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Adult Sexual Arousal

For many years adult sexual responsive­ness was not systematically studied. It was embarrassing, a taboo for respect­able scientists.

The result was ignorance and super­stition about human sexual responses. William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson set out to change this situation by studying biologically normal sexual responses in adult humans.

In early studies Masters and Johnson used volunteers, often prostitutes. They were fitted with biological measuring devices to detect all signs of sexual response.

The early Masters and Johnson research was widely criticized on methodological and theoretical grounds. However, even their critics gave Masters and Johnson credit for breaking taboos and bringing research attention to sexual behavior.

Masters and Johnson said they dis­covered a fourfold sequence of events in sexual arousal whch was the same in men and women:

1. Excitement. Sexual stimulation leads to engorgement of the sexual areas, erection of the penis, nipples, and clitoris, and moistening of the vaginal lining.

2. Plateau. Continued stimulation leads to muscle tension, rapid breathing, and body flush. In the woman, the clitoris retracts but remains sensitive. The opening of the vagina closes somewhat but the inside of the vagina becomes larger. In the man, the testes increase in size and are pulled upward.

3. Orgasm. Rhythmic muscular contractions occur every eight-tenths of a second. Heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure go up momentarily, and males ejaculate semen.

4. Resolution. Men experience a time of decreased responsiveness to sexual stimulation. Women may have further orgasms if stimulation continues.

What fourfold sequence of sexual arousal did Masters and Johnson describe?

Due to the impact of the Masters and Johnson research, some researchers felt that the four-part scheme was prematurely enshrined as scientific fact. Rosen and Hall (1984) saw "neither a subjective nor a physiological justification" for distinguishing between stages one and two (excitement and plateau).

Why did Kaplan add an earlier stage?

Helen Singer Kaplan added an earlier stage to the Masters & Johnson scheme: desire. Desire must be present first, before the other stages of arousal can occur.

This is a fairly important point. Absence of desire is a common complaint brought to sex therapists, and it is one of the most difficult problems to treat.

What Causes Sexual Excitement?

Sexual arousal is not merely a reflex response; it is affected by learning. Ellis (1984) told of a male researcher on a remote island who noticed acceleration in beard growth the day before he visited his sweetheart on the mainland. Similarly, sailors have reported beard growth (which is controlled by testosterone) before putting into port.

What is evidence that anticipation stimulates sex hormone production?

The fact that beard growth could be triggered by anticipation illustrates how sexual responses can be conditioned, as discussed in Chapter 5 (Conditioning). Classical conditioning, as described there, is basically an anticipatory biological response.

Graham and Desjardins (1980) illustrated classical conditioning of testosterone secretion. They provided male rats with sexual partners in the same environment each day. Soon the rats showed an eightfold rise in sex hormones when placed into the cage, even if there were no other rats present.

On the other hand, sexual arousal can be difficult if there is lack of preparation and anticipation. Problems labeled "lack of desire" in relationships sometimes stem from the expectation, by one partner, that the other partner should be ready for quick sex at random times.

Unexpected requests for sexual inter­action can be a turn-off. Sexual response is more effortless when sex is expected and desired by both parties, such as after a romantic night out or other positive mood-setting interaction.

Sometimes long-married couples must be encouraged to resume the rituals of dating previously familiar during courtship. This provides cues that a sexual encounter is coming, and that allows classical conditioning to produce a warm-up effect that aids sexuality.

How is sexual interest re-kindled in married couples?

Romantic music, kissing, or sensual rituals such as long, slow, body massages are very effective in producing a classically conditioned warm-up response, even in couples who have been together for many years. This was discussed under the heading of sensitization in Chapter 13 (Therapy).

How does novelty affect sexual arousal?

Novelty leads to higher levels of sexual activity. Macrides and colleagues (1975) showed that a strange female increased plasma testosterone levels in mice more than a familiar female.

In many species a male who has mated with a female then stopped will resume activity if presented with a new female. A male bull, ram, or goat may be stim­ulated into activity by the same female if she is led away and brought into the pen again as if new (Bermant, 1976).

What is the most common sexual fantasy among married couples?

Humans are also stimulated by novelty. Research shows the most common sexual fantasy among married couples is "a different partner." Within stable, long-term relationships (such as good marriages) variations in fantasy help to keep the same partner interesting.

The Kiss

Few scientists study the kiss as a part of sexual behavior. Yet in Western cultures, deep kissing is the behavior that most reliably precedes sex among married couples. Alfred Kinsey, a pioneering sex researcher, reported that 90% of American married women reported deep kissing ("soul kissing" with the tongue) as a prelude to marital sex.

What did Kinsey say about kissing?

Deep kissing is not automatically arousing to humans. Centuries old sex manuals in China and Japan show every imaginable position for intercourse, but they do not show kissing.

However, Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1989) says it is a myth that people in non-Western cultures find kissing disgusting. Native cultures all over the world engage in a variety of affectionate mouth-play from babyhood onward.

How common was kissing or similar behavior, in Ford and Beach's anthropological research?

Ford and Beach (1951) found that kissing occurred in 13 of 21 native cultures where field researchers studied courtship behavior. Often kissing was accompanied by an intake of air.

Four groups sucked lips and tongues of partners; one (the Lapps) kissed the mouth and nose at the same time. Another (the Arapesh) touched lips gently and drew the breath in. Many cultures engage in nuzzling with the nose as an affectionate gesture.

a blissful looking bunny being stroked on the nose
Mammals take pleasure from sensitive touching on the nose or face

Tiefer (1978) suggested that kissing might be related to the universal greeting display of mammals: odor-sampling, often by touching the nose. This can be seen in many mammals, from hamsters to bunnies to cats and dogs to horses.

Human kisses are probably related to the olfactory investigations that mammals make upon greeting. Most mammals rely on their sense of smell to recognize friends or enemies... All human cultures have some form of mouth or nose contact to indicate greeting and affection (Tiefer, 1978, p.35)

To what did Tiefer suggest kissing might be related?

Sex is not usually accompanied by kiss­ing unless emotional intimacy is desired. Martha Stein observed 64 call girls from a hidden vantage point, recording the details of 1,230 sexual encounters.

What did Stein discover?

She found that kissing was involved in only 36% of the encounters and that most of a prostitute's customers (87%) were not interested in romance or intimacy. They wanted quick sex. Kissing, seduc­tion, and sweet talk were not desired.


The culmination of sexual arousal is orgasm. Male and female orgasms are virtually indistinguishable. Panels of judges are unable to pick out descrip­tions written by males or females.

Both sexes report tingling or urges to thrust as excitement increases. Build-up to an organism can be slow, followed by waves of contractions and pleasure during the orgasm and an after-effect of warmth and relaxation.

How do male and female orgasms compare?

The autonomic nervous system is involved in orgasms. Parasympa­thetic activation is necessary for arousal, strong sympathetic activation accom­panies orgasm, then there is a parasympathetic rebound. Some men sleep during this phase; women are more likely to feel activated.

Masters and Johnson found at least three distinct patterns of orgasms in women. Some women almost always had a single large orgasm but never a second; others typically had two medium size ones; a third group had many small orgasms over a longer period of time.

What did Davidson suggest about the nature of orgasms?

Julian Davidson (1981) a physiologist at Stanford University, described orgasms as biologically similar in men and women. In both sexes the same brain area triggers the orgasm.

According to Davidson, women release a fluid from the vaginal wall during orgasm, and this is analogous to ejaculation in the male. Davidson wrote that orgasms consisted of two components:

1. Contractions of the pelvic floor and muscles associated with the genitals, linked with an altered state of consciousness characterized by euphoria and "momentary loss of ego and contact with surroundings"

2. Emission of fluids from sex glands. Davidson says, "I believe that this physiological process is necessarily linked to a temporary loss of sexual desire."

Some men and some women have multiple orgasms because they separate the two components. They have the first component–contractions and pleasure–without the second.

In men the second component is accompanied by seminal emissions. Davidson suggested that contractions of the uterus (rather than pelvic floor) were the woman's version of the second component. In women, like men, this was followed by loss of sexual desire.

About 10% of women report never having an orgasm. Over half do not experience one without direct clitoral stimulation. Only a third find intercourse by itself a sufficient stimulus for orgasm.

Uninformed men aggravate the problem:

Most men automatically start deep, vigorous thrusting during inter­course, but most women become more stimulated by slower, shallower thrusting at least in the early stages of coitus. (Masters, Johnson, and Kolodny, 1982, p.295)

How many women reported never having an orgasm? How many found intercourse a sufficient stimulus?

Women frequently resent the question, "Did you come?" Given that only a third of women find intercourse by itself sufficient to induce orgasm, the honest answer is usually "No" unless the man has taken special time and care to stimulate the woman the way she likes.

If the answer is No, the woman is put into a conflict. Should she be honest, and hurt the partner's feelings? Or should she inject an element of decep­tion into the relationship? Should she evade the question by mumbling something about how "great" it was?

The truth is that people can enjoy themselves without having orgasms. Many women have orgasms only under comfortable conditions with a skilled and sensitive partner, not necessarily in a car with their first love.

If lack of orgasm is perceived as a problem, effective treatments are available. Some will be discussed on the page about treatment of sexual disorders later in this chapter.


Bermant, G. (Ed). (1973). Perspectives on animal behavior: A first course. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, & Co.

Davidson, J. (1981, July). The orgasmic connection. Psychology Today, p.91

Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1989) Human Ethology. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Ellis, G. B. (1984). Pavlovian sex. Science 84, 5, 72.

Ford, C. S. & Beach, F. A. (1951) Patterns of Sexual Behavior. New York: Harper.

Graham, J. M. & Desjardins, C. (1980). Classical conditioning: Induction of luteinizing hormone and testosterone secretion in anticipation of sexual activity. Science, 210, 1039-1041.

Macrides, F., Bartke, A., & Dalterio, S. (1975). Strange females increase plasma testosterone levels in male mice. Science, 189, 1104-1106.

Masters, W. H., Johnson, V. E. & Kolodny, R. C. (1982) Human Sexuality. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co.

Rosen, R. & Hall, E. (1984) Sexuality. New York: Random House.

Tiefer, L. (1978) The kiss. Human Nature, 1, 28-37.

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