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We typically think of sex as a holistic experience, but scientists studying sex have typically dissected it into multiple processes, that sometimes follow in a neat order, and sometimes overlap or occur alternately.

Many of these scientists use animals to model human behaviour, so at times I will be referring to research carried out in mice and extrapolating it to humans; at other times the scientists actually study human sexual behaviour, in the laboratory (like the famed Kinsey lab), or use questionnaires and surveys.

Most such scientists differentiate between appetitive and consummatory sexual behaviour—also known as the difference between courtship and copulation. While the former is characterised by sexual desire, the latter is characterised by actual sexual act.

Pfaus, who is in news recently because of his defence of Wolf’s use of neuroscience in her book Vagina, has extended this basic appetitive/consummatory model with a third overlapping and in-between stage titled "precopulatory" to come up with his Incentive Sequence Model. The accompanying Venn diagrams show how the sequence is supposed to move from left to right—you start with a sexual desire (appetitive), you get aroused (precopulatroy) and then you indulge in the act (consummatory). He uses basic research in mice and extends it to humans, a process about which Neurocritic is a bit critical/sceptic.   

Stoleru, in "Neuroanatomical correlates of visually evoked sexual arousal in human males," developed a neurobehavioral model of sexual arousal comprising perceptual-cognitive, emotional, motivational, and physiological components.

 As per one paper [pdf],

The authors suggested that the cognitive component comprises a process of appraisal through which a stimulus is categorized as a sexual incentive and qualitatively evaluated as such. The emotional component includes the specific hedonic quality of sexual arousal, which refers to the pleasure associated with arousal and with the perception of specific bodily changes, such as vaginal lubrication or penile erection. The motivational component was described as comprising of the processes that direct behaviour to a sexual goal, such as an urge to express oven sexual behaviour. The physiological component, which includes autonomic and endocrinological factors, such as respiratory or cardiovascular functioning, results in a physiological readiness for sexual behaviour.

If I were to summarize their results, I would say that there are four phases—appraisal (cognitive), then desire (motivational), then arousal (physiological), and then pleasure of consummation (emotional).

There have been other efforts to precisely measure the sexual arousal and its components—one of the inventories used is Sexual Arousal and Desire Inventory (SADI), and its factor analysis also shows a four-factor structure.

I want to propose a four-stage model today that is as follows:

  1. Fantasy or Imaginative – this is the first step and the one most difficult to identify in animal models. Every sexual act starts with some sort of sexual fantasy or imagination or appraisal.
  2. Desire or Appetitive – the sexual fantasies stoke a desire or itch to indulge in a real or masturbatory sexual experience.
  3. Arousal or Pre-copulatory – the sexual desire leads to strong arousal evident as penile erections/ vaginal lubrications etc.
  4. Pleasure or consummatory – the arousal leads to a pleasurable climax or orgasm.   

Now I want to briefly place this sexual research into broader context. The first is the ABCD model where affect, behaviour, motivation (desire), and cognition are supposed to comprise all phenomena. Here fantasy is cognitive in nature, desire motivational, arousal (foreplay etc) behavioural, while consummation affective in nature.

Second, we can gain insight by seeing how DSM-IV classifies sexual disorders—it has five categories: These include sexual desire disorders, sexual arousal disorders, orgasmic disorders, sexual pain disorders, and sexual dysfunction due to a general medical condition.

It’s easy to see that orgasmic disorders are related to consummatory phase, sexual arousal disorders to arousal phase, and sexual desire sisorders are made up of both fantasy and desire phases. To quote from the paper referred to above, the two popular sexual desire disorders are:  

Sexual Desire Disorders include Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, in which the client usually exhibits a persistent or recurrent deficiency in sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity, causing marked distress or interpersonal difficulty (DSM-IV, 1994). The second type of Desire Disorder is the Sexual Aversion Disorder, in which the client usually exhibits a persistent or recurrent extreme aversion to, and avoidance of all, or almost all, genital sexual contact with a sexual partner, causing marked distress or interpersonal difficulty (DSM-IV, 1994).

To me, HSDD is more of a fantasy disorder, meriting its own category rather than being lumped with sexual aversion disorder in the desire category.

Also, in my last post I talked about a model and taxonomy for psychopathology in general. To recap:

  • Fear/Anxiety was a dread/"dis-want" and anger/social norm a desire/"want" system disorder—possibly the motivational system is the culprit here. In sexual stages, this is characterised by the desire stage.
  • Sadness/distress was a dislike and mania/oppositional was a like system disorder—possibly implicating the affective system. In sexual stages, this is characterised by the pleasure stage.
  • Psychopathy can be conceived of as a hyper-arousal disorder, where one gets aroused by seeing others suffer; while dissociation can be characterised as hypo-arousal or arousal-suppression in times of trauma, like rape, etc. This is more physiological in nature. In sexual stages, this is characterised by the arousal stage.
  • Psychosis can be conceived of as a fantasy/imagination disorder, while autism a follow- routine/lack-of-imagination disorder. These are more cognitive in nature. In sexual stages, this is characterised by the fantasy stage.

So now that you know of the real phases/stages of the sexual process, how do you plan to apply it to your life? Are you suffering from a lack of imagination, or a lack of desire, or a lack or arousal or a lack or performance? If so, therapy and medications should be available to aid you and help you better your sexploits.

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About the Author

Sandeep Gautam

Sandeep Gautam is a software developer and science writer at The Mouse Trap.

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