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What Is Human Sexual Response?

How the Concept of Human Sexual Response Can Help and Hurt


Human sexual response is just a clinical way of describing the things that happen to you while you’re being sexual.

Human sexual response usually refers to things that we don’t consciously control. If your heart starts beating fast or you feel flush, that would be considered part of your sexual response. But choosing to take your clothes off because your partner is calling you to bed to have sex isn’t considered part of your sexual response (even though it’s a pretty reasonable response to feeling sexual!)

Traditionally human sexual response has been measured in the body. Things like increased heart rate, flushed skin, dilation of the pupils, heightened awareness, are all parts of sexual response. Sex researchers have traditionally distinguished male sexual response from female sexual response but this has more to do with preconceived ideas about gender than it necessarily has to do with science. More recently, sex researchers have begun to consider the subjective experience of response, and instead of only measuring observable differences in the body, they ask people how they feel.

What is a Human Sexual Response Cycle?

Scientists, doctors, and therapists talk about and study the “sexual response cycle” but it’s important to understand that this is an artificial creation imposed by researchers and not something that is universally experienced or agreed upon.

While there are many problems with the model it can be helpful when studying or trying to treat sexual complaints and dissatisfaction to have a way of breaking down the complicated responses we have to sexual situations into different phases.

The original sexual response cycle as defined by Masters and Johnson in 1966 described a process for both men and women of increasing arousal to climax, and included four phases:

  1. Excitement phase
  2. Plateau phase
  3. Orgasm phase
  4. Resolution phase

Helen Singer Kaplan, a prominent sex therapist and author working around the same time as Masters and Johnson, proposed a slightly different model of human sexual response. Her proposal grew not out of physiological research in a laboratory, but out of her clinical experience as a sex therapist. For Kaplan, sexual response could be understood as involving three key included:

  • Desire
  • Excitement
  • Orgasm

Arguably the crucial piece that Kaplan added to the conception of sexual response was desire. In the earlier model wanting sex or wanting to be sexual wasn’t a consideration, everything started once someone was already feeling turned on. By focusing attention on desire Kaplan opened up important discussions about the difference between desiring sex and feeling aroused. Discussion and debate about what defines desire continue to this day.

Benefits of the Human Sexual Response Model

Sexuality is a complicated web of physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual experience. When we’re feeling stuck or frustrated sexually the web can feel more like a tangled ball, and it can feel hard, or impossible, to know where to start.

For some people the concept of human sexual response cycles can be a helpful way to start teasing apart sexual experiences. It separates sexual behaviors from other sexual thoughts and feelings, and even though this separation is artificial, it can help us find a way to start talking about our sexual experiences with a partner, friend, or professional.

Problems with the Human Sexual Response Model

Most of the teaching about sexual response is based on the research of Masters and Johnson first published in 1966, and Helen Singer Kaplan’s alternate model developed in the early 1970s. There are a number of potential problems with the way that sexual response has traditionally been defined:

Early research had several limitations, not least of which is the fact that the sexual response of individuals willing and able to be observed and monitored while having sex may differ in many ways from the general public. The data probably don’t represent the way most of us experience our sexual response.

Sexual response is traditionally only described in terms of physical events (heart rate, blood pressure, engorgement, etc…). While sexual response may be observed in the body, it is experienced cognitively and psychologically, and our subjective experience of sexual response should be included in descriptions.

Creating artificial stages of sexual response ends up informing both research and clinical practice, and by encouraging us to focus on small parts of our sexual experience may create a problem of “not seeing the forest from the trees”.

Many people will read about human sexual response and consider it to be what’s “healthy” or “normal” despite the fact that it is only a theory, and one that has not been very well tested.

In reality, the sexual response is an imposition on a very fluid process of excitement, arousal, tension, release, and more. At times there may be a “typical” pattern, but other times things will be completely different. Our sexual response flows and changes, and often the descriptions you hear won’t exactly match your experience. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, it is just an example of how sexual response is truly unique to each of us.


Kaplan, H.S. The New Sex Therapy: Active Treatment of Sexual Dysfunctions. New York: Routledge, 1974

Masters, W.H. & Johnson, V.E. Human Sexual Response.Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 1966.

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