A Guide to a Woman's Sexual Anatomy

You can think of your sexual response as a “cycle."  The response cycle includes phases of desire, excitement (or arousal), orgasm, and resolution. Not everyone will experience all parts of the cycle, and each person’s experience is unique.

Let’s explore the different phases of the sexual response cycle and your body’s physical response.  

  • Desire is described as a feeling of longing to engage in sexual activity. Desire may include feeling attracted to a partner; thoughts about pleasure or sexual encounters from the past; sexual fantasies; or anticipating sexual activity. 

  • Sexual excitement can be hard to separate from desire. This can include mental excitement that can produce warm, tingly feelings in the body, and the longing to have more sexual touching or stimulation. Physical changes may also happen with excitement.  

  • Orgasm is perhaps the most recognized aspect of sexual response. Orgasm, also known as climax, is a feeling of pleasure that comes at the peak of sexual excitement.   

  • Resolution is the final part of the sexual cycle and signifies a return to baseline. It is important to note that for many individuals the orgasm stage may not always occur. Sexual satisfaction, however, can still be achieved without climax.   

Below is a description of what happens physically during the sexual response: 

  • The clitoris: When a female begins to get sexually aroused, blood flows into the spongy tissue inside the shaft and head of the clitoris. The head of the clitoris becomes more sensitive to light touch or vibration.  

  • Urethral opening: The urethra, the tube that carries urine to the outside, is surrounded by spongy tissue that also swells when blood flows in during sexual excitement.  

  • Outer lips: The outer lips (labia majora) do not change much during sexual excitement, but for some they can swell and become darker in color. 

  • Inner lips: During sexual excitement, internal blood flow to the inner lips (labia minora) increases. The skin can turn a deeper color.  

  • Cervix: The cervix is the gateway to the uterus. 

  • Vagina: When a female is not sexually excited, the vagina is a collapsed space rather than an open tunnel. During sexual excitement, the vagina expands. The vagina can widen and get as much as a third deeper. The area just inside the entrance is the most sensitive part of the vagina and may become lubricated. Many women will need supplemental lubrication or moisturizers, especially with menopause and certain cancer treatments.   

  • Anal opening: The anus does not expand with sexual excitement or produce lubricating moisture. It is important to consider using a lubricant with any anal sexual activity to avoid tearing the fragile lining and improve comfort.