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Understanding Sexual Pleasure

Understanding Sexual Pleasure — at a Glance

  • Sexual pleasure is the feeling we get when we are sexually aroused.
  • The sexual response cycle is the pattern of changes in our bodies and in what we feel when having sexual pleasure.
  • Sexual pleasure enhances health and well-being.

Many of us find that sexual pleasure is one of life’s most rewarding experiences. But there are a lot of mixed messages about sexual pleasure in our culture. So we may not have a clear understanding of how it works for us or for our partners. We may have many questions: What is happening to my body when I’m feeling sexual? Do all people experience sexual pleasure in the same ways? How is a woman’s experience of sexual pleasure different from a man’s? And just what is sexual pleasure, exactly? We hope the following will provide some of the answers.

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    What Is Sexual Pleasure?

    Sexual pleasure is the feeling we have when we are sexually aroused. Sexual arousal is our body’s response to sexual stimulation. We may become aroused by things we hear, see, smell, taste, or touch. They may happen in the real world, in our imaginations, or in our dreams. We may become very aroused when we touch our erogenous zones, when a partner touches them, or when we touch a partner’s.

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    What Are Erogenous Zones?

    Our erogenous zones are the areas of our skin that are likely to make us aroused when touched. For example, our sex organs are very sensitive to touch — especially the glans of the clitoris or penis. Touching other places on our skin can also be arousing. Other erogenous zones may include our arms, backs, buttocks, ears, feet, fingers, legs, necks, nipples, and vaginas, for example.

    Any place on our skin can be an erogenous zone. But not all of us have the same erogenous zones. We all have different likes and dislikes about where we like to be touched. So our erogenous zones are unique to each of us.

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    What Is the Sexual Response Cycle?

    The sexual response cycle is the pattern of the way we react to sexual stimulation — even while we’re dreaming. There are five steps in the cycle. They are 

    • Desire
    • Excitement
    • Plateau
    • Orgasm
    • Resolution

    Some or all of the steps are reached each time we have a sexual experience — with ourselves or with another person. But we can stop at any step. We do not need to complete the cycle to be sexually fulfilled.

    We may not be aware of every change that happens in our bodies during sexual response. We experience each of these changes to different degrees, depending on the unique nature of our bodies. And how much our bodies respond varies with our health and age and from one sexual experience to another. For example, women may have less lubrication as they get older or if they are taking certain medicines. This is what generally happens during each phase of sexual response:

    Fantasy is an important part of sexual pleasure. Most sexual fantasies are brief. For example, we might think for a few seconds about seeing a movie star naked or about being touched in a certain way. Other sexual fantasies are longer. For example, we may remember a sexual encounter we have had while we masturbate or have sex play with others. 

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    What Happens During the Desire Phase?

    We find ourselves having erotic — sexually arousing — thoughts. Many different things can cause two people to become attracted to each other — such as seeing one another, hearing one another's voices, smelling one another's cologne or perfume, or holding one another's gaze. These things may lead to the people wanting or "desiring" sexual intimacy with the other. Our erotic thoughts also may start when we’re alone — we may be by ourselves and just start thinking about how nice it would be to masturbate.

    Moving from desire to the next phase — excitement — may happen within a few minutes, or it may take a much longer time. Two people may desire one another for weeks or even months, for example, before having intimate contact.

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    What Happens During the Excitement Phase?

    Our bodies respond to desire and become aroused. The body reacts automatically to desire. Two people attracted to one another are likely to feel excitement in their own bodies. They may begin to communicate their sexual excitement about each other. It can happen by gesturing, touching, or making sounds. During sexual excitement our bodies also release invisible pheromones — odors that increase our attraction to one another.

    Excitement prepares our bodies for sex play.

    CHANGES IN OUR BODIES DURING THE EXCITEMENT PHASE

    A Woman’s Body

    • Heart rate increases.
    • Blood pressure increases.
    • Body muscles tense — voluntarily and involuntarily.
    • Nipples become erect, and breasts increase in size.
    • Sex flush — reddening or darkening of the skin, especially around chest and neck — may begin in some lighter-skinned women.
    • Clitoris swells and enlarges slightly.
    • Outer lips separate.
    • Inner lips swell.
    • Vagina lubricates and turns darker color.
    • Uterus raises a little.

    A Man’s Body 

    • Heart rate increases.
    • Blood pressure increases.
    • Body muscles tense — voluntarily and involuntarily.
    • Sex flush — reddening or darkening of the skin, especially around chest and neck — may begin in lighter-skinned men.
    • Nipples become erect.
    • Penis becomes hard — erect.
    • Scrotum thickens, and the testes rise closer to the body.

    We can leave the excitement phase at any time. Desire, excitement, and wanting to have sex play are normal. But we never have to do more than we want to sexually just because we feel sexually excited.
     
    The excitement phase can be brief or last a long time before the plateau phase begins.

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    What Happens During the Plateau Phase?

    Our bodies feel prolonged, intense sexual arousal. It is usually maintained by many kinds of physical stimulation. It may include stroking, caressing, or rubbing erogenous zones. It may include vaginal or anal intercourse. It may include oral sex. Or it may include all of the above. It lasts for as long as the partners want it to.

    CHANGES IN OUR BODIES DURING THE PLATEAU PHASE

    A Woman's Body

    • Breathing becomes more rapid.
    • Heart's pulse rate still increasing.
    • Blood pressure still increasing.
    • Sex flush may continue.
    • Muscle tension continues — small spasms occur.
    • Bartholin's glands secrete lubrication.
    • Clitoris withdraws under the clitoral hood.
    • Areola around nipples becomes larger.
    • Outer labia continue to swell with blood.
    • Inner labia become deeper in color.

    A Man's Body

    • Breathing becomes more rapid. 
    • Heart's pulse rate still increasing.
    • Blood pressure still increasing.
    • Sex flush may continue.
    • Muscle tension continues — small spasms occur.   
    • Cowper's glands secrete pre-ejaculate.     
    • Glans of penis becomes larger.
    • Testes enlarge and continue to rise closer to the body. 
     
    Many people try to make the plateau phase last as long as possible. Some want to build up as much sexual and muscular tension as they can in order to have more satisfying orgasms. Others find the intense pleasure of the plateau so fulfilling that they can completely do without going to the next phase, orgasm.

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    What Happens During the Orgasm Phase?

    Orgasm is the most intense peak of sexual pleasure. It happens at the end of the plateau phase. It is when the sexual and muscular tension built up during the plateau period is released in a rapid series of intensely pleasing muscular spasms. The body also releases endorphins during orgasm that produce good feelings.

    Women experience orgasm in different ways. And orgasms can feel different for an individual woman at different times. Some may have full-body orgasms, which involve more than their sex organs. Some may have multiple orgasms.  Some can reach orgasm using only fantasy for stimulation.

    It is important for women to understand what feels good to them. Women may prefer stimulation of the clitoris, the vagina, the G spot, or may like for all of them to be stimulated. Ideally, women can ask their partners for the kind of stimulation they find most satisfying. This may be more rewarding than trying to have an orgasm the way they think other women do.

    Orgasm and ejaculation in men often occur at the same time. But they are not the same. In men, ejaculation is the series of contractions of the prostate and seminal vesicles that move semen out of the penis. A man can ejaculate and not have an orgasm. A man can also have an orgasm and not ejaculate, as in retrograde ejaculation.
     
    Men are less likely than women to have full-body orgasms or multiple orgasms. Most enter the next phase of the cycle — the resolution phase — before they are able to have another orgasm or ejaculation.

    CHANGES IN OUR BODIES DURING THE ORGASM PHASE

    A Woman's Body

    • Heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure reach highest peak.
    • Sex flush spreads.
    • Muscle spasms occur, especially in the pelvic area.
    • No change in clitoris.
    • Vagina and/or uterus, anus, and muscles of pelvic floor contract 5 to 12 times with 0.8 second between each contraction.
    • About 1 out of 10 women experience female ejaculation.

    A Man's Body

    • Heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure reach highest peak.
    • Sex flush spreads.
    • Muscle spasms occur, especially in the pelvic area.
    • Ejaculation becomes unstoppable. This is called ejaculatory inevitability. It is reached as the vas deferens, seminal vesicles, and prostate begin contractions.
    • Urethra, anus, and muscles of pelvic floor contract 3 to 6 times with 0.8 second between each contraction.
    • Man ejaculates.

    The orgasm phase it is the shortest of all the phases in the sexual response cycle. It usually lasts less than a minute. It is followed immediately by the resolution phase.

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    What Happens During the Resolution Phase?

    The body returns to the way it was before being sexually aroused. Resolution happens whether or not someone has an orgasm. It is the last phase of the sexual response cycle.

    When a man's body enters the resolution phase, he loses his erection and experiences what is called a refractory period. It is the time it takes for a man to be able to have another erection. The length of the refractory period increases with age. It is quite brief for young men. It takes an older man much longer to get another erection after he has ejaculated.
     
    Women do not have a refractory period. They can be sexually aroused immediately after orgasm.

    CHANGES IN OUR BODIES DURING THE RESOLUTION PHASE

    The Woman’s Body

    • Heart rate and blood pressure dip below normal and soon return to normal.
    • Sweating of the whole body, including hands and soles of feet.
    • Breasts and areolas decrease in size. Nipples no longer erect.
    • Clitoris moves out from under the clitoral hood, and shrinks slightly.
    • Labia return to normal size and position and become a lighter color.
    • Color of vagina lightens.
    • Opening of the cervix remains open. This helps semen travel up into the uterus. After 20 to 30 minutes, the opening closes.

    The Man’s Body

    • Heart rate and blood pressure dip below normal and soon return to normal.
    • Sweating of the whole body, including hands and soles of feet.
    • Nipples no longer erect.
    • Penis becomes soft and smaller.
    • Scrotum relaxes and testes drop further away from the body. 

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    Is Sexual Pleasure Good for Us?

    Yes. Sexual pleasure can be important to our emotional and physical health and well-being.

    A healthy sex life — with or without a partner — has been associated with

    • better reproductive and sexual health
    • better general health
    • better sleep
    • reduced stress and tension
    • increased self-esteem
    • a more youthful appearance
    • better fitness
    • a longer life

    It is unfortunate that many of us have grown up hearing only about the risks and dangers of expressing ourselves sexually. While those risks are real, it is also true that having sex play — with or without a partner — can be a positive and powerful force in our lives. It helps us create connections to other people and it helps us enjoy our world.

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