Dopamine (DA) activity in the medial preoptic area (MPOA) contributes to the control of male rat sexual behavior. We tested (1) whether extracellular DA increases during precopulatory exposure to an estrous female and during copulation, (2) whether exposure to another male increases extracellular DA, (3) whether motor activity during copulation accounts for increased DA levels, and (4) whether concurrent or recent testosterone influences DA levels or copulation in castrates. Extracellular DA and its metabolites in male rats' MPOA were measured using microdialysis. DA level increased during precopulatory exposure to the female in all animals that subsequently copulated; this included all intact animals, all testosterone-treated castrates, and 9 of 14 1- week castrates treated with oil vehicle. DA levels did not increase in any animal that subsequently failed to copulate, including the remaining 1-week, and all 2-week, vehicle-treated castrates. When the barrier was removed and the animals were allowed to copulate, levels of DA and its metabolites continued to rise in intact males and in castrates that copulated. The DA response to the estrous female could not be attributed to nonsexual social stimuli, since exposure to another male was ineffective. The DA response to copulation could not be attributed primarily to motor activity, since animals running voluntarily in a running wheel did not show significantly increased DA. These and previous data suggest that DA released in the MPOA in response to an estrous female may contribute to sexual motivation and copulatory proficiency. Testosterone may promote copulation in part through permissive actions on dopamine release.