The Anatomy of Female Arousal
Paul & Lori Byerly
Our bodies go through a number of changes during sex. Understanding these changes helps us understand both our sexuality and that of our spouse. This article looks at women; you can read about men’s arousal here.
Before we look at how a woman’s body changes as she becomes aroused, it is very important to understand that men and women are very different when it comes to arousal.
Desire May Follow Arousal
Men feel spontaneous desire, which causes arousal. We all understand that, and unfortunately, we have assumed that women are, or should be, the same way. Recent studies have found that this is not the norm for all women, with many never experiencing desire first, and others only feeling desire before arousal some of the time.1 Please understand this – for many (maybe most) women, desire is triggered by arousal, not the other way around.
What this means is it is normal for a woman rarely or never to feel desire or a “sex drive” apart from sexual activity. For many the norm is for foreplay to start arousal, with that arousal resulting in feeling desire.
Not Slower, Maybe Less Aware
While we have been taught that women become aroused more slowly than men, new research finds that is not true. When given the same visual stimulation, men and women both experienced measurable arousal in 30 seconds, and the time need to reach full arousal varied by only 10%.2 The fact that male arousal is more obvious is no doubt part of why we think men get physically aroused more quickly. Additionally, research has found that women are often unaware of their physical arousal.3 In studies were physical arousal was measured and women were asked how aroused they felt, women often showed physical arousal while reporting no arousal, or showed high arousal while reporting only mild arousal.
In addition to being less able to gauge their arousal level, women probably find it much easier to filter or ignore arousal when it is not desired or inconvenient. However, most women know what it feels like to be aroused, and many can discern arousal if they think about it.
Stages of Sexual Arousal
Regardless of how it starts, there are four stages a woman’s body goes through in a full sex act.
EXCITEMENT – Breathing increases, heart rate increases, and blood begins to move to various parts of the body. The breasts begin to enlarge (more in women who have not breast-fed) and nipples may become erect. The clitoris becomes erect, causing it to enlarge slightly (more in width than length) and become more sensitive. The outer labia lay flat, revealing the inner labia which swell and darken in color. The vagina begins to lubricate, and the uterus starts to move up and away from the vagina. (It was previously believed that the uterus increased in size during arousal; in fact, it does not change size, but simply moves up into the body.)
PLATEAU – With further stimulation, the clitoris becomes more sensitive and pulls back further under the clitoral hood. The inner lips thicken more, as much as two or three times normal, and may part, making the entrance to the vagina visible. The inner and outer labia darken, becoming quite dark just before orgasm. Women who have been pregnant have a better blood supply to the genitals, and their labia will darken more than before they had children. The vagina expands and elongates, ballooning out in the deepest two-thirds. The outer one-third of the vaginal wall thickens (due to increased blood flow) and contracts, making the entrance tighter. The uterus elevates to its highest point. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, and a skin flush may appear on the chest, neck, or face (these “sex flushes” occur in both sexes, but are more common among women). Breathing increases and soft vocalization may occur. If position allows, the hips may be moved in a rocking motion, which thrusts the genitals up and down. If this motion occurs, it will increase as orgasm gets closer, possibly becoming rather dramatic. Muscle tension increases, especially in the legs and buttocks. The woman may open her legs farther and/or repositioned them as orgasm approaches.
– At orgasm the outer one-third of the vagina contract repeatedly about every 8th
of second. The uterus and anal sphincters also contract. There may be foot spasms or contracting facial muscles, the body may go stiff, and her back may arch. Breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure reach their highest points. Some women may release fluid (see female ejaculation
). In women, the length of an orgasm can vary a great deal. Type and duration of stimulation both prior to and during orgasm have an influence, but are not the only factors. If there is a sex flush, it will become darker and spread to a larger area. If the nipples are not already erect they may become erect at orgasm – but this is not always true.
RESOLUTION – A fine perspiration may cover the body. Muscles relax throughout the body. The clitoris becomes very sensitive – possibly so much so that continued stimulation is uncomfortable. Occasional random contractions of the vagina may continue for several minutes after climax. The external genitals gradually return to normal size and position, as do the breasts. The vaginal wall thins and the vagina returns to its resting state. The uterus drops back into place. The cervix opens slightly and drops into the pool of semen left at the entrance of the cervix (unless you used a condom, of course). Breathing, heart and blood pressure return to normal and muscles relax. If stimulation is continued or restarted, resolution is delayed or stopped, and more orgasms may be possible. It takes the woman’s body far longer to return to “normal” than the man’s, easily a half-hour or more.
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1 Women’s sexual dysfunction: revised and expanded definitions Rosemary Basson CMAJ May 10, 2005 vol. 172 no. 10 doi: 10.1503/cmaj.1020174
2 Thermography as a Physiological Measure of Sexual Arousal in Both Men and Women JSM 3 JAN 2007 DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2006.00399.x
3 Agreement of self-reported and genital measures of sexual arousal in men and women: a meta-analysis. Arch Sex Behav. 2010 Feb;39(1):5-56. Epub 2010 Jan 5.