Have you ever felt like you were not in the mood for sex but were able to get yourself aroused and wondered if that is normal? It is completely normal! In fact, it is a very common occurrence especially among women in long-term relationships to get aroused and even reach orgasm but not feel sexual desire.
You might ask how is that not problematic- to not feel desire when you are aroused? Isn’t the lack of desire an indication that something is wrong? The answer- lack of desire could signal that something is amiss but in many instances, it’s the normal workings of the circular nature of the female sexual response cycle.
What is the sexual response cycle?
Before getting into the workings of the female sexual response, let’s talk about what I mean by the term “sexual response.”
Sexual response is the way in which we respond, psychologically & physically, during sex. In order to better understand human sexual functioning, sex researchers such as Masters & Johnson (1966) & Helen Kaplan (1979) developed a four-stage model.
Stages of the sexual response cycle:
This is the psychological component of the sexual response cycle. Sexual desire is the motivation to have sex, the feeling of being in the mood. It includes fantasies or thoughts that you may have about sex. The desire component also comprises of your psychological turn-ons: your physical attraction towards your partner, the way they smell or talk, specific touch & foreplay.
This is the physiological component of the sexual response cycle. It is a bodily response that indicates that you are ready to engage in sex. In addition to arousal being a physical response, it is also the feeling of being turned on. The physical indicators for sexual arousal include increased heart rate, blood pressure, and higher respiration rate. Vasocongestion or increased blood flow is perhaps the most prominent indicator of being turned on. For men, increased blood flow produces an erection and swollen testes whereas for women, it results in the clitoris & labia (vaginal lips) becoming swollen, lubrication and expansion of the uterus.
This stage is the peak of the arousal stage, when heart rate, respiration & blood pressure increase dramatically and the tension is released in the form of pelvic muscle contractions. For men, orgasm usually results in ejaculation but not always. At times, men orgasm without producing any ejaculate. Women may or may not ejaculate when they orgasm.
This is a physiological stage wherein the body returns to the pre-desire state. For men, the penis may return to its normal size and for women, the clitoris, vagina & uterus also return to their pre-arousal state. The resolution stage is much shorter for women than men. Women are able to move out of the resolution stage and into the arousal stage pretty quickly. However, for men, the resolution stage can last for several minutes or many hours during which they are unable to become aroused despite experiencing sexual desire.
Female sexual response cycle:
The sexual response cycle described above was developed as a linear model, i.e. desire is followed by arousal which in turn is followed by orgasm and is an accurate representation of male sexuality. However, the linearity of the model makes its application to female sexuality difficult.
According to Basson (2001), women often do not experience desire first. However, upon stimulation by themselves or their partner, they become aroused which results in feeling like they are in the mood. In other words, a woman might be ready and willing to have sex but might not necessarily feel like she is in the mood. Once aroused either through self-stimulation or foreplay with a partner, she experiences the emergence of sexual desire.
I want to point out that women do feel spontaneous desire when they are in a new relationship or when they are reuniting with their partner after a long separation. However, it is normal for women in long-term relationships to not think about sex frequently or spontaneously. Also, women’s desire to have sex is more likely to be driven by the need to feel close to their partner rather than a pure physiological drive for sexual release.
Women’s sexual response is also impacted by the level of satisfaction with the relationship, their body image and the quality of past sexual experiences. Relationship conflict, lack of emotional connection with the partner, negative body image and past unpleasant sexual experiences are all factors that have a significant impact on their sexual functioning.
In addition to the female sexual response cycle being circular rather than linear, women tend to be more responsive when it comes to sex. What I mean by that is they go from not being in the mood to feeling aroused in response to stimulation whether that happens from foreplay, masturbation, watching erotica, or emotionally connecting with their partner through conversations. Elaborate and effusive foreplay is the prerequisite for a satisfying sexual experience.
Masters WH, Johnson VE. Human Sexual Response. Boston, MA: Little, Brown; 1966.
Kaplan HS. Disorders of Sexual Desire and Other New Concepts and Techniques in Sex Therapy. New York, NY: Brunner/Hazel Publications; 1979.
Basson R. Female sexual response: the role of drugs in the management of sexual dysfunction. Obstet Gynecol 2001; 98:350-353.