What happens in a woman’s body during sex?
Male and female genitals are very different, but there are also many similarities.
Male and female genitals are exactly the same for the first seven weeks of pregnancy. It’s only when the male fetus starts to produce the hormone called testosterone, that the genitals develop into male genitals. Without testosterone the genitals develop into female genitals.
The part of the genital organs which becomes the boy’s scrotum, develops into the girl’s outer labia (outer lips). The outer labia have somewhat thick skin and when girls reach puberty, hair grows there just as on the scrotum among boys.
The part which becomes the boy’s penis, develops into the girl’s inner labia (inner lips), vaginal opening and clitoris. These areas are covered with thin skin with very little hair, in the same way as the penis. This skin is also very sensitive.
The inner labia surround the vaginal opening and meet in front of the vagina. A little ridge of tissue (the frenulum) stretches from here to the head of the clitoris, which lies in front of the vaginal opening. When the inner labia are moved, the clitoris is also moved through this tissue, just as the underside of the glans of the penis is moved when the skin around the penis is moved.
The clitoral glans (head of the clitoris) is covered by a small foreskin in the same way as the male glans (head of the penis). The foreskin protects the clitoral glans as it is very sensitive, but it can also be pulled back so that the clitoral glans is visible. The clitoral glans is very sensitive to pressure, movement and vibrations. Nerves in the clitoris feel the clitoral glans being touched directly and also when it is affected by the frenulum; this transfers movement from the outer labia and the vaginal opening to the clitoris.
The clitoral glans is just a few millimetres in size. However, under the skin the clitoris is much larger and contains several areas of spongy tissue. In the same way as the penis becomes stiff when it’s spongy tissue fills with blood, the spongy tissue in the clitoris and around the vaginal opening will expand and become stiff when the woman is sexually stimulated. This can happen by touch, or if she gets aroused in other ways, for example by something she sees or thinks about.
When the spongy tissue fills with blood it is called an erection. Both men and women get an erection when they are sexually stimulated. The big difference is that the man’s spongy tissue is situated outside the body, so it is very obvious when the penis gets bigger and stiffer. The woman’s spongy tissue lies in the clitoris and around the vaginal opening. When the woman gets an erection the clitoris becomes bigger and stiffer, and at the same time the vaginal opening becomes narrower and the vagina deeper.
On both sides of the vaginal opening there are small glands which produce a somewhat thick fluid when the woman is sexually stimulated. This fluid, along with the fluid that is discharged in the vagina itself, enables the penis to slide in and out of the vagina more easily during intercourse.
The hymen is located by the vaginal opening. This is a thin piece of mucosal tissue which forms a ring a couple of centimetres inside the vaginal opening. The first time a woman has intercourse this can be torn and will bleed a little as it is stretched. Only a very little blood is involved and it is not very painful. Many women do not bleed the first time, this is also quite normal. The opening can also expand due to other reasons, and there is a lot of variation from woman to woman. So the state of the hymen is not an indication of whether the woman has had intercourse or not.
The vagina is shaped like a tube and consists of a thin wall of muscle covered by a mucous membrane inside. The vagina is soft and usually flat when there is nothing in it.
The vaginal walls are not so sensitive to touch. The woman is most sensitive to touch in the outer part of the vagina, in the labia and the clitoris. During intercourse the clitoris can also be stimulated as the labia are moved and affect the clitoris.
When the woman’s genitals are stimulated during intercourse, her arousal can be so strong that she finally has an orgasm. Many men have an orgasm after only a few minutes of stimulation, but it takes a much longer time for most women. It’s quite normal for a woman to need 20–30 minutes of sexual stimulation to have an orgasm. Most women do not have an orgasm simply by the action of the penis moving in the vagina. Women normally need direct stimulation of the clitoris in order to reach orgasm.
Many women have an area along the front wall of the vagina which can give a high level of arousal and occasionally an orgasm, when it is stimulated. This area lies three to four centimetres within the vaginal opening and is called the G-spot. Some women say that they have a particularly strong orgasm when the G-spot is stimulated in a certain way.
The cervix is located deepest within the vagina; it is the entrance to the womb (uterus). After a man has had an ejaculation, the sperm can swim up through the cervix and into the womb. The womb has a thick wall of muscle with a mucous membrane on the inside. If one of the sperm cells meets an egg, they meld with each other and new life begins. The egg, which is now fertilised, attaches itself to the wall of the womb and begins to grow.
The wall of the womb mainly consists of muscle. During the woman’s orgasm the womb contracts rhythmically, along with the muscles around the vagina. The so-called PC muscle (from Latin: pubococcygeus) runs from the front edge of the pelvis in front of the vagina and extends back to the tailbone. It extends around the urethra, the vagina and the rectum. This is the muscle one uses to stop the flow of urine when urinating. By tightening this muscle during intercourse the woman can squeeze the vagina together around the penis. During orgasm the PC muscle contracts reflexively several times in succession.
When a woman gives birth, the vagina and PC muscle get bigger. The muscle can be a bit weak after the birth, and many women find it useful to do pelvic floor exercises (Kegel exercises) in order for the muscle to function well again. It’s quite normal for girls and women to leak some drops of urine, for example when they cough hard or jump on a trampoline: this is not dangerous. However, after giving birth, the PC muscle can be stretched so much that there can be more leakage. Then it can be helpful to do these exercises. A well-functioning PC muscle also helps the woman to have a better experience of intercourse. All women can find it helpful to do these exercises, including those who have not had children.
Female sexual response
The researchers Masters & Johnson carried out extensive research to map out what happens in both the male and the female body during sexual activity. They describe four phases of sexual response which are the same for both men and women: excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution.
The first response that occurs in a woman’s body is that fluid is released in the vagina and around the vaginal opening. This can happen as quickly as ten to thirty seconds after sexual stimulation has started. Sexual thoughts and visual stimuli can sometimes be enough to start this. The fluid is a result of increased blood circulation in the vaginal wall and from the glands on either side of the vaginal opening. Some women rapidly release a lot of fluid in their vagina, so that the penis can easily slide in and out during intercourse. Other women need a much longer time and many use a lubricant that can be bought at a chemist’s.
Excitement: The spongy tissue in the clitoris and around the vaginal opening fills with blood, the womb moves upwards, and at the same time fluid is produced in the vagina and around the vaginal opening.
During the excitement phase the vagina deepens by two to three centimetres, and widens by three to four centimetres. The outer labia can become flatter and move away from the vaginal opening. The mucous membrane in the vagina can turn deeper red or violet due to increased blood circulation. The vaginal walls become smoother when the vagina extends. The womb lifts up at the same time as the vagina expands.
The heart beats more rapidly and many women appear to redden on their stomach, and this can spread to the breasts and throat. Several muscles contract and many women experience reflexive twitches in their body as the excitement increases. The nipples become harder and the breasts can get a little bigger.
During the plateau phase even more changes occur in the vagina. In addition to the vagina expanding, the spongy tissue on each side of the vaginal opening fills with blood so that the vaginal opening becomes narrower. The inner labia also grow bigger. There is often less fluid discharged from the vagina in this phase; if intercourse lasts a long time then it may be useful to use a little lubricant.
The heart beats even faster and some women find the skin on their upper body reddens. It’s quite normal to get twitches in the face and stomach muscles. The nipples stand out and the breasts can again increase in size.
When arousal is at its strongest the woman can have an orgasm. When the orgasm comes she will have contractions in her womb and in the muscles around the vagina. This often starts with a powerful contraction that lasts several seconds. This will be replaced by several short contractions in succession. It is normal to have from three to fifteen contractions, of which the first are usually the strongest.
Just as with men, the whole body is part of the orgasm. She can get strong, cramp-like movements in her body. If she lies on her back she may press her hands and feet against the floor. Her heart beats very rapidly and she breathes deeply and heavily. Many women’s bodies redden markedly during orgasm.
Once the orgasm is finished, all these changes gradually return to normal. Firstly, the vaginal opening becomes wider, and the vagina becomes smaller. The deep red colour of the vagina’s mucous membrane disappears within fifteen minutes. As the vagina decreases in size, the vaginal walls become less smooth. The heart beats more slowly, breathing becomes more relaxed, and the woman is at rest.
Different ways to respond
It is normal that arousal becomes stronger and stronger until the woman has an orgasm. In some cases women can have orgasms after only a few minutes, but it normally takes 20–30 minutes before a woman has an orgasm. After orgasm, arousal diminishes rapidly. If we see the strength of arousal illustrated on the blue curve, it looks like this:
When arousal is at its peak, the woman has an orgasm, then after orgasm it diminishes rapidly.
However, some women have difficulty having an orgasm. The red curve illustrates this. Arousal gets gradually stronger during the excitement phase. The woman gets to the plateau phase, but even if she is at this phase for a long time she does not have an orgasm.
Some women can be highly aroused but do not have an orgasm.
Sometimes the absence of an orgasm is because the woman is afraid of losing control of her feelings. She also has to feel secure and be able to relax when the orgasm approaches. Absence of an orgasm can also be because her husband has not yet learnt what feels best for her. Most women need a lot of clitoral stimulation in addition to the movement of the penis in order to have an orgasm. If the woman does not have an orgasm then her arousal and bodily changes will take a longer time to return to normal, compared to if she had had an orgasm.
Some women can have several orgasms in succession if sexual stimulation continues.
The green curve illustrates a woman who has increasing arousal during the excitement phase, and who stays at the plateau phase for a long time. But in contrast to the woman on the red curve, she has an orgasm after a while. Then after some more time she has another one. Men cannot usually have more than one orgasm, but women can have two or more orgasms in succession if they want to and if the sexual stimulation continues.
Although it is nice to have an orgasm, the woman can still enjoy her sex life even if she does not have an orgasm every time. It’s quite normal for a woman who has never had sex before not to have an orgasm. Sometimes it can take time to get to know her body and how it reacts. Most men need time to learn how not to have an orgasm too quickly, while many women need time and experience with their husband to learn to have an orgasm when they have sex. In a marriage you have your whole life ahead of you, so you have plenty of time to get to know each other and what is best for your partner.
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