We think of sex as something that our bodies do, but most of the action starts in the brain. Our minds and bodies are intricately linked.  From feeling attraction to reaching the peak of pleasure, it’s all connected to what’s happening in our heads. The brain acts like a conductor, moving things along at just the right time to keep the sexual response cycle going.

Sexual Response Cycle

According to pioneering sexuality researchers Masters and Johnson, the body’s responses to sexual stimulation happen in four sequential phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. In every stage, millions of chemical reactions light up different parts of the brain. 

Excitement: During the excitement phase, the body starts getting ready for sex. This phase begins when any erotic physical or mental stimulation leads to sexual arousal. Sexual arousal can be separated into two components: the psychological (i.e., sexual thoughts) and the physiological (i.e., bodily reactions like erection and vaginal lubrication).

Plateau: As the body enters the plateau phase, changes that began in the excitement phase continue to intensify. Breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure all continue to increase. Blood flow to the genitals continues to increase, making them more sensitive to stimulation. Muscles in the abdomen and pelvic region become tense.

Orgasm: This is both the most well-known and the shortest phase of sex. Muscle tension built in the plateau phase is released suddenly and forcefully. Occurring at the peak of sexual pleasure, orgasm is usually less than one minute long

Resolution: After orgasm, the body begins returning to a normal resting state. During the resolution phase, engorged body parts return to their normal size and color. 

As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts in this process (pun intended). In order to reliably pull off such an elaborate operation, the brain and body work together like a well-oiled machine. 

Your Brain is Wired For Sex

From arousal to orgasm, sexual activity is a storm of chemical reactions and firing neurons. The mechanisms involved in sexual behavior are located throughout both the central and peripheral nervous systems. 

central nervous system
Changes that happen to the body during sex are controlled by the nervous system, including the brain.

The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The brain controls higher functions like thoughts, emotions, and planning. It sends and receives signals from the rest of the body via the spinal cord. The spinal cord is connected to the peripheral nervous system.

The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is made up of millions of nerves and ganglia that branch out from the spinal cord into the rest of the body. This includes nerves connected to the skin, which can become more sensitive due to increased blood flow. This is also what causes the flush reaction commonly associated with sex. 

What Happens in Your Brain?

During sexual activity, parts of your brain that control higher reasoning are less active. Instead, the limbic system, which contains the brain’s reward circuit, is in the driver’s seat. According to Jason Krellman, PhD, assistant professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Medical Center, this means that sex is “driven more by instinct and emotion than rational thought.”

The amygdala is a small almond-shaped structure that processes some of your most primal instincts. It’s connected to your olfactory sense, or your sense of smell, where many scientists theorize it detects pheromones from potential sexual partners. If your amygdala likes the way your lover smells, then it sends information to your orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).

The orbitofrontal cortex, among many things, is responsible for making pleasure feel good

It takes information from what you see, hear, and feel, along with signals from your nervous system, to figure out how you should react to the pleasurable things around you. This includes things like food, drink, and importantly, sexual pleasure. It does this using something called hedonic motivation.    

Hedonic motivation is what creates that “one thing led to another” energy. Your brain is wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure. During hedonic processing, your orbitofrontal cortex makes the pleasure signals in your brain stronger and louder, encouraging you to continue.

When you start getting turned on, different parts of your brain kick into action to prepare your body for sex. The cingulate cortex and insula handle autonomic responses—things that happen in your body without you thinking about it. They talk to the brainstem and hypothalamus, which manage the release of sex hormones and control various nervous system functions, including the flow of blood to the genitals, vaginal lubrication, and erection. 

As you get close to orgasm, the part of your brain that manages your body’s movements (the cerebellum) starts sending signals to your thighs, glutes, and abs, telling them to start tensing up. This increases both blood flow and nerve activity in the pelvic region. 

The tension builds until it reaches a peak, and then it’s let go with a burst of feel-good chemicals. When you orgasm, the muscles in your pelvic floor squeeze in a rhythmic pattern, usually about 5-8 times together. At the same time, your brain gets a flood of dopamine and oxytocin, making you feel pleasure and a sense of closeness. This is why you may feel closer to a sexual partner after orgasm. 

Sexual Dysfunction

It’s normal not to be in the mood sometimes, but persistent feelings of being unable to have or enjoy sex can become a problem. If you find that you’re unable to perform or sex is uncomfortable for you, even when you want to get it on, you’re likely experiencing a form of sexual dysfunction. 

Sexual dysfunction can happen for a number of reasons, including:

  • Stress
  • Diabetes, heart disease, and other medical conditions
  • Hormonal changes
  • Trauma
  • Depression or Anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Certain prescription medications

Sexual dysfunction can manifest in various ways in both men and women. While these issues mostly affect the body, their root cause is often in the brain. 

For example, stress can cause both erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation issues. After a traumatic brain injury, 30% of men struggle with erectile dysfunction, and a staggering 40% have problems with orgasm. This further highlights the brain’s critical role in sexual activity.

Women may struggle with issues like vaginal dryness, vaginismus, or other issues that can make sex uncomfortable, even painful. While these issues often have an underlying physical cause—such as hormonal changes brought on by menopause—they are also likely to be influenced by stress and fatigue. 

Treating Sexual Dysfunction

Since sexual dysfunction can be caused by many things, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment. In many cases, consulting a healthcare professional is the first step to treating sexual dysfunction disorders. 

Stress Management: Stress is a major factor in many people’s sexual dysfunction, so taking steps to manage it can have a huge positive impact on your sex life. Techniques like deep breathing exercises, visualization, and practicing mindfulness can help you healthily cope with stress. Spending time with loved ones has also been shown to improve mood and reduce stress.

Medications: Several medications have been developed to help both men and women treat sexual dysfunction. Viagra and Cialis, among the most well-known of these drugs, are used to treat erectile dysfunction in men. For women struggling with sexual desire, there are two options, Addyi and Vyleesi. Unfortunately, both drugs have only been approved by the FDA for use by pre-menopausal women.

Assistive Devices: There is a massive selection of devices to make sex easier and more enjoyable for those suffering from sexual dysfunction. A wearable harness that holds a prosthetic penis can allow men with erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation issues to continue with sex even when things aren’t going to plan below the belt. For women, using a vibrator or a dilator set can help with dryness and vaginismus, respectively.

Therapy: There are many reasons therapy can be helpful to treat sexual dysfunction.  Sometimes, the cause of sexual dysfunction is rooted in our past experiences. Other times, we don’t even know why sex is uncomfortable or difficult to enjoy. A licensed therapist can be an incredibly valuable resource for answering the questions you may have about your own body, sexuality, and pleasure.  

Our brains play a big role in how we experience sex. It’s not just about the physical stuff—our brain chemicals and neural pathways work together to create pleasure and connection. 

Recognizing the brain as a crucial part of our sex life helps us understand intimacy better and leads to a more thoughtful and satisfying sexual journey. As you explore desire and connection, try to appreciate how your mind and body interact. Ultimately, our brains are the real architects of our most intimate moments.