The Anatomy of Female ArousalPaul & 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
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.
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.
1 Women’s sexual dysfunction: revised and expanded definitions Rosemary Basson CMAJ May 10, 2005 vol. 172 no. 10 doi: 10.1503/cmaj.1020174