Sex can elicit a rollercoaster of emotions, so much so that it's oftentimes confusing what's actually going on—in both your body and your brain. "Sex is good," says Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD, a board-certified urologist and sexual health expert. "Knowing what happens to your body and brain before, during, and after sex has the potential to make sex amazing."
And it makes sense. Getting in touch with your body allows for a more comfortable experience—you'll be able to better understand how you feel and what you like. That said, it doesn't guarantee it'll be easier to talk about sex. But, it can open up communication between you and your partner, and with practice (which isn't always comfortable) better serve your needs both emotionally and physically. I asked Brahmbhatt to break down exactly what happens, from foreplay all the way to orgasm. That, of course, is assuming you're able to have a vaginal orgasm during intercourse (studies show that more than 80% of women and people with vulvas never reach orgasm from intercourse alone).
Below find exactly what happens when you have sex.
"You have a biological desire to have sex—it's caused by hormonal changes that happen inside your body," explains Brahmbhatt. "With men and people with penises, a lot of this is driven by testosterone. In women and people with vulvas, the processes of sexual drive are a little more complex." This is the process of arousal, the first physiological experience of the body getting turned on.
Certain parts of your brain may be more active before and during sex, specifically, the limbic system (your emotional center) is triggered: "This area of your brain is responsible for memory, fear, aggression, and other emotions," says Brahmbhatt. "Since sex also causes large releases of dopamine (the pleasure chemical), it's a similar reaction to eating your favorite food, gambling, receiving a compliment, or listening to your favorite song. It becomes a sensory experience you seek out. The more reward (in this case, sex), the more dopamine and the more you continue to hunt for it. If it makes you feel good, you want more." Your heart starts pumping faster, causing an increase in blood pressure and breathing.
Lubrication is not always an indication of arousal for certain demographics (including chemotherapy patients, those on SSRIs, and anyone going through menopause). "It is more important to notice blood flow moving into the erectile tissues of the vulva, a feeling of fullness in the outer labia and clitoris," suggests Kiana Reeves, a woman's health advocate, doula, somatic sex educator, and Chief Brand Educator at Foria. In fact, using lube might be beneficial for everyone, no matter how lubricated you already are.
"There's an increase in blood flow triggered by a surge in nitric oxide in your body during sex—which is why you may notice parts of your body flush. This is also why your nipples become more sensitive and erect," explains Brahmbhatt.
"Depending on how rigorous the sex, your pulse, blood pressure, and breathing will continue to increase. Dopamine and epinephrine (the adrenaline hormone) continue to rise during sex, and, as you get closer to climax, the muscles throughout your body may start to tense up due to changes in your cerebellum."
"As you reach orgasm, your hypothalamus goes into overdrive, preparing your body for that feel-good orgasm," says Brahmbhatt. "There's a release of oxytocin and increases in dopamine as your vaginal walls start to contract. You may even have a reflex in your hands and feet (which is why you may clench your hands to the bed or your partner's body. These sensations may feel like a total loss of control, but the reality is that your body is fully in control.
Afterward, your clitoral area (in women and people with vulvas) loses its excess blood and returns to a more relaxed state. The release will leave you feeling really good, even though technically your increase in dopamine and oxytocin drops fairly quickly."
Herbenick D, Fu TJ, Arter J, Sanders SA, Dodge B. Women's experiences with genital touching, sexual pleasure, and orgasm: results from a U.S. probability sample of women Ages 18 to 94. J Sex Marital Ther. 2018;44(2):201-212. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2017.1346530
Cleveland Clinic. Vaginal dryness: possible causes. Updated December 9, 2018.