Masters and Johnson (1970), the pioneering sex researchers, described a woman’s cycles of sexual arousal as having several phases. They believed that women moved through each phase in a linear fashion. They called this cycle the “human sexual response cycle.”
The phases are described as:
- the excitement phase: this phase is marked by an elevated heart rate, faster breathing, increased blood pressure, blood flow to the genitals and vaginal lubrication.
- the plateau phase: this is essentially just a higher level of arousal.
- the orgasm or climax phase
- the resolution phase: during this phase the body will return to the pre-aroused state.
The delineation of this cycle was helpful in assisting some individuals in understanding their sexual responses, however, a lot more has been uncovered in the last 40 years. Many women do not go through all these phases and most do not necessarily go through them in a linear fashion. Some women never have orgasms yet have desire and arousal. It is possible that that progression from desire, through arousal to orgasm may be more characteristic of men than women. Another researcher, named Basson, states, “There is an unfounded assumption that desire always proceeds arousal, which precedes orgasm…It is often the case that arousal precedes desire. The physical aspect of sexual activity can lead to feelings of arousal, which can facilitate desire and a wish to continue sexual activity”. So a new model now exists where arousal and desire co-exist and reinforce each other.
This is important in the treatment of female sexual dysfunction because we may need to assist women with low desire or lack of arousal from a multitude of angles. The mythology around sexual response can be very damaging. Many women feel they should experience sex or their sexuality in a certain way. Every woman is unique. And ultimately sexuality is multi-faceted. Desire, arousal, and orgasms are all overlapping parts of a sexual whole.