Everyone is sexually unique. This bears repeating. Everyone is sexually unique.
By Michael Castleman M.A.
From the 1960s through the millennium, researchers believed that the human sexual response cycle was a fixed, universal, four- or five-phase process. But starting around 2000, several studies by women sex researchers showed that a substantial proportion of women, quite possibly a majority, do not conform to this pattern. Instead, they report highly individual patterns of sexual responsiveness. The implication? Each of us is sexually unique. Our sexuality is as individual as our fingerprints or DNA.
Recently, a new study by researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto have extended this finding to men, adding more weight to the ascendant view that everyone is sexually unique.
But established beliefs die hard. To appreciate the emerging view, it’s important to understand some sex-research history.
Masters’ and Johnson’s Four Phases
During the 1960s, sex research pioneers William Masters, MD, and Virginia Johnson sat in their St. Louis laboratory watching through a one-way glass window as hundreds of volunteers enjoyed solo or partner sex. Their trailblazing observations inspired them to describe a four-phase sexual response process:
Excitement. Initial erotic arousal that deepens breathing and produces erection in men and vaginal lubrication in women.
Plateau. Sustained high arousal.
Orgasm. The wave-like pelvic muscle contractions that provide great pleasure.
Resolution. Return to pre-arousal status.
Masters and Johnson called this sexual response cycle universal.
They were brilliant, courageous pioneers. But with hindsight, we can now see that Masters and Johnson (who married and divorced) also had unconscious biases. They were rebelling against the lingering Victorian fiction that women were not sexual at all, that women were little more than fleshy receptacles for men’s lust. Masters and Johnson demonstrated that women are just as capable as men of reveling in erotic pleasure. But they erred in asserting that all men and women experience sex the same way.
It was an honest mistake. As Thomas Maier relates in his joint biography of the pair, Masters of Sex, source of the Showtime series, Masters and Johnson were totally committed to objective research. They placed sensors around their volunteers’ bodies and recorded what happened. They never asked their participants how sex felt to them. Their instruments showed four phases, end of story.
In addition, Masters and Johnson studied only a small subset of women—those who were orgasmic from dildo insertion and intercourse. Today we know that only a small proportion of women, at most, 25 percent, are consistently orgasmic during intercourse. Masters and Johnson inadvertently ignored the more than 75 percent of women who require direct clitoral stimulation to work up to orgasm.
During the 1980s, researcher Helen Singer Kaplan, MD, Ph.D., tinkered with the four-stage formula. She added a fifth phase at the front end—desire, affirmatively wanting sex. Once again, most researchers considered the new five-phase cycle virtually universal.
The Dawn of a New Paradigm
Twenty years later, starting around the millennium, Rosemary Basson, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia conducted in-depth interviews with hundreds of women, and found that many described sexual response pattern that differed substantially from the five-part model:
Desire. Many women don’t experience desire before tongues dance and hands begin to roam. They feel erotically neutral as sex begins. But if they enjoy it, by the time they become highly aroused, they experience desire. For many women, desire is not the cause of sex, but rather, its result.
Excitement. Kissing, cuddling, and mutual massage open the arteries in the genitals and usher extra blood into them. This produces erection in men and vaginal lubrication in women. But many, possibly most women don’t feel particularly aroused during the Excitement phase. To feel aroused they need more than just increased genital blood flow. Many women insist they must feel desired before they can experience arousal. And once aroused, many want emotional closeness as much as orgasm.
Plateau. Masters and Johnson defined it as sustained arousal. The women in Basson’s studies generally agreed.
Orgasm. Masters and Johnson described it as a series of brief, sharp spikes of pleasure, a climax. Some of Basson’s women agreed, but many described their orgasms as extended, mild, and peak-less, yet still satisfying. Others reported serial mini-orgasms. And some said they had satisfying sex without distinct orgasms.
Resolution. After orgasm, Masters and Johnson held that sexual arousal subsides, and lovers return to Earth. But many of Basson’s interviewees said that after orgasm, they remained aroused.
Clearly, Masters, Johnson, and Kaplan didn’t tell the whole story.
The New Paradigm Now Extends to Men
In the new study, the researchers asked 520 sexually active men, age 18-73, to describe their sexual response cycles. They found five general patterns, one more or less in line with what Masters, Johnson, and Kaplan described, but four others that were quite different. Like many women, some men reported increasing desire as sex proceeded, but others reported less. Some men recounted excitement building quickly to sharp orgasms, while others described sustained middling excitement throughout and quieter orgasms. Some crashed out of orgasm to resolution, while others remained erotically excited after orgasm.
The men’s patterns were independent of their demographics, except for age. After around 45, growing older reduced excitement/arousal but did not diminish pleasure or preclude orgasm.
The researchers concluded: “If men can learn that variability is normal, it could help them focus more mindfully on enjoying their sexual experiences whatever they are, rather than trying to fit into a particular pattern.”
Human patterns of sexual response are more variable than predictable. Masters, Johnson, and Kaplan gave us the broad outlines of sexual response. But contemporary sex research has supplanted their findings, showing that each of us is sexual in our own individual ways. There’s no “normal” sexual pattern. Each of us is sexually unique.
This means that lovers can’t assume they know how their partners experience arousal and lovemaking. For sizzling sex, both parties must declare how lovemaking works for them, and coach their partners to provide what they need and enjoy. For a bit more on this, see my previous post, “Quick, Easy Ways to Coach Lovers During Sex.” For a great deal more, check out my new book, Sizzling Sex for Life.
Basson, R. “The Female Sexual Response: A Different Model,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2000) 26:51.
Basson, R. “Are Our Definitions of Women’s Desire, Arousal, and Sexual Pain Disorders Too Broad, and our Definition of Orgasmic Disorder Too Narrow?” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2002) 28:289.
Basson, R. “Women’s Sexual Desire: Disordered or Misunderstood?” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2002) 28 (suppl):17.
About the Author
Michael Castleman, M.A., is a San Francisco-based journalist. He has written about sexuality for 36 years.