Our understanding of sex owes a lot to William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Their pioneering work in the 1950s and ‘60s (along with the research of Alfred Kinsey) opened a whole new world of studying and talking about human sexual experience.
They got a lot right. But work that’s been done since has filled in and expanded on some important pieces they missed—and that has big implications for couples and how we think about our own sexuality.
Whether or not you’ve heard of Masters and Johnson’s 1966 book Human Sexual Response, you’re probably (at least vaguely) familiar with the four-stage cycle they identified: (physical) excitement > plateau > orgasm > resolution. That’s how it works, right? You’re horny, you get wound up (hard, wet), you come, then you’re relaxed. That’s how sex is supposed to go.
The thing is, it doesn’t work that way for a lot of people a lot of the time. When sex doesn’t follow this pattern, people think there’s something wrong with them. They think they “should” want sex more often than they do, they “should” get hard and stay hard almost automatically, they “should” have an orgasm or else sex was a “failure.” All these “shoulds” put a load of unhelpful, unsexy energy into sex. They make people feel bad—and for no good reason. It is normal for sex to have all sorts of different rhythms and outcomes. There is more to sex than one “right” way.
More recent researchers have added other components to their models of sexuality—components that more accurately reflect most people’s actual sexual experiences and expand the possibilities for satisfying sex.
For instance, Helen Singer Kaplan added “desire” to the conversation. She noted that desire isn’t always present (people may be too tired, for instance). Couples can pay attention to increasing one another’s feelings of desire, rather than just expecting the desire to automatically be there.
Later studies, especially by Rosemary Basson, show that people (particularly women over 30 in long-term relationships) often don’t experience desire until they’re already getting aroused. Rather than seeing “I’m not feeling horny tonight” as a problem, realize it’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. You can still choose to have sex even if you’re not particularly in the mood, and it can be fun once you’re into it. (Note: This does not mean that anyone has a right to demand sex from a not-into-it partner, just that a person might willingly give it a try even though he/she isn’t particularly horny.)
Joann Loulan’s Sexual Response Cycle adds other elements. She starts with “willingness” rather than desire. Her model offers six elements: willingness, desire, excitement, engorgement, orgasm, and pleasure. These elements don’t have to happen in any particular order, and they don’t all have to happen at all. “Willingness” is cognitive, a choice you make that you might be okay with having sex. “Desire”—actively wanting sex—may come after that (or before it, or not at all). “Excitement” is how juiced up you feel emotionally—which may or may not correlate with genital “engorgement.” “Orgasm,” like all of these stages, may or may not happen—and that’s okay. The final element, “pleasure,” is really mixed in with all the others. It includes both biological and emotional feelings. What matters is not the Big O, but how the partners feel about the overall experience.
What’s important here is how freeing this information is. It truly is just fine (and normal) if you’re not spontaneously horny as often anymore, or if your penis needs some lovin’ to get or stay hard, or if your roll in the hay ends happily even though you were too tired to come. Just have fun! Let outdated, limited views of sex slip out of your mind. Experiment with whatever feels pleasurable and connecting for the two of you on this particular day.
(A big thank-you to Suzanne Iasenza, Ph.D., for her terrific presentation on various models of sexuality and how they can be helpful to couples.)