What’s Really Going on When You’re Getting It On

I would imagine that most people think that they know a lot about sex or at the very least know what’s going on in the bedroom. While that’s probably true (no shade to your game, you sex goddess, you), very few people actually know the science of getting it on. Sure, we know what we like, and maybe we know what gets our partners going, but the reality is that there’s a ton more than meets the eye when it comes to what happens between the sheets.

Your body is always subconsciously reacting to its environment and during the deed, those reactions are called the “Sexual Response Cycle,” and we’ve got the work of Masters & Johnson to thank. The iconic pair’s research in the area of human sexuality changed the way that we understand the body and how we think about getting it on. While there are, indeed, a few ways in which their model is flawed, the clinical look at the physiological processes involved in sexual pleasure pulls back the curtain on one of our most basic behaviors.

Before going through these though, a few things to remember:

  1. this is not specific to heterosexual, penile-vaginal penetration as the formatting might imply—these processes take place on a personal level independent of a partner and even extend to masturbation
  2. The linear formatting of this model can be misleading, but the assessment of the physiological responses that happen throughout arousal still hold, even if the timeline does not
  3. the focus on orgasm is, perhaps, misplaced—sex without orgasm is still sex.

Okay, now that all of that is out of the way, here we go…


Masters & Johnson’s Sexual Response Cycle

Phase 1—Excitement:

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This is just a fancy way to say that you’re getting turned on. For both men and women, the heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate increases rapidly. This is also the phase where a “sex flush” sets in for many people, but not everyone.

For males the most obvious response during the Excitement is… Well, just that! The penis begins to become erect and the testicles draw upwards as the muscles in the area tense. For males, this phase can is usually triggered after only a few seconds of stimulation.

For females, the simplest way to put it is that everything swells due to the increase in blood pressure and heart rate (vasocongestion). In addition to the swelling of the labia minora, vaginal tissue, clitoris, and breasts, the it is during this phase that the Bartholin’s glands start producing lubrication in preparation for penetration. While the excitement phase in males is rather quick, it can last from minutes to hours for women.

Phase 2: Plateau

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The plateau phase is essentially what it sounds like. After all the the changes experienced in phase one, the body, well… Plateaus. This isn’t to say that nothing happens, rather that the physiological processes put into motion in the first phase intensify and progress throughout the phase, bringing both partners closer to climax. I like to think of it as the phase where dirty talk is most likely to happen.

For males, the plateau phase means that the penis has become fully erect. The urethral sphincter contracts in preparation for orgasm. The muscles at the base of his member will start contracting rhythmically, the testicles rise even further towards the body, and this is when pre-ejaculatory fluid may be released.

The plateau phase for females is not dissimilar from the excitement phase. With further stimulation, the changes responses exhibited in the Excitement phase intensify. Heart rate increases even more and sensitive areas become even more sensitive as various muscles throughout the reproductive system being to swell and contract even further.

Phase 3: Orgasmic

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I think we all know what this one is. When the plateau phase comes to an end, it’s usually with an orgasm. The male orgasm is usually very quick and accompanied by ejaculation while the female orgasm is thought to have a bit more variation from person to person. Interestingly enough, though, the actual experience of orgasms are thought to be quite similar regardless of which set of reproductive organs you have (though it’s impossible to know for sure, I suppose). It’s also at this time that the body is flooded with “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine, prolactin, oxytocin, and others which induce physiological and emotional responses.

Phase 4: Resolution

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The final phase of the sexual response cycle is resolution, which essentially means that everything returns to stasis after orgasm. The amount of time that it takes for the body to return to its resting rates varies and this phase (in theory) could be bypassed by continuing sexual stimulation—but that usually only works for females.

Although some (emphasis on some) men can have multiple orgasms within a short period of time, most men cannot become more aroused for a while following an orgasm. That period of time is known as the “refractory period.” Women, on the other hand, don’t usually have a physiological refractory period which is what allows them to experience multiple orgasms more often, though some women may not want to keep going after their first.


I know what you’re probably thinking, “yeah, no sh*t, but why should I care?”

Fair question, but there is something to be said for acknowledging the scientific side of sexual pleasure. The cultural values and loaded emotional responses to sex have obscured the fact that sexual activity is natural, scientific, and able to be broken down to it’s basic parts. While sex is likely to always be a tough topic to discuss openly, the knowledge that our bodies are in fact built for it is important to keep in mind.

While it’s been shown that the Masters & Johnson approach has a few flaws (as noted above), the basics still hold. These are the subconscious responses that our bodies have to sexual arousal and pleasure. While knowing the name of glands that “get you wet” might not improve your sex life over night, knowing how you and your partner’s bodies work can only make things better in bed and otherwise.  Knowledge is power, people, both in and out of the bedroom. After all, understanding and communication is key—and when you’re trying to understand something, it’s a good idea to start with the basics.