This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 16 table of contents.

Adult Sexual Arousal

For many years adult sexual responsiveness was not systematically studied. It was embarrassing and "taboo" for respectable scientists. The result was much ignorance and superstition about human sexual response. Masters and Johnson (1966, 1970) set out to change this situation. They studied biologically normal sexual responses of adult humans. In early studies they fitted volunteers, often prostitutes, with biological measuring devices to detect all signs of sexual response. Their research was widely criticized on methodological and theoretical grounds, but even their critics gave Masters and Johnson credit for breaking through the taboo against experimental research on sexual behavior.

Masters and Johnson said they discovered a fourfold sequence of events in sexual arousal. They said this sequence occurred in both men and women:

What fourfold sequence of sexual arousal did Masters and Johnson describe?

1. Excitement. Sexual stimulation leads to engorgement of the sexual areas, erection of the penis, nipples, and clitoris, and moistening of the vaginal lining.

2. Plateau. Continued stimulation leads to muscle tension, rapid breathing, and body flush. In the woman, the clitoris retracts but remains sensitive. The opening of the vagina closes somewhat but the inside of the vagina becomes larger. In the man, the testes increase in size and are pulled upward.

3. Orgasm. Rhythmic muscular contractions occur every eight-tenths of a second. Heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure go up momentarily, and males ejaculate semen.

4. Resolution. Men experience a time of decreased responsiveness to sexual stimulation. Women may have further orgasms if stimulation continues.

How did Rosen and Hall feel about the first two stages?

Due to the impact of the Masters and Johnson research, some researchers in the 1970s and 1980s felt that the four-part scheme was prematurely enshrined as scientific fact. Rosen and Hall (1984) saw "neither a subjective nor a physiological justification" for distinguishing between stages one and two (excitement and plateau).

What earlier stage did Kaplan add, and why does it deserve emphasis?

Helen Singer Kaplan added an earlier stage to the Masters & Johnson scheme: desire. She defined this as the psychological attitude that motivates a person to seek out sexual experience and become responsive to sexual stimuli. Desire must be present first, before the other stages of arousal can occur. This is a fairly important point. Absence of desire is a common complaint brought to sex therapists.

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