Sexual Response Cycle

The sexual response cycle is one model of physical and emotional changes that happens when you’re participating in sexual activity. There are four phases in this cycle. Orgasm is the shortest phase.

What is the sexual response cycle?

The sexual response cycle is the sequence of physical and emotional changes that occur as a person becomes sexually aroused and participates in sexually stimulating activities, including intercourse and masturbation. Knowing how your body responds during each phase of the cycle can enhance your relationship and help you pinpoint causes of sexual dysfunction.


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What are the four phases of the human sexual response?

The sexual response cycle has four phases:

  1. Desire (libido or excitement).
  2. Arousal (sometimes called plateau).
  3. Orgasm.
  4. Resolution.

People assigned male at birth (AMAB) and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) can experience these phases, although the timing may be different. For example, it’s highly unlikely that both partners will reach orgasm at the exact same time. In addition, the intensity of the response and the time spent in each phase varies from person to person. Some people may skip a phase entirely.

Some of these stages may be absent during certain sexual encounters, or out of sequence in others. A desire for intimacy may be a motivation for sexual activity in some individuals but could be less for others.

Understanding these differences may help partners better understand one another’s bodies. It can help you understand your partner’s responses and enhance your overall sexual experience.

What is the shortest sexual response cycle?

Orgasm is the shortest stage of the sexual response cycle.

What is the order of the stages of sexual response?

There are four stages of human sexual response: desire, arousal, orgasm and resolution. Keep in mind, that the order and timing of the stages can vary.

Phase 1: Desire

General characteristics of this phase, which can last from a few minutes to several hours, may include any of the following:

  • Muscle tension increases.
  • Heart rate quickens and breathing gets faster.
  • Skin may become flushed (blotches may appear on your chest and back).
  • Nipples become hardened or erect.
  • Blood flow to your genitals increases, which causes swelling of the clitoris (in people AFAB) and an erection (in people AMAB).
  • A person AFAB may feel their vagina get “wet” or see their breasts become fuller.
  • A person AMAB may see their testicles swell or their scrotum (sac that holds testicles) tighten, and they may begin secreting a lubricating liquid from the tip of their penis.

It’s important to note that everyone’s sexual experience is different. You may not consistently experience any changes when you enter the desire phase. You may experience it during certain sexual encounters only. Sometimes the desire phase may come after arousal.

Phase 2: Arousal

The arousal phase lasts until just before orgasm. It takes you to the brink of sexual pleasure and could include:

  • The changes in the desire phase get even more intense.
  • The vagina continues to swell from increased blood flow, and the vaginal walls turn a darker color.
  • The clitoris becomes highly sensitive (may even be painful to touch).
  • The testicles withdraw up into the scrotum.
  • Breathing, heart rate and blood pressure continue to increase.
  • Muscle tension continues to increase.
  • Muscle spasms may begin in the feet, face and hands.

You might experience arousal at the same time as desire or shortly before.

Phase 3: Orgasm

This phase is the climax of the sexual response cycle. It’s the shortest of the phases and generally lasts only a few seconds. The orgasm phase can include:

  • Involuntary muscle contractions or twitching.
  • Blood pressure, heart rate and breathing are at their highest rates.
  • There’s a sudden, forceful release of sexual tension.
  • Contraction of vaginal muscles.
  • Ejaculation (releasing semen from your penis).
  • A rash or “sex flush” may appear over your entire body.
Phase 4: Resolution

During this phase, your body slowly returns to its normal level of functioning. Any swollen or erect body parts return to their previous size or position. People may feel a sense of satisfaction, and often, fatigue.

Some people AFAB can go back to the orgasm phase with further sexual stimulation and may experience additional orgasms.

People AMAB typically need recovery time after orgasm, called a refractory period, during which they can’t reach orgasm again. The duration of the refractory period varies among people and changes with age.

What age does arousal start?

Like most aspects of the sexual response cycle, the exact age at which a person begins feeling arousal (or desire) varies. Sexual arousal can begin for some people shortly before puberty. Children as young as 10 to 13 may experience sexual attraction or excitement. One study shows that people report experiencing their first orgasm around age 13 to 17. Other studies show it’s normal for children as young as 7 to begin feeling sexual desire.

At what age does a person stop ejaculating?

Ejaculation doesn’t stop at a certain age. But people AMAB may start experiencing erectile dysfunction or other sexual dysfunction in their 40s and 50s. This can lead to ejaculating less frequently. When people AFAB enter menopause, many people who once ejaculated say they notice changes in ejaculation and orgasm.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

The sexual response cycle describes the changes that occur during sexual or intimate activities. It provides a pretty good outline, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all model. People go through the four phases at different rates and at varying intensity levels. It’s mostly meant to help people understand their bodies and their partners’ bodies so they can identify sexual dysfunction.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 12/27/2023.

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