What Actually Happens During Sex?


Have you ever wondered what is happening in our bodies when we are having sex? Let’s break it down.

woman profile behind curtain

Have you ever wondered what is happening in our bodies when we are having sex? Let’s break it down. 

It all starts in the brain. 

The brain isn’t just our largest sex organ; it’s also where sex starts and it’s the first part of your body to be triggered. That part, more specifically, is the limbic system (your emotional center). There is such a strong brain-vagina connection in women that many neuroscientists call it "a single system". 

"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."

Dr. Jamin Brahmbhatt, Urologist

The body follows.

When you start to experience desire, meaning that you start to really want sex, many incredible physiological changes occur in the body. Your heart rate speeds up, along with your breathing, your skin flushes, and more blood is sent to your vagina and cervix. For some, it happens within seconds, and for others, it may take longer.

Your genitals literally transform. 

The vagina begins to dilate, making room for penetration. The vagina is an elastic hollow organ that stretches and expands immensely in all directions when you are turned on. It is flexible enough to dilate to make room for a penis, and can stretch enough to release a human baby. 

The clitoris then erects once it begins receiving extra blood flow. The labia minora (inner vaginal lips) and vaginal walls swell with extra blood. This all increases vaginal lubrication, making insertion happen more easily and feel better. 

All bodies are different; some women get very wet, very easily, and others not so much. It’s all normal. We are naturally, on a regular basis, somewhat wet — as the vagina is a little damp. When women are turned on (i.e. horny), our genitals often react by producing more moisture. This slick fluid serves as the body’s natural lubrication.

If you are very stressed or nervous, it’s difficult to get turned on and wet. This can happen even if you’ve decided that you want to have sex. The nervousness can cause the muscles in your vagina to tighten, making it harder for anything to get in there, which can make penetration hurt.

If you’re dry or are involuntarily tightening your vagina, it’s easy to get small tears in the vaginal wall that may bleed a bit. This isn’t dangerous, but it can be unpleasant and sting. The key is to take it easy. Spend time on kissing and foreplay, so that it’s easier for your muscles to relax. Give yourself time to be really turned on and, that way, you’ll also produce more moisture. 

So what does sex actually look like? 

This is a very common and normal question to ask, but there’s no one answer to it. There’s no one way that sex should look or feel. It’s a very personal experience shared between two people. It’s all about finding what works best for you and your partner. There’s no right or wrong way, no specific sequence to follow, no ideal time frame or duration, no real beginning or end goal. That’s what makes it so fun and pleasurable; you can mix it up and do whatever you like. No two times have to be the same.

“Nothing beats the education of our own journeys and our experiences to create our own expertise.”

Dr. Sameena Rahman, OBGYN

Naomi Wolf, Vagina: A New Biography, Seidosha, 2012. 

Dr. Nina Brochmann and Ellen Stokken Dahl, The Wonder Down Under, Quercus, 2018.

Hallie Gould, “This is what happens to your brain when you have sex,” The Thirty, June 2020.

Dr. Sameena Rahman, “Islam and Sexuality,” Rosy, 2020.



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