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So…have you ever heard the term “sexual response cycle”?

Basically what it means is that our bodies go through distinct stages during sexual arousal and response, leading up to orgasm and then resolving. 

And many of us don’t understand what those stages are–which can make huge misunderstandings regarding sex more likely to occur. 

Exhibit A: Emerson Eggerichs mixes up “turned on” and “aroused” with “willingness to not say no to sex”

If you remember from the podcast a few weeks ago where we dissected Emerson Eggerichs’ reply to a woman writing in saying she was crying in the shower before sex, I ended up spitting my tea when Connor told me that Eggerichs said it’s difficult to tell if a woman is aroused. 

Eggerichs later said that the best way to turn a woman on is to not try to turn her on and not do sexual things, but instead vacuum. Women get aroused when you vacuum.

So he was using terms like “turn on” and “aroused”, but in the context he was using them, what he appeared to mean was “willing to let you have sex with her.”

There really was nothing at all about her actually wanting sex–except he said that the two days around ovulation she may respond differently.

This is the problem with our language around sex; we often use terms in the everyday vernacular, like “turned on” or “excited” or “aroused” interchangeably, and have no idea that terms can actually mean different things–and that we should understand sexual response as a progression.

In our new books The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex and The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, we talk a lot about the sexual response cycle and why it matters. 

And for our series on the “number of the day” this week, I’m going to declare that today’s number is:

That’s the number of stages in the sexual response cycle!

Here’s basically what it looks like (from The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex):

Sexual Response Cycle

Now, we’ve put in more stages than some (often people leave out plateau and often people leave out desire) but we put them all in there because what you do to proceed along the sexual response cycle changes based on where you are in that cycle. 

Here’s the key thing to remember and why this is important:

Our bodies reach orgasm by proceeding through that cycle, in order. You can’t skip a stage and end up at orgasm.

And so what we do in the book is go into great detail about what the different stages look like, and what you can do in each stage! But I’m going to drastically simplify it here.

I’m going to explain desire at the end, but let’s look at the other stages:

Excitement

What it looks like: You’re starting to get “turned on”. Men get erections; women start to get wet and the heartrate starts to increase (along with other changes).

What kind of activity helps move things along: Think affection with some sexy and teasing thrown in. Kissing, starting light and getting heavier. Nuzzling necks and ears. Running hands along arms and backs of legs.

Arousal

What it looks like: You’re really “turned on”! His erection is harder; her clitoris and nipples are erect and lubrication is going in full force.

What kind of activity helps move things along: Stimulation of the erogenous zones!

Plateau

What it looks like: You’re almost there and desperately wanting to reach orgasm. Her clitoris retracts against her body so it’s flat.

What kind of activity helps move things along: Consistency–more of the same. Same timing, same pressure. During the arousal phase you may mix things up and tease to have fun; at the plateau stage, it’s better to just keep going! (or, if you want to make sex last a lot longer, then keep switching things up).

Orgasm

What it looks like: Ejaculation for him; rhythmic waves of pleasure for her that coincide with vaginal contractions and other physical signs. Euphoria in both.

What kind of activity helps move things along: If she relaxes into it, she can often keep it going.

Resolution

What it looks like: Feeling sleepy and very relaxed and blissful. (if you feel sad or have a major crash at orgasm, you may have post-coital dysphoria. You can talk to a physician about this).

Now let’s throw desire into the sexual response cycle.

Desire is the mental component of sex where you mentally feel turned on and “I really want to have sex right now!” This can also be called libido.

Some people don’t put it as part of the sexual response cycle, but I think it’s important to understand where it fits, because some people feel desire BEFORE sexual activity starts (call them “spontaneous desire” people), and some people don’t really feel like they want sex until AFTER some excitement and kissing has begun (call them “responsive desire”  people).

It’s easy for a spontaneous desire person married to a responsive desire person to feel as if the spouse never wants sex–when really they just kick in a little differently. And it’s easy for a responsive desire person to assume that they’re just not sexual.

But we measured this in our survey of women, and it doesn’t matter whether desire comes before or after excitement; as long as she is confident she’s going to get aroused once she starts sexual activity, then she finishes sex with the same blissful feelings. We need to stop labelling responsive desire people as less sexual. They just need more warming up; that’s all!

3 Quick Reasons It’s Important to Understand the Sexual Response Cycle

1. If a couple proceeds through the cycle at a different pace, it’s easy to think that the slower person isn’t interested in sex.

For guys, desire-excitement-arousal often look very similar and don’t seem very differentiated. It’s kind of a “more of the same” type of thing.

But for women, physiologically it actually is quite different. Guys, when they’re ready to have sex, are often ready to jump into the serious erogenous zone stuff. But she’s often not there yet.

This does not mean that she doesn’t want sex or that she isn’t sexual. 

Women are actually capable of intense pleasure, and can have multiple orgasms on top of each other, something men can’t do. So let’s not assume she’s not sexual; let’s just realize she may be different.

2. The key to sexual response is listening to your bodies, not performing a checklist of sexual acts.

If you go straight for the clitoris (or vagina!) before she’s remotely aroused or lubricated (so even before excitement starts, for instance), it will feel like a Pap smear. It won’t be a pleasant experience. So when books tell you that the way to arouse a woman is to do X,Y and Z, you need to toss the books. The key instead is to do the types of things that your spouse enjoys at the appropriate stage.

Learn to pay attention to her body (because she’s usually the one who looks very different at each stage). Don’t think “kissing is affection” and “breast play is sexual” and so if you decide “we’re going to have sex” then we don’t really need to kiss, because we can go straight for the nipples. No! She does have to move through excitement and desire first (in whatever order).

3. You need to proceed with sexual activity at the timing of the person with the longest sexual response cycle.

Pay attention to that very last stage: resolution. What happens? You feel very peaceful, relaxed, and SLEEPY. That means that if he reaches orgasm first, it’s going to be more difficult for him to help her reach orgasm afterwards because everything in his body wants to go to sleep.

And if he’s obviously sleepy, she’s going to feel self-conscious and feel like she’s taking too long. So go through the cycle at the pace of the person who takes the longest, and things will work out much better!

Do you see how it’s important to not confuse “turned on” and “aroused” with desire?

And all of this explains why vacuuming can’t get her aroused! If arousal is the state where the clitoris is erect and the areolas are 25% larger and breathing is faster, vacuuming is just not going to do that (and I’m really trying not to picture anyone for whom it might).

And this is why I spit my tea.

Keith and I spend several chapters on the sexual arousal cycle and how to help her reach orgasm (it’s vastly expanded from the original Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex), and we’re really trying to help couples bridge that 47 point orgasm gap!

I think you’ll really like the books. They build a healthy sex life from the ground up. And if you pre-order them now (they’re out March 15!), you can join our launch team and get access to the books right away, and get our preorder bonus!

The All New Guides to Great Sex!

Available now!

Imagine building a great sex life--from the ground up!

What would it look like to build a picture of sex that was MUTUAL, INTIMATE, and PLEASURABLE FOR BOTH--with no harmful messages?

Welcome to the The Good Guy's Guide to Great Sex and the ALL NEW Good Girl's Guide to Great Sex.

Get them NOW!

And let's make these the go-to wedding shower gifts!

So there you go: The sexual response cycle.

I hope some of you may have learned something new today! And maybe then we can start talking about this stuff a little more accurately.

(And heads up: We’re going to go over this in tomorrow’s podcast too!).

6 Stages of the Sexual Response Cycle

What do you think? Is this new for you? Do you think understanding this can make a difference? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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