Sexual stimulation

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Sexual stimulation is any stimulus (including bodily contact) that leads to, enhances and maintains sexual arousal, and may lead to orgasm. Although sexual arousal may arise without physical stimulation, achieving orgasm usually requires physical sexual stimulation.


The term sexual stimulation often implies stimulation of the genitals, but may also include stimulation of other areas of the body, stimulation of the senses (such as sight or hearing) and mental stimulation (i.e. from reading or fantasizing). Sufficient stimulation of the penis in males and the clitoris in females usually results in an orgasm. [1] [2] [3] [4] Stimulation can be by self (e.g., masturbation) or by a sexual partner (sexual intercourse or other sexual activity), by use of objects or tools, or by some combination of these methods. [5]

Some people practice orgasm control, whereby a person or their sexual partner controls the level of sexual stimulation to delay orgasm, and to prolong the sexual experience leading up to orgasm.

Physical sexual stimulation

The erogenous zones of the male and female body. Primary and specific erogenous zones.svg
The erogenous zones of the male and female body.


Physical sexual stimulation usually consists of touching the genitals or other erogenous zones. Masturbation, erotic massage, sexual intercourse, a handjob or fingering are types of physical sexual stimulation involving the genitals. Sexual arousal is usually triggered through sensitive nerves in these body parts, [6] which cause the release of pleasure-causing chemicals (endorphins) that act as mental rewards to pursue such stimulation. A person may also become sexually aroused by touching another person's genitals or other body parts.[ citation needed ] The bulbocavernosus reflex is triggered by stimulation of the glans penis or clitoris. [7]

The purpose of sex toys is to provide pleasure and stimulation through an alternative route than just using people's bodies. They can be used by someone on their own, with partnered sex, or group sex. They can be exciting and provide new types of stimulation that the body cannot produce, such as vibrations.

Sex toys have been used as a source of sexual stimulation for thousands of years. There have been dildos found from the Palaeolithic era, [8] made of Siltstone and polished to a high gloss. Dildos were also made of camel dung and coated with resin. [9] Historians are uncertain whether these have been used for religious rituals or for personal pleasure. It is known that dildos were used for fertility rituals, [10] however. The Ancient Greeks created their dildos from a carved penis covered in leather or animal intestines to create a more natural feel. [10] The Romans created double-ended dildos for use with a partner. Ancient Chinese dildos were made of bronze or other metals and some were hollow allowing them to be filled with liquid to simulate an ejaculation. [11] These were used because wealthy Chinese men would often have too many wives to please. In Persia, they thought that the blood of the hymen was unclean, and should be avoided by husbands. On the night before a lady's wedding, a local holy-man would come and break her hymen with a large stone dildo, a ritual also used to confirm the virginity of the bride. [12]

Non-genital stimulation

There are many areas through which a person can be sexually stimulated, other than the genitals. The nipples, thighs, lips, and neck can all provide sexual stimulation when touched.

Sexual stimulation of a nipple Oral nipple stimulation small sharpened.png
Sexual stimulation of a nipple

Nipples: One study [13] administered a questionnaire about sexual activity to 301 participants and found that 81.5% of women reported that stimulating their nipples caused or enhanced sexual arousal and that 59.1% of them asked to have their nipples stimulated during sex. Furthermore, 51.7% of men reported that nipple stimulation caused sexual arousal, and 39% said that it enhanced their existing arousal. Research using [14] brain-scanning technology found that stimulating nipples in women resulted in the activation of the genital area of the sensory cortex. The research suggests the sensations are genital orgasms caused by nipple stimulation, and may also be directly linked to "the genital area of the brain". [14] [15] In women, one study indicated that sensation from the nipples travels to the same part of the brain as sensations from the vagina, clitoris and cervix. Nipple stimulation may trigger uterine contractions, which then produce a sensation in the genital area of the brain. [14]

Thighs: In 2012, the California Institute of Technology [16] measured brain responses in heterosexual males as they were having their inner thighs touched whilst being MRI scanned. They were either watching a video of a woman touching their thigh or a man touching their thigh. They reported more sexual pleasure when they thought it was the woman touching them than the man, and this was reflected in their MRI scans with greater arousal of their somatosensory cortex. It can be therefore concluded that the thighs are an area that can cause sexual stimulation when touched.

Lips: Lips contain a huge number of nerve endings and are considered to be an erogenous zone. Men report experiencing more pleasure from the stimulation of their lips than women do (see below for sex differences in stimulation). In addition to stimulation of the lips by touching, men can be visually stimulated by looking at a woman's lips. It has also been [17] reported that men prefer women with fuller lips because they are an indicator of youth.

Neck: [18] A sample of 800 participants and rated 41 different body parts on their erogenous intensity on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the most arousing). Females reported neck stimulation as being more arousing than men did.

Sex differences in erogenous zones

This table [18] shows the sex differences in erogenous zones and includes the top ten most arousing areas for both sexes. Each body part was rated out of ten for how arousing it is when touched. Apart from body parts exclusive to one gender such as the penis or clitoris, many of the erogenous zones are similar and contain many nerve endings. They suggested also that women experience more areas of greater arousal than men do.

MeanStandard deviationMeanStandard deviation
Nape of neck7.512.70Inner thigh5.843.39
Breasts7.352.73Nape of neck5.653.50
Inner thigh6.702.99Perineum4.814.10
Back of neck6.203.15Pubic hairline4.803.82
Ears5.063.40Back of neck4.533.42
Lower back4.733.38Ears4.303.50

Internal stimulation: excitation-transfer theory of sexual arousal

The excitation-transfer theory states that existing arousal in the body can be transformed into another type of arousal. For example, sometimes people can be sexually stimulated from residual arousal arising from something such as exercise, being transformed into another type of arousal such as sexual arousal. In one study [19] participants performed some physical exercise and at different stages of recovery had to watch an erotic film and rate how aroused it made them feel. They found that participants who were still experiencing excitatory residues from the exercise rated the film as more arousing than those who had fully recovered from the exercise. This suggests that the remaining arousal from the exercise was being transformed into sexual arousal without any external stimulation.

Alternative routes

The human sexual response is a dynamic combination of cognitive, emotional, and physiological processes. Whilst the most common forms of sexual stimulation discussed are fantasy or physical stimulation of the genitals and other erogenous areas, sexual arousal may also be mediated through alternative routes such as visual, olfactory and auditory means.


Perhaps the most researched non-tactile form of sexual stimulation is visual sexual stimulation. [20] [21] [22] An apparent example is the act of voyeurism – a practice where an individual covertly watches another undress or engage in sexual behaviour. Although seen socio-historically as an unacceptable form of 'sexual deviation', it highlights the human tendency to find sexual stimulation through purely visual routes. The multibillion-dollar industry that is pornography is another example. A common presumption in society and the media is that men respond more strongly to visual sexual stimuli than do women. This is perhaps best exemplified by the Kinsey hypothesis that men are more prone to sexual arousal from visual stimulation than women [23] and, arguably, can be seen depicted through the "male gaze" [24] that dominates the pornography industry. Nonetheless, both sexes can be sexually aroused through visual stimulation. In one study, visual stimulation was tested by means of an erotic video. Although significantly higher in the male group, sexual arousal was the main emotional reaction reported by both sexes. Their physiological responses to the video also showed characteristics of sexual arousal, such as increased urinary excretions of adrenaline. [25] A subsequent study investigating male arousal showed that men were able to achieve rigid erections through visual stimulation of an erotic film alone. [26]

Studies that use visual stimulation as a means for sexual stimulation find that sexual arousal is predominantly correlated with an activation in limbic and paralimbic cortex and in subcortical structures, along with a deactivation in several parts of the temporal cortex. These same areas are activated during physical sexual stimulation highlighting how powerful visual stimulation can be as a means of sexual arousal. [27]

Olfactory and evolutionary

Olfactory information is critical to human sexual behavior. One study investigating olfactory sexual stimulation found that men experience sexual arousal in response to a female perfume. Individuals rated odourant stimulation and perceived sexual arousal. They also had functional MRI scans taken during the experiment. The results showed that olfactory stimulation with women's perfume produces activation of specific brain areas associated with sexual arousal in men. [28]

Evolutionary analysis of sex differences in reproductive strategies can help explain the importance of smell in sexual arousal due to its link to immunological profile and offspring viability. [29] This is because olfactory cues may be able to trigger an incest avoidance mechanism by reflecting parts of an individual's genetic equipment. In one study, males rated visual and olfactory information as being equally important for selecting a lover, while females considered olfactory information to be the single most important variable in mate choice. Additionally, when considering sexual activity, females singled out body odour from all other sensory experiences as most able to negatively affect desire. [30]


Auditory stimulants may also serve to intensify sexual arousal and the experience of pleasure. Making sounds during sexual arousal and sexual activity is widespread among primates and humans. These include sighs, moans, strong expirations and inspirations, increased breathing rate and occasionally, at orgasm, screams of ecstasy. Many of these sounds are highly exciting to men and women, and act as strong reinforcers of sexual arousal, creating a powerful positive feedback effect. [31] Thus, copulatory vocalisations are likely to serve mutual sexual stimulation for mating partners. [32]

Even when not coupled with "touching", sounds can be highly sexually arousing. Commercial erotic material (mainly produced for the male market) uses such sounds extensively. As early as the 1920s and 30s, several genres of singers turned to "low moans" for erotic effect. Vaudeville Jazz singers often incorporated sex sounds into the narrative of the lyrics. Even contemporary music such as Prince's "Orgasm" or Marvin Gaye's "You Sure Love to Ball" includes sounds of the female orgasm. [33] Research has shown music to be an auditory sexual stimulant. In one mood induction study, exposure to certain music resulted in significantly greater penile tumescence and subjective sexual arousal for men. [34] In a similar experiment, women did not show significant physiological responses to certain types of music but did report higher levels of sexual arousal. [35] Further studies have looked at the connection between auditory stimulation and the experience of sexual pleasure. Whilst the highest levels of physiological and subjective arousal were found for visual stimuli, spoken-text was found to elicit sexual arousal in men, implicating sounds as a means of sexual stimulation. [36] Phone sex is one type of arousal inducer that makes use of this effect.

Mental stimulation

Sexual arousal includes feelings, attractions and desires, as well as physiological changes. [37] These can be elicited not only by physical but also mental stimulations, such as fantasy, erotic literature, dreams, role-play, and imagination.

BDSM can be a sexual fantasy and is often practiced by those participating in BDSM. Rope bondage-020914-2905-31.jpg
BDSM can be a sexual fantasy and is often practiced by those participating in BDSM.


Sexual fantasy is a form of mental sexual stimulation which many people engage in. [37] It is where a person imagines a sexual experience while they are awake. Fantasy has less social or safety limits than in real life situations. It gives people more freedom to experiment or think of things they could not necessarily try in real life and can be anything from imagining your spouse naked, to imagining a sexual experience with a mythical creature. Common sexual fantasies include imagining activities with a loved partner, reliving past experiences and experiences with multiple partners of the opposite gender. [37] It's also common to have fantasies about things you would not do in real life and about taboo or illegal activities, such as forcing another, or being forced to have sex, intercourse with a stranger and sex with a boy or girl or older partner. [37] [38]

It is useful for research because it makes differences between male and female heterosexual preferences clearer than studies of behaviour. Many sexual fantasies are shared between men and women, possibly because of cultural influence. [38] However, there are still gender differences that have been found. Men are more likely than women to imagine being in a dominant or active role, whereas women are more likely to imagine themselves as passive participants. [38] Women's fantasies have significantly more affection and commitment, [39] whereas men are more likely to fantasise using visual imagery and explicit detail. [40] [41] One explanation of this difference comes from the evolutionary perspective. Women have a higher minimum parental investment than males (they have 9 months of gestation prior birth and are then the main care givers, whereas men only have to provide sperm to ensure their genes are passed on) and are therefore more likely to want commitment from their partner in order to gain resources to improve their offspring's chance of survival. [42]

Fantasies can have benefits, such as increasing arousal more than other forms of sexual stimuli (such as an erotic story) and increasing sexual desire. [43] [44] Individuals who disclose their sexual fantasies to their partners also have a higher sexual satisfaction. However, whether people are willing to open up to their partner generally depends on the content of such fantasies. [45] A more negative effect of sexual fantasy is that it has been linked with sexual crimes, and indeed sexual offenders often report that they have had fantasies related to their offense. [38] However, such fantasies are also common among those who have not been involved in such criminal acts [38] and non-offenders do not use their fantasies to guide their behaviour. [46] Therefore, fantasy alone cannot be used as a sign that someone will become an offender. [38]


Nocturnal orgasms, or "wet dreams" are when men and women ejaculate or orgasm during sleep. [47] These occur during REM (rapid eye movement) phases of sleep, [37] which is the main stage when humans dream. [48] This implies that erotic dreams alone are enough to stimulate men, however erections accompany all REM phases. [37] According to self-report data, as many as 22% of young women may also experience orgasm during sleep, with such dreams being more common in college students in higher school years than younger students. [49] The orgasms experienced were positively correlated with high emotionality, including sexual excitement, but also anxiety. [49]

Sexual role-play

Sexual role-play is when people act out characters or scenarios which may sexually stimulate each other. This can include fantasies (discussed above) and fetishes, such as BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) or age-play. It has been described by some as an adult form of L.A.R.P (live action role-play). [50] Role-play can also be carried out online, by typing stories to each other or pretending to be a character, and is therefore a form of mental stimulation you can engage in with another person without them being physically present. Many adolescents find online role-play pleasurable and arousing. [51]

Role-play can also include sexual fanfiction, where characters from well-known stories, that were not sexually or romantically together in the original story, are written into sexual scenes. Slash fiction is a type of fan fiction where the characters of the same sex (originally male-male) engage in romantic or sexual activities. Slash fiction allows people the freedom to share stimulating things that can be counter-cultural. [52]

See also

Related Research Articles

Breast Region of the torso of a primate containing the mammary gland

The breast is one of two prominences located on the upper ventral region of the torso of primates. In females, it serves as the mammary gland, which produces and secretes milk to feed infants. Both females and males develop breasts from the same embryological tissues. At puberty, estrogens, in conjunction with growth hormone, cause breast development in female humans and to a much lesser extent in other primates. Breast development in other primate females generally only occurs with pregnancy.

Orgasm is the sudden discharge of accumulated sexual excitement during the sexual response cycle, resulting in rhythmic muscular contractions in the pelvic region characterized by sexual pleasure. Experienced by males and females, orgasms are controlled by the involuntary or autonomic nervous system. They are usually associated with involuntary actions, including muscular spasms in multiple areas of the body, a general euphoric sensation and, frequently, body movements and vocalizations. The period after orgasm is typically a relaxing experience, attributed to the release of the neurohormones oxytocin and prolactin as well as endorphins.

G-spot Anatomical detail of human female sexual organ

The G-spot, also called the Gräfenberg spot, is characterized as an erogenous area of the vagina that, when stimulated, may lead to strong sexual arousal, powerful orgasms and potential female ejaculation. It is typically reported to be located 5–8 cm (2–3 in) up the front (anterior) vaginal wall between the vaginal opening and the urethra and is a sensitive area that may be part of the female prostate.

Sex toy Sexual device

A sex toy is an object or device that is primarily used to facilitate human sexual pleasure, such as a dildo or vibrator. Many popular sex toys are designed to resemble human genitals, and may be vibrating or non-vibrating. The term sex toy can also include BDSM apparatus and sex furniture such as slings; however, it is not applied to items such as birth control, pornography, or condoms. Alternative expressions include adult toy and the dated euphemism marital aid, although "marital aid" has a broader sense and is applied to drugs and herbs marketed to supposedly enhance or prolong sex. Sex toys are most commonly sold at a sex shop, but they may also be sold in a pharmacy/chemist store, a pornographic DVD store, a head shop, or a department store. Today's sex toys are available in almost all countries for male and females.

Nipple Part of the breast

The nipple is a raised region of tissue on the surface of the breast from which, in females, milk leaves the breast through the lactiferous ducts to feed an infant. The milk can flow through the nipple passively or it can be ejected by smooth muscle contractions that occur along the ductal system. The nipple is surrounded by the areola, which is often a darker color than the surrounding skin. A nipple is often called a teat when referring to non-humans. Nipple or teat can also be used to describe the flexible mouthpiece of a baby bottle. In humans, nipples of both males and females can be stimulated as part of sexual arousal. In many cultures, human female nipples are sexualized, or "regarded as sex objects and evaluated in terms of their physical characteristics and sexiness."

Doggy style Sex position

Doggy style is a sex position in which a person bends over, crouches on all fours, or lies on their abdomen, for sexual intercourse, other forms of sexual penetration or other sexual activity. Doggy style is a form of a rear-entry position, others being with the receiving partner lying on the side in the spoons sex position or the reverse cowgirl sex position. Non-penetrative sex in this position may also be regarded as doggy style.

Sexual desire is a motivational state and an interest in sexual objects or activities, or as a wish, or drive to seek out sexual objects or to engage in sexual activities. Synonyms for sexual desire are libido, sexual attraction and lust. Sexual desire is an aspect of a person's sexuality, which varies significantly from one person to another, and also varies depending on circumstances at a particular time. Not every person experiences sexual desire; those who do not experience it may be labelled asexual.

Prostate massage Massage of the prostate gland via the rectum or perineum

Prostate massage is the massage or stimulation of the male prostate gland for medical purposes or sexual stimulation.

Sexual fantasy

A sexual fantasy or erotic fantasy is a mental image or pattern of thought that stirs a person's sexuality and can create or enhance sexual arousal. A sexual fantasy can be created by the person's imagination or memory, and may be triggered autonomously or by external stimulation such as erotic literature or pornography, a physical object, or sexual attraction to another person. Anything that may give rise to a sexual arousal may also produce a sexual fantasy, and sexual arousal may in turn give rise to fantasies.

Erogenous zone Area of heightened sensitivity of the body, touching which may elicit a sexual response

An erogenous zone is an area of the human body that has heightened sensitivity, the stimulation of which may generate a sexual response, such as relaxation, sexual fantasies, sexual arousal and orgasm.

Human sexual response cycle

The human sexual response cycle is a four-stage model of physiological responses to sexual stimulation, which, in order of their occurrence, are the excitement-, plateau-, orgasmic-, and resolution phases. This physiological response model was first formulated by William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, in their 1966 book Human Sexual Response. Since then, other human sexual response models have been formulated.

Erotic sexual denial is the practice of refraining from sexual experiences in order to increase erotic arousal and/or tension. The prohibited experience can be narrowly or broadly defined and banned for a specific or indeterminate length of time depending on the practitioner. The experience withheld can be any favored or desired sexual activities, such as specific acts or positions, provided it is something the practitioner wants. Erotic sexual denial is commonly used as sex play between intimate partners, but it can also be indulged in as an individual practice.

Erotic lactation

Erotic lactation is sexual arousal by breastfeeding on a woman's breast. Depending on the context, the practice can also be referred to as adult suckling, adult nursing, and adult breastfeeding. Practitioners sometimes refer to themselves as being in an adult nursing relationship (ANR). Two persons in an exclusive relationship can be called a nursing couple.

Lesbian sexual practices Sexual practices between women

Lesbian sexual practices are sexual activities involving women who have sex with women, regardless of their sexual orientation. A woman who has sex with another woman may identify as a lesbian if she is sexually attracted to women, or bisexual if she is not exclusively sexually attracted to women, or dispense with sexual identification altogether. The term may also be applied to a heterosexual or asexual woman who is unsure of or is exploring her sexuality.

Human female sexuality encompasses a broad range of behaviors and processes, including female sexual identity and sexual behavior, the physiological, psychological, social, cultural, political, and spiritual or religious aspects of sexual activity. Various aspects and dimensions of female sexuality, as a part of human sexuality, have also been addressed by principles of ethics, morality, and theology. In almost any historical era and culture, the arts, including literary and visual arts, as well as popular culture, present a substantial portion of a given society's views on human sexuality, which include both implicit (covert) and explicit (overt) aspects and manifestations of feminine sexuality and behavior.

Ejaculation Discharge of semen from the male reproductive tract

Ejaculation is the discharge of semen from the male reproductory tract as a result of an orgasm. It is the final stage and natural objective of male sexual stimulation, and an essential component of natural conception. In rare cases, ejaculation occurs because of prostatic disease. Ejaculation may also occur spontaneously during sleep. Anejaculation is the condition of being unable to ejaculate. Ejaculation is usually very pleasurable for men; dysejaculation is an ejaculation that is painful or uncomfortable. Retrograde ejaculation is the condition where semen travels backwards into the bladder rather than out the urethra.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to human sexuality:

Sexual arousal Arousal of sexual desire, during or in anticipation of sexual activity

Sexual arousal is typically the arousal of sexual desire during or in anticipation of sexual activity. A number of physiological responses occur in the body and mind as preparation for sexual intercourse and continue during it. Male arousal will lead to an erection, and in female arousal the body's response is engorged sexual tissues such as nipples, vulva, clitoris, vaginal walls, and vaginal lubrication. Mental stimuli and physical stimuli such as touch, and the internal fluctuation of hormones, can influence sexual arousal.

Sexuality after spinal cord injury Aspect of human sexuality

Although spinal cord injury (SCI) often causes sexual dysfunction, many people with SCI are able to have satisfying sex lives. Physical limitations acquired from SCI affect sexual function and sexuality in broader areas, which in turn has important effects on quality of life. Damage to the spinal cord impairs its ability to transmit messages between the brain and parts of the body below the level of the lesion. This results in lost or reduced sensation and muscle motion, and affects orgasm, erection, ejaculation, and vaginal lubrication. More indirect causes of sexual dysfunction include pain, weakness, and side effects of medications. Psycho-social causes include depression and altered self-image. Many people with SCI have satisfying sex lives, and many experience sexual arousal and orgasm. People with SCI employ a variety of adaptations to help carry on their sex lives healthily, by focusing on different areas of the body and types of sexual acts. Neural plasticity may account for increases in sensitivity in parts of the body that have not lost sensation, so people often find newly sensitive erotic areas of the skin in erogenous zones or near borders between areas of preserved and lost sensation.

Nipple stimulation Human sexual practice

Nipple stimulation or breast stimulation is stimulation of the breast. Stimulation may be by breastfeeding, sexual activity, or an indirect non-sexual response. As part of sexual activity, the practice may be performed upon, or by, people of any gender or sexual orientation. It may occur with the use of fingers, orally, such as by sucking or licking, as well as by use of an object.


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