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The Sexual Science of Cuddling

Cuddling might lead to sex, but that doesn't mean it should.

Key points

  • The touch and skin-to-skin contact we get while cuddling releases oxytocin, the feel-good "love" hormone.
  • Although many people describe cuddling as something that helps to promote higher sexual desire, cuddling is also important on its own.
  • Romantic partners should make time in their relationships to "just" hug, "just" kiss, and "just" cuddle. 
Image Point Fr/Shutterstock
Source: Image Point Fr/Shutterstock

Imagine that you're cozying up with your romantic partner on the couch. Maybe you're watching a movie or the fire crackling. You're holding hands. Hugging. Just lying in each other's arms.

Sound nice?

It should, because the touch and skin-to-skin contact we get while cuddling releases oxytocin—the feel-good "love" hormone. So if you're like most people, it just feels nice to cuddle.

But what happens next? Is the cuddling a final destination? Or a buildup to something more intimate? That is, how likely is it that cuddling would lead to having sex?

Somewhat surprisingly, the experts offer some conflicting thoughts.

To Cuddle or Not to Cuddle?

In her groundbreaking book Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel suggests that cuddling can get in the way of erotic passion. In fact, she describes advising couples that want to increase their sexual passion to refrain from cuddling. Her argument is that the emotional connection which occurs while cuddling is the antithesis to erotic passion: It makes us feel too close and too familiar to our partner and so, is unlikely to bring about lustful feelings. However, some researchers draw different conclusions.

John Gottman, another leader in the relationship and sex research community, suggests that not only is cuddling a good thing to do for your relationship, but, based on his 40 years of researching couples' intimate lives, he made a list of 13 things that couples with great sex lives do—and cuddling is number 7 on that list! His belief is that the connection and closeness that comes from cuddling is the fuel that leads to better and more satisfying sex.

Men and Women's Reasons for Cuddling

Over the course of my own academic research and clinical experience, I have interviewed numerous men and women about their sexual desires—and cuddling often comes up, but sometimes for different reasons.

Among the women I've spoken with, cuddling is often described as something that helps to promote higher sexual desire. For example, some heterosexual women I interviewed indicated that they preferred to cuddle before sex instead of having their male partner initiate "out of the blue." These women said being touched non-sexually helped them get acclimatized into a more intimate, sexual headspace. This makes sense based on what we know about women's sexual desire often being responsive in nature and needing time to build. In that sense, cuddling may function as a transitioning activity from a nonsexual scenario to a (potentially) sexual one.

Men I’ve interviewed described their relationship with cuddling a little bit differently. Most didn't necessarily describe using cuddling as a way to get themselves in the mood, although I'm sure some do; instead, these men indicated that, while cuddling, they noticed that their sexual urges often spontaneously showed up. Men sometimes said things like "all she has to do is touch me," and they notice they had an urge to have sex. They said that touching their female partner in what began in a nonsexual way fueled their desire to take things to the next level.

In both cases, however, cuddling seems to be described as a desire enhancer, not a dampener.

Cuddling Should Not Always Lead to Sex

This point cannot be stressed enough: Even if you find that cuddling can increase your interest in having sex, it's crucially important to balance your sexual touch with nonsexual touch.

In other words, cuddling, caressing, kissing, and hugging are all important on their own. And it's important that romantic partners make time in their relationships to "just" hug, "just" kiss, and "just" cuddle.

Why? Well, if all those feel-good, connection-building activities frequently (or always) lead to sex, and one partner doesn't feel like having sex, they might say no to those other activities to avoid giving the wrong message. In other words, they try to nip what they perceive as sexual initiation in the bud. In fact, as a therapist, I routinely see couples that feel sexually disconnected talk about how they don't even hug anymore, because they feel it's going to give the wrong impression. And it hurts both members of the couple. The person not wanting to have sex loses out on the opportunity to be held (which maybe they did want), and their partner gets dismissed—usually in a confusing way: "What gives? I was just trying to hold your hand!" Not to mention, avoiding all those other nonsexual touches makes couples less likely to feel sexual desire, because they don't feel physically close to their partner—a vicious cycle.

Cuddling After Sex

We've been talking about cuddling before sex. But cuddling doesn't (and shouldn't) stop when sex is over. In fact, it's beneficial for your sex life if you cuddle afterward.

Amy Muise and her colleagues conducted research on the sexual behavior of over 500 participants in relationships over the course of two studies, including post-sex activities such as cuddling and kissing. The research team found that the longer the amount of time that couples practiced post-sexual affection, the greater their sexual and relationship satisfaction. Although this pattern was stronger for women, it was also reported among men.

The Moral of the Story

Cuddle freely and cuddle often, before and after sex. If cuddling leads to sex, that's great, but make sure that there are plenty of times you cuddle with your partner in which nonsexual touch is the final destination.

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