The sexually dimorphic area of the gerbil hypothalamus is essential for male sex behavior. To determine which aspects of mating activate its cells, or cells near or connected to it, we visualized c-Fos in the brains of male gerbils that had been exposed to various types of sex-related stimuli or that had displayed various aspects of sex behavior. Five groups of males were placed in familiar arenas containing sex-related odors. All subjects had previously mated in these arenas. For four groups, a female was introduced and remained with the male until he ejaculated, intromitted, mounted or sniffed her. Males in the fifth group remained in the arena alone. Males in a sixth group were placed in a clean arena in another room. These males were also familiar with this arena but had never encountered a female there. The seventh group remained in their home cages. The posterodorsal preoptic nucleus, the lateral part of the posterodorsal medial amygdala, the medial part of the sexually dimorphic area and the parvicellular part of the subparafascicular nucleus of the thalamus expressed c-Fos after ejaculation. Whether these cells triggered ejaculation or responded to it is not clear. The latter two areas also expressed c-Fos whenever males were exposed to the sex arena, but the sexually dimorphic area pars compacta did not express c-Fos under any condition. The medial core of the nucleus accumbens, the ventrolateral septum, the caudomedial bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, the medial/central part of the posterodorsal medial amygdala and the lateral part of the sexually dimorphic area also expressed c-Fos when males entered the sex arena. The ventrolateral part of the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus expressed c-Fos whenever males were with females. None of the 31 areas studied responded to mounting or intromission, but the zona incerta, the amygdalohippocampal area, the lateral part of the sexually dimorphic area and the area lateral to the medial part of the sexually dimorphic area showed progressive increases in c-Fos expression as mating progressed. The area dorsal to the medial part of the sexually dimorphic area, the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus, the ventral premammillary nucleus and the retrorubral field showed the same level of c-Fos expression when males were exposed to the non-sexual context as when they were exposed to the sexual one. While a projection to the retrorubral field from the sexually dimorphic area is critical for male sex behavior, the retrorubral field did not show a sex-related c-Fos response. The data suggest that brain regions involved in male sex behavior are involved in different aspects of it and that this can also apply to different subsets of cells in each area. The data also indicate that cells involved in mating do not necessarily show mating-related patterns of c-Fos expression. Thus, while c-Fos is useful for identifying areas involved in mating, or other behaviors, its characteristics could cause relevant areas to be overlooked.