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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.