Insight Therapy

Psychologically-informed reflections on how we interact.

The Folly of Frequently Foregoing Foreplay

New research links foreplay to sexual health in older adults.

Anyone who’s ever organized or produced any event, like a trip, a wedding, or a party, knows the importance of preparation. Good preparation increases the odds of a successful event. We accept the importance of good preparation in diverse areas. The players stretch before the game; the singers do scales before the concert.

A variation on the theme of the importance of preparation can also be seen in our approach to intimate relations. Our ultimate goal in pursuing such relations is to achieve closeness and deep knowledge of the other, but we insist on the journey first. If someone divulges their innermost secrets to you on the first date, your response will be to recoil rather than embrace them. Why? Because instant intimacy, without the gradual peeling away process, without the stutter and search that usually precede it, strikes us as odd, like a birth without pregnancy. Something must be wrong with that picture. Intimacy without preparation, without the passage of time, we intuit, is not the real thing.

And yet, when it comes to sexual intercourse, many couples jump straight to the event itself, 'the real thing,' neglecting preparation altogether. Such neglect, it turns out, has consequences.

Foreplay appears to be a perennially beleaguered component of our sexual repertoire. Even the linguistic term describing this form of sexual touching is awkward and misleading. The word ‘play’ connotes an activity of diminished gravitas. And the word ‘fore’ consigns sexual touching needlessly to the ‘pre’ position, when in fact it does fine in the ‘after,’ or ‘during’ or ‘instead of’ positions as well.

Be that as it may, sexual touching does seem to be of unique importance in the preparatory stages of intercourse, for three main reasons.

The first reason is sociological. Pre-coital sexual touching is part of the socially accepted sex script in Western society (foreplay, penetration, intercourse, orgasm, sleep). Whether we recognize it or not, we are all prisoners to some degree of the prevalent scripts adopted by the society in which we live. Violation of accepted scripts may cause difficulties, confusion and failure. This is true not just with regard to sex. For example, we all know the cultural script for a restaurant visit, and it includes tipping the waiter.  Those who deviate from the script and refuse to tip their waiters will in time incite hostility from both their friends and their waiters.

The second reason for the importance of pre-intercourse sexual touching is associated with our physiological systems. Optimal sexual functioning involves two seemingly conflicting physiological processes. First, we need to feel sexual arousal and excitement. To get the car going, we need to press on the accelerator. On the other hand, to enjoy sex we need to feel relaxed, unthreatened, uninhibited. To get the car going, we need to release the brakes. Sexual touching, it turns out, facilitates both processes. Sexual touching stimulates us, quickens the heartbeat, and prepares the genitals for intercourse, mainly through activating the autonomic nervous system. But it also comforts, in part by releasing hormones such as oxytocin that reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The third process facilitated by sexual touching is psychological. Generally, soft touching and stroking are linked in our minds to safety and love ever since infancy. If mom kissed you on the forehead, your scraped knee hurt less. If she held your hand, the dentist became less scary. More specifically, reassuring sexual touching is unique in that we cannot do it alone, just as we cannot quite tickle ourselves effectively. Real sexual touching is a gift from someone else. Thus, it represents human connection. Loving, relaxing, and exciting sexual touching brings us closer emotionally to the other person and inclines us to intensify further that feeling of proximity, and to give it a physical, sexual expression.

Neglecting sexual touching as a preparation for intercourse therefore hinders us on multiple levels. Without it, we may arrive at intercourse distracted, misunderstood, and anxious, neither sufficiently aroused nor relaxed. Heavenly pleasure is unlikely to follow.

Still, in the research, both men and women often report a desire for more sexual touching than they are getting. If so, why the common neglect?

Some people may neglect sexual touching out of ignorance, a misunderstanding of how the sexual system works. Studies show that more sexually knowledgeable people are more likely to recognize the value of sexual touching and insist on it.

Another common cause appears to be poor sexual communication. Many people may still hold the ancient notion that sex should not be talked about, least of all among the participants, least of all when they are having sex. In reality, however, it is dialogue, not mind reading or instinct that fosters understanding and harmony. In sex as in politics, without negotiations you get war, not peace.

Another reason why people may forego sexual touching is anxiety. Fear of intimacy can make us try to get things over with quickly, quietly and in the dark. Sometimes the fear that one’s erection will wither or a partner’s consent will be withdrawn motivates a rush to intercourse--as long as he is able, as long as she is willing (or vice versa).

In addition, many people have had their first and early sexual experiences couched in secrecy, guilt, and anxiety—conditions inhospitable to lingering, attentive erotic exploration. Early experiences sometimes fix behavior patterns for the future.

Research suggests that the relationship between sexual touching and the quality of intercourse is stronger in women than in men. Women also often express more frustration than men about the lack of such contact. The reasons for this have not been studied much, surprisingly; but we can speculate.

First, female sexual arousal is, to generalize, more complex than the corresponding male process. Men, in general, arrive faster at a state of readiness for intercourse; therefore their interest in pre-coital sexual touching may be reduced.

Second, in the sexual consciousness of many men, sexual touching can be regarded as a waste of time, a distraction from the main point. The reason probably relates to the fact that the traditional male sexual script emphasizes the stereotypical male’s role as the initiator who closes the deal. Spending time with caresses and kisses in this context is seen as less masculine, and therefore less desirable.

Many women, for their part, are still trapped in female stereotypes of the past, compelling them toward passivity and self-silence, and preventing them from claiming their sexual rights, acting assertively, and expressing clearly and unapologetically their own desires and preferences in bed.

Still, it would be a mistake is to regard the issue of sexual touching as a women’s issue. The researcher Adena Galinsky of the University of Chicago published last year an interesting study about the relations between the practice of sexual touching and sexual dysfunction in a mature sample (age 57 and over) of U.S. citizens. More than 1300 sexually active participants responded to questions about their sexual touching habits as well as their levels and frequencies of sexual arousal, erection, and orgasm.

Analysis of the findings showed that the prevalence of functional problems was more than doubled (in women) and almost tripled (in men) among participants who did not include erotic contact in their sexual relations compared to those who did.  The gaps remained statistically significant, albeit reduced, even after the researcher factored out the influence of other variables linked to sexual functioning, such as physical health, age, stress, economic status and so on.

Now, it is important to remember that correlation between two variables does not necessarily imply a cause and effect relationship. In other words, the fact that sexual touching correlates with arousal, erections and orgasms does not mean necessarily that such touching is their cause. Perhaps better arousal and erectile function makes people want to extend their erotic contact. Perhaps some external variable, such as sexual knowledge, is responsible for the relationship between sexual touching and successful intercourse. Maybe those who know a lot about sex function well in foreplay and intercourse. Those who do not know much about sex, perform less well at both ends.

Either way, the message from the findings is that a statistically significant correlation exists between the frequency of sexual touching and sexual functioning and enjoyment for both men and women, at least by middle age and beyond.

At the end of the day, when it comes to sex, variability is the rule. Different people have their own private preferences. Some prefer straight up intercourse without decorations, elaborations or preparations, and good for them. In addition, even enthusiasts of sexual touching are sometimes turned on by a sexual episode that skips the niceties, and good for them, too.

But over time, as a life habit, neglecting sexual touching—the lingering, lavish encounter that delights and revels in patient sexual attention—may be similar to foregoing the habits of cooking, setting, serving, and enjoying a nice meal for a constant diet of junk food fetched from the drive thru at KFC. We may not starve to death, but our health will diminish, as will our sense of having lived, and loved, fully.

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

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