There is one conversation that is guaranteed to occur whenever a heterosexual couple sees me for mismatched levels of sexual desire in their relationship: the diametrically opposed nature of male and female sexual response. This, by the way, seems incredibly odd given the ying and yang quality commonly observed in the mating rituals of many species in the animal kingdom. Take, for example, emperor penguins. They travel many miles to reach their breeding site, the female is then wooed by one lucky fella’s song, their version of coitus occurs, an egg is laid that the male protects while the females leave to find food, and voila – a baby penguin is born. Seems so simple, right? Somehow, human courtship and nesting isn’t always so straightforward. Let me clarify – it’s not always so cut-and-paste for the females. In general, males tend to follow a very linear, Masters and Johnson paradigm when it comes to sexual response. They see a mate that they are attracted to, they become both mentally and physically aroused, they engage in some kind of activity that leads to orgasm, which is then followed by a complete loss of sexual response which can last from minutes to hours (some women recognize this as their male partner’s “post-coital sleep stage”). Unless certain illnesses, medications, or life stressors interfere, men tend to identify with this model throughout their lives. On the other hand, research tells us that women may identify with several different sexual response patterns during their lifespan.
In 2007, a study was carried out to understand which model of sexual response women most identified with.They were given 3 options to choose from:
Masters and Johnson (1960’s):
Excitement (sexual arousal) --> Plateau (arousal reaches a peak) --> Orgasm (no explanation necessary) --> Resolution (refractory phase – body returns to its normal level of functioning)
Desire --> Excitement --> Orgasm
Dr. Kaplan added Desire as the first stage, as the mind plays an important role in how the body becomes aroused, especially for women. Excitement and Plateau were combined into one stage as they both represent stages of arousal. Resolution was removed from this model as Dr. Kaplan felt it represented the absence of sexual response.
Basson’s Female Sexual Response Cycle (2000’s):
This model for female sexual response tends to be a more accurate representation, especially for those in long-term relationships. In this model, women don’t always experience spontaneous sex drive. However, there are motivational forces, such as the need for intimacy, that triggers her to be receptive to or seek out a sexual situation. If all of the stars are aligned, she will develop responsive desire and arousal during sexual activity. As a result, she experiences emotional and physical satisfaction and achieves her motivational incentive to be intimate with her partner.
To little surprise, there was equal endorsement of all 3 models by the women in this study. What this tells us is that women’s sexual function is fluid throughout the lifespan. At certain points in our lives we identify with Masters and Johnson’s or Kaplan’s models, and at other times, we may identify with Basson’s. An interesting finding from the study was that the more difficulties a woman had with her sexual function, the more likely she was to endorse the Basson cycle. The reason why sexual response in females is so varied and not “one size fits all”, has to do with the factors that impact her sexual function, including: overall health, medications, hormone levels, relationship factors, and life stressors. Take, for example, when a woman is in a new relationship and deep in the “honeymoon phase”. At this point, she will more likely identify with the Masters and Johnson cycle. This is due to a combination of elevated levels of the arousal neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine, in the brain. This is the reason why people become obsessed with their partner at the start of a new relationship – that feeling of not being able to get them out of your mind. Once a woman has settled into the relationship and several years have gone by, or maybe she has gone through menopause and her hormones have decreased, she will more likely identify with the Basson model.
So what does this all mean? If men mostly endorse the Masters and Johnson cycle and have steadfast sexual interest in their relationships while women identify with all 3 cycles depending on where they are in their lives, how are the sexes to have a meeting of the minds when it comes to sexual intimacy? It all comes down to communication. For women, the frequency of spontaneous desire and sexual activity in a relationship will diminish over time and this is normal. It’s what a couple does about these changes that makes all the difference and promote a happy coexistence. I suggest the following strategies for women experiencing changes in their sexual function:
- Be open and honest about these changes with your partner…remember, you’re a team
- It’s OK that sex isn’t always spontaneous. As we age, there’s definitely a little more planning involved. If fatigue is a problem in the evening or if one partner goes to bed before the other, set the alarm a little earlier and have sex in the morning
- If you want to start off in the sexual act as aroused as your partner is (i.e., you don’t want to play catch-up because they’re engine is already revved up and ready to go), I suggest “pre-gaming”: read an erotic story, watch an erotic video, masturbate, or use your Fiera®
- Speak to your health care provider to make sure that there are no medical issues or medications that may be causing your sexual function concerns
At various times in a woman’s life, she will have to work a little harder to have a satisfying sex life. Yes, it’s frustrating that it all seems to be so much easier for men, but at the end of the day, couples that are more sexually intimate experience greater relationship satisfaction and that makes that extra effort worth it.
 Sand M, Fisher WA. Women’s endorsement of models of female sexual response: the nurses’ sexuality study. J Sex Med 2007;4(3):708-19