Sex follows a specific pattern each time from initiation to resolution. Each stage has different physical and emotional changes. Understanding the stages and knowing how your body responds helps you to see where you are and in what areas you might need a little help or to improve to create a fuller, richer experience and sex life.
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References for this episode:
Sexual response cycles: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-pleasure/201211/what-we-can-learn-sexual-response-cycles
Connection & Intimacy: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201701/the-radical-thrill-intimacy
Basson’s Model Drawing: https://sexologyinternational.com/taking-a-closer-look-at-bassons-model-of-the-sexual-response-cycle/
Foreplay Radio: https://www.foreplayrst.com/2017/01/14/episode-52-stages-of-sex/
Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski Ph.D
Watchful Unto Prayer Continually by Elder David A Bednar: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/22bednar?lang=eng
Let’s talk about the stages of sex. Sex follows a specific pattern each time from initiation to resolution. Each stage has different physical and emotional changes. Understanding the stages and knowing how your body responds helps you to see where you are and in what areas you might need a little help or to improve to create a fuller, richer experience and sex life.
There are a few different sexual response models:
- Masters & Johnston (1966) has 4 phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm, resolution, but this model was based on solo sexual activities, is completely linear, and left out a key component, desire.
- Kaplan’s (1979) included three phases: Desire, excitement, orgasm
- Whipple & Brash-McGreer (1997) – Circular model specific to women. This cycle acknowledged that pleasure and satisfaction during one sexual experience can feed into the initiation of the next sexual experience.
- Basson (2000) is a Non-Linear Model that incorporates the need for intimacy, acknowledges that desire can be reactive or spontaneous, recognizes that orgasms may contribute to satisfaction, but aren’t necessary for satisfaction, and considers relationship factors. The inability to define “normal” is a great aspect of this model. Men and women can experience sexual responses in a variety of ways. Parts of the model are linear (like arousal and stimulation occur prior to the experience of satisfaction). Still, other parts are circular and bidirectional (like sexual desire may come before or after arousal, and the two may feed into each other).
Now, I know that can all seem very confusing. So for the purpose of this podcast, I am going to simplify things way down. We are going to break this down into five stages. And these five stages are more circular than linear because they are always happening.
The five stages are
Connection is the beginning of any sexual encounter. It’s what gets it going.
For a woman, it’s not going to happen if she doesn’t feel the connection. She needs connection to feel desire. Men can perform sexually without needing connection, but, they do WANT that connection as well. Often they feel that emotional connection during and after physical connection. But, according to studies, men say that when the connection aspect is not there, sex isn’t as rich for them, and they eventually withdraw from the sexual relationship.
So what is connection? The way I define it is feeling like you know who your partner is right then, where they are at, and what they are feeling. When we think about our partner, are we thinking in a way that makes us feel connected to them, or are we thinking thoughts that don’t make us feel connected to them? It actually has nothing to do with what our partner says or does that makes us feel connected. Now, our partner can say and do things that make it EASIER for us to have connecting thoughts, but we can choose to think about them in a connecting way no matter what they do or say. So are you thinking thoughts that make you feel like you know them? That they know you? This is what is going to bring connection.
In some instances, in an attempt to build intimacy with our spouse, we tend to overdo it. We smother them. This usually has a lot to do with our insecurities rather than building connection. Intimacy is a good balance between connection and autonomy.
We want to be connected with our spouse, but we also want to be our own person. By having a life of our own and being our own person, outside of our marriage, it creates some mystery in our relationship, which is always enticing. When we don’t have differentiation, when there isn’t that autonomy, this is where we have codependency and a smothering effect on our spouse. Men tend to want to have more autonomy. Women tend to want more connection, so it’s a matter of finding that balance that works for your relationship.
Many couples find that the moments of deepest connection tend to spring from a shift in everyday circumstances. Going on a trip together, being in nature, even working on a project together can pave the way for creating a stronger connection.
But what many couples don’t understand is that the connection piece starts immediately after the last cycle ends. You start building that connection for the next sexual encounter immediately. When that connection right after is done well, it builds momentum towards the next encounter. Sex will happen much more frequently when we learn to connect well right after sex.
So remember we talked about planning and making time for your relationship and your partner a couple of weeks ago in episode 83. This is that connection piece that is so important. Studies show that if you spend 20 minutes a day connecting with your partner, you will have more sex.
Think back to the beginning of your relationship, when you were dating and engaged. Most likely, you spent every waking minute with each other. Hours upon hours with them. You were building that connection that would eventually lead to the first sexual encounter. This happened naturally. It didn’t take much effort. But now that you’ve got jobs and kids, the connection piece has to be more of a conscious effort.
I can hear you women now, “I try to connect, but my husband is so closed off emotionally.” Ladies – I’ll bet he is trying to connect with you, just not in a way that you are noticing. Men usually try to connect verbally, like when they tell you that you look beautiful or hot. They are trying to connect when they want you to watch a basketball game with them. They are trying. Are you noticing their efforts, or are you just looking for the ways that you want it?
Men, when your wife says she wants to know your feelings, she wants to know your positive feelings about HER. Women connect with that, and it turns them on. Men feel connection when they are going out and working and “being the man” and doing what they are supposed to be doing.
If you can master the connection piece, there will be a LOT more sex!
The next stage in our sexual response cycle is Desire or Libido.
For most men, this stage is not a problem. Desire for sex is not usually a place where men struggle. Testosterone is the hormone that governs the physiological drive and hunger for sex. Typical men have 1,000 anagrams per deciliter. Women at age 18 have 76. By age 40, we have half that. That is why this part is so much easier for men.
If you are a man and you are struggling with desire, I would highly suggest you get your testosterone checked.
But this is the stage where a lot of women struggle. This is often the missing piece that needs to work for women. Once she gets started, most women can enjoy sex. But often getting her out of the starting gate is tough.
Desire, like connection, is a feeling that is created by our thoughts. I say it over and over, and I’ll say it again. Sex begins in the mind. And this is a crucial piece. Women have to get their minds in the right place, and the best way for women to do this is to fantasize. When we fantasize, we feel more sexual.
Fantasy is the piece that I often get a lot of pushback on. For many women, fantasizing about sex feels wrong. They think it goes against what they were taught as youth. They feel like if they go there, in their minds, they are not worthy or virtuous. By the way, this happens with men as well. So, if you or your spouse struggle with being sexual, a lot of times, it is those underlying belief systems at play. We know that sex is ok once we are married, but we have a tough time reconciling the conflicting thoughts and emotions.
Now back to fantasy. Let me be clear. I am not telling you to fantasize about the pool boy, the hot dad down the street, or your favorite celebrity (although you totally can if that is what gets you in the mood.) But I’m telling you to fantasize about what you want and need to get yourself in the mood and then direct that energy towards your spouse.
At the beginning of your relationship, it was full of fantasy. You would think about seeing him. You’d get dressed up, and he’d take you out on a date. You were going to get married. And though you might have been careful not to take it too far, you fantasized about having sex with him. There was a lot of fantasy going on, and that is what got your sex drive in gear.
Once you are married, you have to keep fantasizing. Think about what did happen. What is going to happen and what you want to happen. Memories of sexual experiences can take that sex drive out of neutral and into high gear.
One of the biggest problems I see when women come to me is that they have not or will not develop their erotic self. And that is a must. Your eroticism needs to be independent of his seduction.
Men, you can help with her desire with good seduction. Helping her with her burdens. Dating her. Telling her she looks good.
The third phase of our sexual response cycle is arousal or excitement. For men, this stage happens pretty quick. 5-8 minutes is average. Women typically need about 20 minutes of non-erotic touch before they get aroused. They usually don’t want any touching of breasts or genitals until that arousal kicks in. And then it’s typically about another 20 minutes of clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm.
I’m going to put a little plug here for a freebie I offer called RoadMap to Personal Pleasure. It’s an excellent FREE guide to help you figure out where and how you like to be touched.
Let me share with you the physical response when women are in an aroused state.
- Heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate increase
- The labia minora and clitoris darken and swell, separating the outer labia.
- The walls of the vagina begin to lubricate and lengthen.
- Breasts swell, and nipples become erect.
- She may begin to sweat.
As she moves into the plateau phase, where orgasm is getting closer, here are the physical signs to look for.
- She becomes “wet” as lubrication begins at the mouth of the vagina.
- Breasts continue to swell so much that the nipples retract into the breasts.
- She may experience “sex flush,” a concentration of color over the chest.
- Her inner labia have doubled in size
- The clitoris retracts from the surface of the body
- She experiences involuntary muscle contractions
- She may begin to pant or hold her breath
20-40 minutes can seem like a long time. Most men LOVE to do whatever they can to make this happen. They get their excitement and joy from stimulating their wives. But many times, the women won’t receive it. They are too in their head about it taking too long. It feels selfish. As women, we sometimes aren’t very good at receiving our husband’s love. It feels very uncomfortable.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, LDS Sex therapist, says, “One of the reasons that many of us don’t like to receive is we like the control of being the giver.” It’s time to let go of the control, get over being uncomfortable, and be a good receiver of your spouse’s love. Studies have shown that when the sexual encounter is more female-focused, both parties tend to be more satisfied.
There are ways to speed up the arousal process. I highly recommend vibrators. (This one is my favorite.) They can be fun and make sex quicker and more doable. When it’s a busy night, or you don’t have a lot of time for a slow, long encounter, vibrators can quickly speed things up.
Another thing that can speed things up is literally taking your orgasm into your own hands. This, too, can seem “wrong” at first because we are conditioned as youth not to arouse ourselves. But as a married couple, you are one flesh. In my opinion, it does not matter who’s hand is where. And you are more capable of stimulating yourself where and in the way you need and want it most. You can give directions to your spouse, and I highly recommend that, especially if you have more time. But, it is totally fine to take things into your own hands.
But again, the biggest roadblock to women not having an orgasm is their own brain. For more information on this, I would check out episode 75, The Big O, if you haven’t already.
Stage 4 is Orgasm. The fantasy is that we can both achieve orgasm at the same time. That RARELY happens. If it does, it’s great. But know that it usually doesn’t, and that is totally normal and ok.
I’m not going to go too much into women’s orgasms because, as I said, I covered them pretty heavily in episode 75. But suffice it to say that women can have longer and stronger orgasms than men. They can have multiple orgasms. They can have lots of different kinds of orgasms. Orgasms for women are awesome. But, they can take a while to come. They can take a lot of effort. How they are achieved once might work over and over, and it might not work that way again. Most women need direct clitoral stimulation, and only about 20-30% of women can achieve orgasm with intercourse alone. So it’s important to communicate as partners about it. Men, don’t take any of it personally. Women, take responsibility for keeping your brain engaged and in the present.
While the Desire phase seems to be the most problematic for women, this is the phase that tends to be the most problematic for men. Again, I’m not going to go into detail too much with this one, as this is not my area of expertise. But Erectile Dysfunction and Premature Ejaculation can be a problem for men. Sometimes it’s a matter of something physical, but most often, it’s mental. If there is a problem once, men have a fear that it will happen again, which actually makes it happen more. It’s very problematic for them when something has “just worked” their entire lives and then all of a sudden it doesn’t. They tend to shut down. They don’t want to talk about it. They certainly don’t want to talk to a doctor or a therapist about it. But if they can open up about it to their spouse, and have a spouse that is understanding and willing to work through it, it is usually a pretty easy fix.
Resolution is the final phase of the sexual response cycle. Our heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, all return to baseline. Swelled and erect body parts all return to their previous size and color. A generalized sense of well-being generally marks this phase.
During ejaculation, men release the hormone oxytocin and the chemical prolactin. Oxytocin is believed to be chiefly responsible for the male refractory period, which can last several minutes to hours, in which he is incapable of further sexual arousal. Prolactin often makes men tired, which is why it is pretty normal for them to want to fall asleep afterward.
Women also have a refractory period, but for most women, it is fairly short, and they are capable of multiple orgasms. However, many women experience clitoral hypersensitivity after orgasm, which lengthens their refractory period. Women also release the hormone oxytocin, which is also called the cuddle hormone. It wakes women up, and they want to cuddle and talk after sex. They want connection.
The sexual response cycle starts again immediately after the previous one ends. Couples who get good at the connection piece tend to have a lot more sex because they don’t let time go by before they are building that connection to start the cycle again.
I hope that learning the stages of sex, and where the possible hangups are has been helpful for you. I encourage you to share this episode with your spouse and share your thoughts and feelings with each other, so that you can create a greater connection in your marriage.
There is one last thing I wanted to share with you. I was rereading the conference talks from the October conference and loved this passage from Elder David A Bednar.
“Satan does not have a body, and his eternal progress has been halted. Just as water flowing in a riverbed is stopped by a dam, so the adversary’s eternal progress is thwarted because he does not have a physical body. Because of his rebellion, Lucifer has denied himself all of the mortal blessings and experiences made possible through a tabernacle of flesh and bones. One of the potent scriptural meanings of the word damned is illustrated in his inability to continue progressing and becoming like our Heavenly Father.
Because a physical body is so central to the Father’s plan of happiness and our spiritual development, Lucifer seeks to frustrate our progression by tempting us to use our bodies improperly.
One of the ultimate ironies of eternity is that the adversary, who is miserable precisely because he has no physical body, invites and entices us to share in his misery through the improper use of our bodies. The very tool he does not have and cannot use is thus the primary target of his attempts to lure us to physical and spiritual destruction.”
I would add to Elder Bednar’s words that before we were married, using our bodies improperly meant engaging in sexual activities. But once we are married, and Satan can no longer tempt us with sex, then the way we improperly use our bodies is not engaging in sexual activities with our spouse. We suppress our God-given desires and appetites. We suppress and essential part of ourselves. We think we are being “good” by not giving in to those desires but we are actually giving Satan exactly what he wants. We aren’t using our bodies the way they were intended, which makes Satan very happy. Just something to think about.