Sexual Identity and the Response Cycle


Published: 07/01/2013

by Stefanie Stolinsky, Ph.D.


Sexual problems are often malfunctions of the “sexual response cycle.”  This is the progression from desire, to arousal and excitement, to orgasm, to quiescence.  However most sexual behavior does not progress through every stage in the cycle.  Stages of response in sexual activity definitely have a sequence, but these patterns and phases are more variable in women than in men.

It is valuable in understanding sexual response cycles by understanding the different sexual dysfunctions: each phase of the response cycle is associated with a particular fear or dysfunction.

Sexual excitement begins with desire.  But the psychology and physiology of sexual desire are  different.  You might not desire someone, but you can still make love to them.  In fact, a very popular area of sex therapy is treating people who “never seem interested anymore.” And lack of desire can lead to an active sexual fantasy life to re-establish the desire.  This could be detrimental to real relationships and leave people uncomfortable and unable to perform with real people, preferring to fantasize the perfect lover and use a real person as the example, but never the lover.  Masturbation to the fantasy is often the only real sexual outlet for desire problems.

Desire leads to arousal.  This involves both the sense of sensual pleasure and the physical changes of arousal: an erection in men, vaginal swelling and lubrication in women.  As this excitement intensifies, it culminates in orgasm.  Both phases, excitement and orgasm, can be the focus of sexual problems. Dysfunction during the excitement phase may lead to impotence in men, the inability to get an erection, or frigidity in women, the inability to become aroused.

The physiology of an orgasm is the same no matter how it is achieved: through intercourse, vaginal or clitoral stimulation, or even masturbation.  But many people still stick to the old “dual orgasm” theory of vaginal versus clitoral orgasm that can cause substantial sexual dysfunction fears in women and men, with feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, and guilt.

A short “refractory” period occurs in men after orgasm, but not in women, during which men will not be able to reexperience orgasm immediately.  This situation is often a source of confusion and shame.

Sexual dysfunction problems regarding the sexual cycle could be averted if partners realized sexual response includes much more  than just biology.  Emotions, fantasies, underlying conflicts, aftereffects of child abuse, can all come into play and interfere with satisfying sexual encounters.  Lovemaking brings with it each person’s years of sexual and emotional history.  Your sexual reactions  may have as much, or more to do with what has happened to you as a child or adolescent, as what is going on in the moment.  Sex doesn’t just happen “automatically”, and that is another misunderstanding that creates self-blame and distress.

If you or your partner have a problem with a lack of sexual desire, acting out emotional, non-sexual moments in your early life may be the key to unlocking the blocks that keep you from satisfaction.  Acting exercises often are catalysts for the abuse survivor to use to corral old angers, feelings of mistrust, fear of intimacy, and sexual dysfunctions.