How Do Our Bodies Become Aroused?

How Do Our Bodies Become Aroused?

It’s safe to say, if you are reading this you will have experienced arousal at some point, but most of us would not be able to explain how this happens in our bodies. In this article I will be discussing how all of us become sexually aroused from a biological/mechanical perspective. 

Understanding how are bodies work sexually can allow us to become more connected with our own bodies and more gentle to ourselves and others when things don’t always work. 

For a recap on sexual anatomy, please read this piece - Sexual Anatomy 101 (AFAB & AMAB)

Sexual Response for People with Vulvas

Many different models have been created over the years to explain sexual response for people with vulvas. Rather than getting into the technicalities and why some models are better than others, lets give you a brief overview, so you can understand your body when its aroused.

Arousal will differ for everyone as every body is slightly different but generally, AFAB (assigned female at birth) sexual arousal is both mental (cognitive & emotional) and a physical state. 

Sexual response can be triggered by various things like touch, sounds, and smells, creating feelings of pleasure. It often sparks a desire to continue the activity, which may or may not lead to an orgasm. 

When we become aroused, there's a noticeable increase in blood flow to our genitals. The vagina swells, and the inner labia (labia minora) contains erectile tissue that expands with the increased blood supply. The vaginal walls darken due to the heightened blood flow, and there's an increase in fluids, resulting in a sense of wetness.

The clitoris also enlarges as a result of increased blood supply, making it highly sensitive. Sometimes, direct touch may even be uncomfortable, and the clitoris might retract under the clitoral hood to avoid stimulation. Beyond the genital area, arousal leads to an elevated breathing rate, increased heart rate, and higher blood pressure. Occasionally, muscle spasms may be felt in the feet, face, and hands, along with a general increase in muscle tension.

clitoris erect and flaccid diagram

The lower third of the vagina may undergo a slight narrowing, accompanied by swelling due to increased blood flow. A specific pelvic floor muscle tightens a bit and the upper two-thirds of the vagina significantly widens. The uterus also lifts and increased blood supply causes breast tissue to swell, and nipples can become erect.

The Bartholin's glands, located just to the side of the vaginal opening, release a bit of fluid to enhance lubrication.

Now for the ‘O’. The pelvic floor contracts rhythmically during orgasm, typically around 3 to 15 times and lasting anywhere from 5 to 60 seconds. Alongside the platform, the uterus and anal sphincter also get in on the rhythmic action. This whole process involves the release of a hormone called oxytocin, the same one released during breastfeeding. It brings about a sense of well-being and relaxation.

Then comes the resolution phase – the reset button, if you will. The clitoris descends, engorgement subsides, the swollen labia return to their unaroused state, and the uterus goes back to its usual position.

The vagina, which got all lengthened and tented with arousal, returns to its regular, unaroused state. 

Interestingly, unlike male bodies with a refractory (chill) period post-orgasm, women don't have quite the same restriction, allowing for the possibility of multiple orgasms. 

This entire process can happen involuntarily (it’s a reflex) which is important to know when it comes to sexual trauma.

Why do I need Clitoral Stimulation to reach orgasm?

Contrary to popular belief many people with vaginas cannot orgasm from penetration alone and most need clitoral stimulation - either way is perfectly safe and normal!

Some people can orgasm from penetration alone, whether that be with a penis, fingers or toys and the below diagram shows why.

g spot penetration orgasm diagram

There is a place in the vagina called ‘the anterior wall’ where the clitoris meets the urethral sponge and skene glands. When these all push together from the pressure of penetration, this can be enough to reach climax for some people and also why some of us can squirt!

What is ‘Non-Concordance?

Non-concordance can occur in both AFAB and AMAB bodies, but it seems to be more commonly observed in the ‘female’ sexual response. Essentially, non-concordance helps us understand that what's happening in the body might not always align with what's going on in the brain. 

A number of factors may make arousal non-concordance more likely, including stress, burnout, tiredness, lack of energy or you just simply weren’t feeling it in the moment. This is super common and something a sex therapist can help you with if it is affecting you.

Sexual Response for People with Penises

cross section male AMAB sexual anatomy

When it comes to sexual arousal for AMAB folks there are 3 parts to explain; the erection, the orgasm and the ejaculation. It’s important to note that orgasm and ejaculation are two seperate processes and they do not always happen at the same time.

How Do Erections Happen?

An erection is a result of various factors like thoughts, nerves, blood flow, and hormones. It's often linked to sexual arousal or attraction but can also happen spontaneously.

The penis has two chambers called the corpora cavernosa, which you can see above and below. These chambers are made of spongy tissue and can fill with blood, making the penis grow in size.

When not aroused, the arteries supplying blood to the penis are partially open, maintaining tissue health. Sexual stimulation, whether physical or mental, triggers the brain to send signals, causing hormones to open these arteries fully.

Fully open arteries allow more blood into the corpora cavernosa than the veins can carry away. This excess blood gets trapped, creating and sustaining an erection. When the brain signals that sexual arousal has ended, the hormonal response stops. The arteries return to their normal state, and the penis goes back to being flaccid.

cross section diagram penis anatomical

What About Nightime Erections?

‘Nighttime erections’ are are great example of a reflex (spontaneous) erection. They operate through the spinal cord without involving the brain. This process occurs automatically, without any conscious thought. Similar to female-bodied individuals (AFAB), there are several reflex erections that typically occur during the night. It's believed that these nighttime erections serve the purpose of refreshing the erectile tissues with new blood, bringing in fresh oxygen, and clearing away accumulated toxins - keeping it healthy!

How Does Ejaculation Happen?

Sexual stimulation send impulses to the spinal cord and then up to the brain. Ejaculation, is a reflex controlled by the central nervous system and it kicks in when the sexual act reaches a crucial level of excitement and unfolds in two distinct phases.

  • In the initial phase, the vas deferens (the tubes responsible for storing and transporting sperm from the testes, see above diagram) contract, pushing sperm toward the base of the penis. Simultaneously, the prostate gland and seminal vesicles release secretions to create semen.
  • In the second phase, muscles at the base of the penis contract rhythmically roughly every 0.8 seconds, propelling the semen out of the penis in up to 5 spurts.

Orgasm Vs Ejaculation

An orgasm marks the pinnacle of sexual arousal, representing the release of sexual tension felt throughout the body. The process of an orgasm for someone with a penis is very similar to those with a vulva (see below an example of one model by Masters & Johnson to explain). Of course, this can vary between people and it’s not always so linear but you can get the general gist of it.

the four phase model diagram masters and johnson

An orgasm and ejaculation, while often happening at the same time, are different experiences. Where as, ejaculation involves the release of fluid that has gathered during sexual activity. While these events often coincide, it's worth noting that individuals with a penis can experience orgasm without ejaculation, and vice versa. In some instances, ejaculation can occur without an accompanying orgasm.

Why do we say ‘AMAB’ & ‘AFAB’?

Assigned sex is a label you’re given at birth based on medical factors, including hormones, chromosomes and genitals.

Some people call the sex we’re assigned at birth “biological sex.” However, this term doesn’t fully capture the complex biological, anatomical, and chromosomal variations. Having only two options (biological male or biological female) might not describe what’s going on inside a person’s body.

Using ‘Assigned sex’ acknowledges that someone else made the decision for that person and it may not align with how they feel & identify or what is going on in their body.  Learn more about gender and sex here.

(All images hand-drawn by me - full ownership and rights to use)

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