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understanding female sexual response

Let’s face it. No one has described the female sexual response system as “simple.” There are so many factors that are included when we think about the female sexual response: desire, hormones, libido, age, medications, etc. It can all seem overwhelming and complicated.

However, once you have a better understanding of what the female sexual response system actually is, you’ll be able to reap the benefits by understanding your body and by having better sex (however you choose to define it).

Penis-owning men and vulva-owning women do have different sexual systems. Typically (this is by no means every single man or every single woman), men have a sexual system called spontaneous desire and women have a sexual system called responsive desire. According to Dr. Emily Nagoski, author of the well-renowned book Come As You Are, 75% of men and 15% of women experience spontaneous desire.

Spontaneous sexual desire manifests in the sense of sexual urgency, passion, or “horniness.” Spontaneous desire can happen at several points during a sexual encounter and are particularly evident at the beginning of relationships when sex is frequent.

Women, on the other hand, typically have responsive or contextual desire meaning that sexual arousal responds to something that comes before it. This is you if you need more than just a “sexy thought” to want and to experience sex. I enjoy the analogy that Dr. Emily Nagoski uses: women’s sexual response is compared to a brake and an accelerator. Like a car, a woman’s accelerator can be affected by many different factors including sexual imagery, intimacy, masturbation, foreplay, etc. Also like a car, a woman’s brake can be heavily influenced by external stimuli including hormones, negative thoughts, feelings, thoughts on body image, etc.

Hormones in women also come into play when discussing sexual response and desire. According to Medical News Today, “Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone all affect sexual desire and arousal. Having higher levels of estrogen in the body promotes vaginal lubrication and increases sexual desire. Increases in progesterone can reduce sexual desire.” This can obviously affect your sexual response system stages and the inner workings. It’s important to know of the potential causes of fluctuating hormones including PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), hormonal birth control, and stress.

Experts in the field categorize the female sexual response system into 4 different parts: desire, arousal, orgasm, and resolution.

The “desire” part is most directly related to the brake and accelerator example listed above. Those with spontaneous desire will be able to get to the next stage of arousal rather quickly and sufficiently. Those with response desire will need a little more time since they need to take the time to actually respond to the external stimuli. There are physical symptoms that typically coincide with desire which include: increased heart rate, increased breath rate, skin flushing, increased blood flow to the clitoris, and dilation of the vagina.

The next stage is arousal. This basically means that everything that was happening in the desire phase has reached at least a minimum potential, and the momentum is continuing. According to Dr. Abdur-Rahman, a board-certified gynecologist, there's increased neurological activity in certain parts of the brain that are connected with sexual enjoyment. Since more brainpower is focused on sex, less is focused on the everyday stressors of life. The vaginal wall becomes even more dilated and the clitoris becomes increasingly sensitive. This stage is typically when sexual acts are occurring.

Stage 3 is orgasm. It’s called orgasm, but the orgasm itself doesn’t necessarily have to happen. Sex can be great without orgasm, or it can be frustrating. Both ways of viewing are extremely valid, especially for women. Typically, here are the signs of an orgasm. There is a big increase in the natural drug Oxytocin, a neurotransmitter related to feelings of pleasure and bonding. Your heart and breath rate skyrocket and muscles are convulsing in some shape or form. Sometimes, women have the capacity to ejaculate and release fluids. That depends on how your body works.

The final stage is resolution. It is basically exactly how it sounds! Within time, everything goes back to what your normal is. Heart rate starts to decrease, nipples become less erect, and your vulva goes back to its natural state. This is when relaxation starts to happen and the feeling of an almost euphoric state.

Once you understand what makes you “tick” (think back to the accelerator and brake causes) you’ll be able to better understand YOUR sexual response system. Knowing the mechanics of our bodies is SO important so we can have better, more pleasurable sex!


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