3 Tips from Science for Better Foreplay
The where, how, and how long of satisfying sexual touch with a partner.
Posted March 9, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Foreplay is an essential aspect of satisfying sexual activity, but partners are often confused about the specifics of doing it well.
- Research has focused on common erogenous zones as the most arousing places to touch and kiss on both women and men.
- Studies show that both women and men want longer foreplay than they generally experience.
Somewhere between flirting and sexy conversation with a lover, and the actual act of having sex, are the important activities of foreplay. Scientifically speaking, foreplay can be understood as an increase in the intimacy of touching and kissing, with the aims of arousing both partners, providing pleasure, and, often, leading to sexual intercourse itself. Basically, it is largely a continuation of making a move like holding hands, or going in for a kiss. Nevertheless, there are three things that distinguish foreplay (especially good foreplay) from general physical affection. Specifically, during foreplay, there is a difference in where, how, and for how long a partner is touched and kissed. Therefore, to be good at foreplay, you need to know where, how, and for how long to do it.
Tip 1: The Where of Foreplay
In the social science literature, the where of foreplay is generally covered by research on erogenous zones. These zones are areas on the body that are sexually arousing when touched. Nummenmaa, Suvilehto, Glerean, Santtila, and Hietanen (2016) mapped these areas by showing participants nude computer models and asking them to color the regions they found sexually-arousing when touched on their own body. Participants reported that it was especially arousing to be touched on the neck, chest, buttocks, and genitals by a partner. Later research by Maister, Fotopoulou, Turnbull, and Tsakiris (2020) supported the highly arousing nature of being touched on the neck, chest, buttocks, and genitals. In addition, they found participants reported some arousal when a partner touched their back, thighs, and stomach as well.
As a general overview, anywhere that a t-shirt and shorts covers is basically erogenous—and whatever underwear covers is especially arousing to touch. In the progression of touching then, you touch these zones after establishing affectionate contact at the love/intimacy level. Put simply, after getting close and kissing on the lips, you then progress from the less arousing zones to more arousing areas. Specifically, that often means kissing and touching the neck, caressing the back and chest, then moving on to the more sensitive areas of the buttocks, thighs, and finally genitals. Progressing in that way follows the best approach for escalating intimacy, ensuring both partners are enthusiastic, aroused, and comfortable.
Tip 2: The How of Foreplay
The science of how to touch erogenous zones is known as affective touch. This type of touching was summarized in a review and meta-analysis by Russo, Ottaviani, and Spitoni (2020). The authors explained that this type of emotional and pleasant touching activates specific nerve sensors in skin (C-Tactile Afferents), which are present in hairy areas of the body. These C-tactile afferents are most highly activated when touched by something that is at skin temperature (32° C) and at the speed of a usual "caress" (3 or 5 cm/s). Put simply, touching someone warmly and slowly activates these special nerves and makes them feel the best. This is especially true when you are touching erogenous zones, in the order specified above.
Given that, when getting intimate with a partner, don't rough them up and pat them like you do to your dog, or scrub at them like you're trying to get grit out of their hair. Good touching and sexy kissing is slow and sensual—at least, to start. It may pick up in passion and intensity as things progress, but awkward pawing and slobbering does not activate C-tactile afferents or rub any partner the right way. Taking the above points together, then, foreplay is about touching and kissing your partner, in sensitive areas, slowly and warmly, until they are pleased and aroused by the experience.
Tip 3: The How Long of Foreplay
Finally, arousal through foreplay takes time to accomplish. Two caresses, a few kisses, and a lick just is not going to get the job done. Modern media communicates that fact about women (and science agrees), but the research confirms it for men too. Specifically, research by Miller and Byers (2004) asked heterosexual couples about their ideal duration of foreplay and intercourse, as well as how long each actually lasted. Their results indicated that both female and male participants had similar averages for their ideal lengths of foreplay (18-19 minutes). Nevertheless, the average length of actual foreplay was about 5 to 8 minutes short of that ideal. Overall, then, it appears that both women and men often desire longer foreplay than what they generally experience.
Therefore, rather than thinking your partner wants to skip ahead and rush right to sex, take your time. You both will actually enjoy yourselves and each other more. Take pleasure in just kissing each other on the mouth and neck (for at least 5 minutes), caressing each other's back and chest too. Then move on to touching and kissing more sensitive areas around the thighs and genitals (for at least another 5 minutes) as well. From there, be sure to arouse and excite your partner's genital area directly, with touching, kissing, and/or oral sex. Do so until they are sexually satisfied (if that is the end goal), or are fully enthusiastic for sexual intercourse itself. If you spend at least 8 minutes on that final step, you will meet the ideal length of foreplay. You might even have fun and surpass it.
Keep in mind, too, this is just a general outline. Listen to your partner and your own preferences. You both are the best experts on the sexual activities you find arousing and satisfying. Therefore, talk to each other, find what works for you, and remember to enjoy each other too.
© 2022 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Maister, L., Fotopoulou, A., Turnbull, O., & Tsakiris, M. (2020). The erogenous mirror: intersubjective and multisensory maps of sexual arousal in men and women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49(8), 2919-2933.
Miller, S. A., & Byers, E. S. (2004). Actual and desired duration of foreplay and intercourse: Discordance and misperceptions within heterosexual couples. Journal of Sex Research, 41(3), 301-309.
Nummenmaa, L., Suvilehto, J. T., Glerean, E., Santtila, P., & Hietanen, J. K. (2016). Topography of human erogenous zones. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(5), 1207-1216.
Russo, V., Ottaviani, C., & Spitoni, G. F. (2020). Affective touch: A meta-analysis on sex differences. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 108, 445-452.