara Svetcov, LMFT, LSOTP, CST, CIRT

Texas LMFT # 203154

License  Verification

California LMFT # 45387

License Verification

550 S. Watters Road, Suite 263, Allen, TX 75013

972.793.8488     F 844.726.0543   Email  www.selfandothercounseling.com

  • Wix Facebook page