Foreplay is defined by Webster's dictionary consistent with the heterosexual, male-focused way most people in our culture describe it. Webster's online dictionary states that foreplay is: "erotic stimulation preceding intercourse" and the "action or behavior that precedes an event." In this definition, foreplay is all that comes before the main event--with the main event being heterosexual intercourse.
Further demonstrating that intercourse is considered the main event in our culture is the use of the word sex. We often use that word synonymously with intercourse. Even Webster's dictionary includes intercourse under the definition of sex. A recent study conducted by researchers at the Kinsey Institute found that while there was variability among people of differing ages, 95 percent of respondents considered penile-vaginal intercourse as "having had sex." Interestingly, this rate dropped to 89 percent if there was no ejaculation. In other words, if the man doesn't have an orgasm, it isn't considered sex by many.
What if sex were defined by the woman's orgasm? To answer this question, one must first understand women's physiology.The clitoris has more nerve endings than anywhere else in the body. The clitoris is the orgasm "hot button" in that the vast majority of women require clitoral stimulation to orgasm. During intercourse, the clitoris is only indirectly stimulated and this is why 70% of women don't orgasm during intercourse. Only a minority of women reach orgasm through penetration alone. Those women who do orgasm through penetration alone often say they do so in the woman-on-top position; this may be because of the friction of rubbing the clitoris against one's partner's body parts. Another theory is that women who have orgasms during intercourse have clitorises that are closer to their vagina than those who do not. The bottom line is that in order for a woman to reach orgasm, she generally must have her clitoris in contact with something and it must be stimulated.
Given this, if women's sexual satisfaction were the defining criteria, intercourse wouldn't be the "main event." Foreplay would be. In this world, the clitoral caressing that occurs before intercourse would be called sex and intercourse would be called post-play. Sex expert Lori Buckley prefers the term "sex play" to foreplay, pointing out that that clitoral stimulation (by oneself, one's partner, or a vibrator) can occur before, during, after--or even instead of--intercourse.
No matter what we call it, the important thing for women's sexual satisfaction is that they know about the importance of clitoral stimulation and that they tell their partners about it. As a therapist, I see women who are dissatisfied with their sex lives. When I ask what they do during a sexual encounter, I hear about intercourse without much clitoral stimulation. When I encourage more of this, satisfaction increases. Likewise, I've received several calls from women concerned that they can't orgasm during intercourse. What relief they feel when I tell them that they are in the company of the majority of women! They finally feel that it is acceptable to orgasm the way that works best for them: through oral or manual clitoral stimulation.
Among my favorite anecdotes is a woman I worked with who had little sexual knowledge. For her and her husband, a sexual encounter entailed quick intercourse. Not surprisingly, she had no desire and never had orgasms. I educated her about the role of the clitoris, and I also told her the "averages." She learned that although there is great variability, men take an average of four minutes to reach orgasm once they begin intercourse and women take somewhere around eleven minutes--and this is not eleven minutes of intercourse, it is eleven minutes of stimulation. Given that this client also had a demanding job and was raising two children, I also told her that the amount of time it takes to get aroused increases with stress and exhaustion. Finally, using material from my book, A Tired Woman's Guide to Passionate Sex, I told her that men are micro-waves and women are crock-pots, and that she needed to find a way to tell her husband that she was a slow-cooker and what ingredients she needed to warm her up.
She explained all this to her husband. Then, the next time they made love, she said, "Remember, I need my full eleven minutes!" Her husband responded with seriousness, telling her to "Take as much time as you need." She had an orgasm for the first time. She continues to be interested in sex and orgasmic.
How we define things matters. The words we use convey the importance that we place on something. Let's re-define foreplay so that is a critical part of the main event --- not just a prelude to it.