Although the genitals are a key part of sex, its pleasurable sensations involve many parts of the body. Pleasurable sex heavily depends on the brain, which releases hormones that support sexual pleasure and interpret stimulation as pleasurable.
One 2016 studyTrusted Source suggests that the brain could be the most important sexual organ. The author found that orgasm is a heightened state of sensory awareness that can trigger a trance-like state in the brain.
In this article, we examine the effects that sex has on the body and the brain, as well as how these effects make sex feel good. We also take a look at why sex might not feel good.
In the 1960s, sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson identified four distinct phases of sexual arousal, each with unique effects on the body.
Their research has led to the common use of these four categories to explain sexual response:
1. Desire or excitement
During the desire phase, the tissue in the penis, vagina, pelvis, vulva, and clitoris fill with blood. This increases the sensitivity of nerves in these areas of the body.
This blood flow also creates a fluid called transudate, which lubricates the vagina.
Muscles throughout the body begin contracting. Some people breathe more rapidly or develop flushed skin due to the increased blood flow.
During the plateau stage, a person’s arousal continues to intensify. The vagina, penis, and clitoris become more sensitive.
A person may experience variations in sensitivity and arousal during this period. Arousal and interest may decrease, intensify, then decrease again.
With the right stimulation and the right mental state, a person may have an orgasm.
For most females, clitoral stimulation is the fastest, most effective path to orgasm. For some, it is the only path to orgasm. Males may need prolonged stimulation of the shaft or head of the penis.
Most males ejaculate during orgasm, but it is possible to have an orgasm without ejaculating. Some females also ejaculate during orgasm, though the content of this fluid remains the subject of scientific discussion.
Both males and females experience intense muscle contractions during orgasm.
Males experience these contractions in the rectum, penis, and pelvis, while females experience them in the vagina, uterus, and rectum. Some people experience contractions throughout the entire body.
After orgasm, the muscles relax, and the body slowly returns to its pre-arousal state.
This process is different for males and females. Although most males cannot have an orgasm immediately after ejaculating, many females can.
During the resolution stage, most males and many females experience a refractory period. During this time, the person will not respond to sexual stimulation.
Some researchers have proposed alternative models for resolution.
Karen Brash-McGreer and Beverly Whipple’s circular model suggests that a satisfying sexual experience for a female can promptly lead to another such experience.
Rosemary Basson proposes a nonlinear model of female sexual response. Her model emphasizes that females have sex for many reasons, and that their sexual response may not proceed according to predictable stages.
The clitoris is, for most females, the point of origination for sexual pleasure. It has thousands of nerve endingsTrusted Source, making it highly sensitive. Portions of the clitoris extend deep into the vagina, allowing some women to get indirect clitoral stimulation through vaginal stimulation.
Sex is not pleasurable for everyone. In fact, some people feel pain during sex. This is much more prevalent in females.
Around 75% of females report experiencing pain during sex at some point during their lives.
Some common reasons for sexual pain in females include:
- vulvodynia, a chronic condition that causes itching, as well as burning pain during and after sex
- vaginal infections such as yeast infections
- muscle injuries or dysfunction, especially pelvic floor injuries after childbirth
- hormonal changes, which may cause vaginal dryness and pain
Males can also experience pain during sex. Some common causes include:
- structural abnormalities in the penis, such as phimosis
- problems with the prostate, such as prostatitis
People who identify as asexual may not desire sex or experience pleasure from it.
People who identify as demisexual may only experience sexual pleasure in limited contexts, such as when they feel in love with a partner.
Some other factors that can affect sexual pleasure across all genders and sexual orientations include:
- insufficient lubrication, which can cause sex to be painful
- a history of trauma or abuse, which can make sex feel threatening or painful
- lack of arousal
- boredom with sex or one’s partner
- sexual interactions that do not conform to a person’s specific sexual desires or interests
- sexually transmitted infections
Clear communication with a trusted partner can make sex more pleasurable by helping the partners discuss their needs openly.
A 2018 studyTrusted Source that found a significant orgasm gap between males and females also identified strategies linked with more orgasms — and potentially more pleasurable sex — for females. These strategies include:
- oral sex and manual genital stimulation, such as fingering
- sex that lasts longer
- relationship satisfaction
- discussing fantasies and sexual desires
- expressing love during sex
There is no “right” way to feel about sex and no correct way to have sex. People can experience sexual pleasure from a wide range of positions, types of sex, and sexual fantasies.
Open communication, self-acceptance, and a willingness to seek help when something does not work can promote sexual pleasure and reduce stigma.