Sexual arousal in women is still in the nascent stage of being fully understood by the researchers, but a significant progress is made in this field. Sexual arousal (also sexual excitement) is the arousal of sexual desire, during or in anticipation of sexual activity. A number of physiological responses occur in the body and mind as preparation for sex and continue during it. Genital responses are not the only changes, but noticeable and necessary for consensual and comfortable intercourse. In female arousal, the body’s response is engorged sexual tissues such as breast, nipples, vulva, clitoris, vaginal walls and vaginal lubrication. Mental stimuli and physical stimuli such as touch, and the internal fluctuation of hormones, can influence sexual arousal.
Sexual arousal has several stages and may not lead to any actual sexual activity, beyond a mental arousal and the physiological changes that accompany it. Given sufficient sexual stimulation, sexual arousal in humans reaches its climax during an orgasm. It may also be pursued for its own sake, even in the absence of an orgasm.
There are several informalities, terms and phrases to describe sexual arousal including horny, turned on, randy, steamy, and lustful. Things that precipitate human sexual arousal are called erotic stimuli, colloquially known as turn-ons.
Depending on the situation, a person can be sexually aroused by a variety of factors, both physical and mental. A person may be sexually aroused by another person or by particular aspects of that person, or by a non-human object. The welcome physical stimulation of an erogenous zone or acts of foreplay can result in arousal, especially if it is accompanied with the anticipation of imminent sexual activity. Sexual arousal may be assisted by a romantic setting, music or other soothing situation. The potential stimuli for sexual arousal vary from person to person, and from one time to another, as does the level of arousal.
Stimuli can be classified according to the sense involved: somatosensory (touch), visual, and olfactory (scent). Auditory stimuli are also possible, though they are generally considered secondary in role to the other three. Erotic stimuli which can result in sexual arousal can include conversation, reading, films or images or a smell or setting, any of which can generate erotic thoughts and memories in a person. Given the right context, these may lead to the person desiring physical contact, including kissing, cuddling, and petting of an erogenous zone. This may in turn make the person desire direct sexual stimulation of the breasts, nipples, buttocks and/or genitals, and further sexual activity.
Erotic stimuli may originate from a source unrelated to the object of subsequent sexual interest. For example, many people may find nudity, erotica or pornography sexually arousing, which may generate a general sexual interest which is satisfied with sexual activity. When sexual arousal is achieved by or dependent on the use of objects, it is referred to as sexual fetishism, or in some instances a paraphilia.
There is a common belief that women need more time to achieve arousal. However, recent scientific research has shown that there is no considerable difference for the time men and women require to become fully aroused. Scientists from McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, Canada used the method of thermal imaging to record baseline temperature change in genital area to define the time necessary for sexual arousal. Researchers studied the time required for an individual to reach the peak of sexual arousal while watching sexually explicit movies or pictures and came to the conclusion that on average women and men took almost the same time for sexual arousal — around 10 minutes.
The time needed for foreplay is very individualistic and varies from one time to the next depending on many circumstances. Sexual arousal for most people is a positive experience and an aspect of their sexuality, and is often sought. A person can normally control how they will respond to arousal. They will normally know what things or situations are potentially stimulating, and may at their leisure decide to either create or avoid these situations. Similarly, a person’s sexual partner will normally also know his or her partner’s erotic stimuli and turn-offs. Some people feel embarrassed by sexual arousal and some are sexually inhibited. Some people do not feel aroused on every occasion that they are exposed to erotic stimuli, nor act in a sexual way on every arousal. A person can take an active part in a sexual activity without sexual arousal. These situations are considered normal, but depend on the maturity, age, culture and other factors influencing the person.
However, when a person fails to be aroused in a situation that would normally produce arousal and the lack of arousal is persistent, it may be due to a sexual arousal disorder or hypoactive sexual desire disorder. There are many reasons why a person fails to be aroused, including a mental disorder, such as depression, drug use, or a medical or physical condition. The lack of sexual arousal may be due to a general lack of sexual desire or due to a lack of sexual desire for the current partner. A person may always have had no or low sexual desire or the lack of desire may have been acquired during the person’s life. There are also complex philosophical and psychological issues surrounding sexuality.
Attitudes towards life, death, childbirth, one’s parents, friends, family, contemporary society, the human race in general, and particularly one’s place in the world play a substantive role in determining how a person will respond in any given sexual situation.
On the other hand, a person may be hypersexual, which is a desire to engage in sexual activities considered abnormally high in relation to normal development or culture, or suffering from a persistent genital arousal disorder, which is a spontaneous, persistent, and uncontrollable arousal, and the physiological changes associated with arousal.
Sexual arousal causes various physical responses, most significantly in the sex organs (genital organs). In a woman, sexual arousal leads to increased blood flow to the clitoris and vulva, as well as vaginal transudation – the seeping of moisture through the vaginal walls which serves as lubrication.
Signs of Female Sexual Arousal
- Erection of nipples
- Vaginal lubrication
- Vasocongestion of the vaginal walls
- Tumescence and erection of the clitoris and labia
- Elevation of the cervix and uterus
- Tenting, i.e. expansion of the inner ⅔ of the vagina
- Change in shape, color and size of the labia majora and labia minora
- Pupil dilation
The beginnings of sexual arousal in a woman’s body is usually marked by vaginal lubrication (wetness), swelling and engorgement of the external genitals, and internal enlargement of the vagina. There have been studies to find the degree of correlation between these physiological responses and the woman’s subjective sensation of being sexually aroused: the findings usually are that in some cases there is a high correlation, while in others, it is surprisingly low.
Further stimulation can lead to further vaginal wetness and further engorgement and swelling of the clitoris and the labia, along with increased redness or darkening of the skin in these areas. Further changes to the internal organs also occur including to the internal shape of the vagina and to the position of the uterus within the pelvis. Other changes include an increase in heart rate as well as in blood pressure, feeling hot and flushed and perhaps experiencing tremors. A sex flush may extend over the chest and upper body.
If sexual stimulation continues, then sexual arousal may peak into orgasm. After orgasm, some women do not want any further stimulation and the sexual arousal quickly dissipates. Suggestions have been published for continuing the sexual excitement and moving from one orgasm into further stimulation and maintaining or regaining a state of sexual arousal that can lead to second and subsequent orgasms. Some women have experienced such multiple orgasms quite spontaneously.
While young women may become sexually aroused quite easily, and reach orgasm relatively quickly with the right stimulation in the right circumstances, there are physiological and psychological changes to women’s sexual arousal and responses as they age. Older women produce less vaginal lubrication and studies have investigated changes to degrees of satisfaction, frequency of sexual activity, to desire, sexual thoughts and fantasies, sexual arousal, beliefs about and attitudes to sex, pain, and the ability to reach orgasm in women in their 40s and after menopause. Other factors have also been studied including socio-demographic variables, health, psychological variables, partner variables such as their partner’s health or sexual problems, and lifestyle variables. It appears that these other factors often have a greater impact on women’s sexual functioning than their menopausal status. It is therefore seen as important always to understand the “context of women’s lives” when studying their sexuality.
Reduced estrogen levels may be associated with increased vaginal dryness and less clitoral erection when aroused, but are not directly related to other aspects of sexual interest or arousal. In older women, decreased pelvic muscle tone may mean that it takes longer for arousal to lead to orgasm, may diminish the intensity of orgasms, and then cause more rapid resolution. The uterus typically contracts during orgasm and, with advancing age, those contractions may actually become painful
Research suggests that cognitive factors like sexual motivation, perceived gender role expectations, and sexual attitudes play important roles in women’s self-reported levels of sexual arousal. In her alternative model of sexual response, Basson suggests that women’s need for intimacy prompts them to engage with sexual stimuli, which leads to an experience of sexual desire and psychological sexual arousal.
Psychological sexual arousal also has an effect on physiological mechanisms; Goldey and van Anders showed that sexual cognitions impact hormone levels in women, such that sexual thoughts result in a rapid increase in testosterone in women who were not using hormonal contraception. In terms of brain activation, researchers have suggested that amygdala responses are not solely determined by level of self-reported sexual arousal; Hamann and colleagues found that women self-reported higher sexual arousal than men, but experienced lower levels of amygdala responses.
During arousal and sex, there are various stages of physical response. Researchers have identified four stages of sexual response in women and men: arousal, plateau, orgasm and resolution. This article describes what happens in a woman’s body when she is sexually aroused.
Excitement or Arousal
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.)
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 . 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.
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.
Sexual arousal in women is characterized by vasocongestion of the genital tissues, including internal and external areas (e.g., vaginal walls, clitoris, and labia). There are a variety of methods used to assess genital sexual arousal in women. Vaginal photoplethysmography (VPG) can measure changes in vaginal blood volume or phasic changes in vasocongestion associated with each heartbeat. Clitoral photoplethysmography functions in a similar way to VPG, but measures changes in clitoral blood volume, rather than vaginal vasocongestion. Thermography provides a direct measure of genital sexual arousal by measuring changes in temperature associated with increased blood flow to the external genital tissues. Similarly, labial thermistor clips measure changes in temperature associated with genital engorgement; this method directly measures changes in temperature of the labia. More recently, laser doppler imaging (LDI) has been used as a direct measure of genital sexual arousal in women. LDI functions by measuring uperficial changes in blood flow in the vulvar tissues.
Several hormones affect sexual arousal, including testosterone, cortisol, and estradiol. However, the specific roles of these hormones are not clear. Testosterone is the most commonly studied hormone involved with sexuality. The connection between testosterone and sexual arousal is more complex in females. Research has found testosterone levels increase as a result of sexual cognitions in females that do not use hormonal contraception. Also, women who participate in polyandrous relationships have higher levels of testosterone. However, it is unclear whether higher levels of testosterone cause increased arousal and in turn multiple partners or whether sexual activity with multiple partners cause the increase in testosterone. Inconsistent study results point to the idea that while testosterone may play a role in the sexuality of some women, its effects can be obscured by the co-existence of psychological or affective factors in others.
Confusing lust or general horniness for emotional connect and love are mistakes many of us make early on. Female sexual arousal is less straightforward. Maturity and experience often bring clarity. Women ideally learn much about our bodies and their supreme abilities to be turned on and experience mind-blowing, gratifying pleasure. Women learn what stokes their frisky fires and puts them out and hopefully share wondrous sexual intimacy not only with themselves, but with trusted partners. Love and lust need not always pair up, but it’s pretty dang wondrous when they do!
Some women aren’t fully aware of their arousal, particularly if they haven’t learned to fully embrace their sexuality. Sexual arousal in women shall remain a mystery till it is fully demystified in times to come.