In many sex surveys over the past 45 years—notably the influential Hite Report (1976)—one of women’s chief complaints about the way men make love is that it’s too rushed and too focused on the genitals and intercourse. Many women lament that many men plunge into intercourse well before most women feel ready. As a result, many women believe that men see no value in foreplay, that is, in leisurely, playful, mutual whole-body caressing.
Corroborating this, sex therapists often advise men to make more time for foreplay, from head to toe. And based on the thousands of sex questions I’ve answered over the decades, there’s no question that many women would like more mutual sensual massage before intercourse, and that many men underestimate the amount of whole-body sensual play their lovers want—and need—before they feel ready for genital sex.
So imagine my surprise when I stumbled on two studies: one showing that men and women pretty much agree on the amount of foreplay they desired and engaged in, and the other showing that when men engage in extended foreplay, they experience fewer sex problems.
One Problem: The Term “Foreplay”
Before discussing these studies, I must mention that the term “foreplay” is part of the problem. “Foreplay” implies activities before the main event, intercourse. It implies linear lovemaking: first A, then B, then intercourse, followed (hopefully) by orgasm, and then sex is over.
In fact, the most satisfying lovemaking is nonlinear and deliciously unpredictable. Intercourse is certainly part of it—assuming that lovers enjoy it and are physically capable of accomplishing it. But no law says intercourse is or should be the culmination of lovemaking.
Lovers can kiss and cuddle, then massage each other for a while, then kiss and snuggle some more, then perhaps enjoy some oral play, then maybe some intercourse, and after that more massage, oral, fingering, and then maybe more massage, culminating in orgasms that may or may not involve intercourse. In great sex, nothing comes before anything else. As a result, I don’t use the term “foreplay.” I prefer “loveplay” or “erotic touch.”
Meanwhile, the large majority of men have orgasms during intercourse, but contrary to what we see on TV and in the movies, only a minority of women climax during the old in-out. The consensus of more than a dozen studies chronicled in The Case of the Female Orgasm by Elizabeth Lloyd shows that only around 25 percent of women are consistently orgasmic during intercourse. The clitoris, women’s orgasm organ, is located outside the vagina an inch or two above it under the top junction of the vaginal lips, and intercourse just doesn’t provide sufficient direct clitoral stimulation for most women to come.
So “foreplay” is problematic. But I’ll use it here because the studies used it—and most lovers do, too.
Men Want Foreplay
In the study that caught my eye, Canadian researchers asked 152 heterosexual couples how much time they engaged in foreplay and intercourse, and how long they ideally wanted to spend in these activities.
- The women said they wanted an average of 19 minutes in foreplay, and actually spent 11. They said they wanted 14 minutes of intercourse, and actually spent seven.
- The men said they wanted an average of 18 minutes in foreplay, and actually spent 13. They said they wanted 19 minutes of intercourse, and actually spent eight.
Notice how both genders expressed the same desired duration of foreplay—18 to 19 minutes. So men and women say they value foreplay about equally.
The numbers for estimated actual time spent in foreplay diverged more—11 minutes for the women, and 13 for the men. But these numbers are considerably closer than the conventional wisdom would lead us to surmise, not to mention that, compared with the women, the men claimed to spend more time in foreplay.
Men wanted to spend more time in intercourse, 19 minutes to women’s 14. But once again, the men and women were within one minute of each other in estimating the time they actually spend in intercourse, seven for the women, eight for the men.
The participants were also asked how much time they thought their lovers wanted to spend in foreplay and intercourse. The men came fairly close to estimating how long their wives hoped to spend in the two activities. But the women significantly underestimated how long their husbands wanted to spend.
What can we make of all this? Perhaps the men in this study were lying. Maybe they didn’t really value foreplay as much as they said they did. However, this survey suggests that men are more open to extended foreplay than most women and the conventional wisdom give them credit for.
Meanwhile, this study contains another surprise. Considering the number of popular songs that yearn for sex to last “all night long,” these couples didn’t spend much time getting it on. The women said they wanted 19 minutes of foreplay and 14 minutes of intercourse, with sex lasting a total of 33 minutes. The men hoped for 18 minutes of foreplay and 19 minutes of intercourse, a total of 37 minutes. A half-hour strikes me as rather brief.
Men Need Foreplay (at least Older Men)
In the other study, a University of Chicago researcher surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,352 men and women ages 57 to 85 who reported having partner sex in the past year. Compared with men who routinely engaged in extended foreplay, those who did seldom, rarely, or never did were:
- 2.4 times more likely to report erection problems.
- 2.2 times more likely to suffer problems with arousal, ejaculation, and orgasm.
- 5 times more likely to report sex that was not pleasurable.
- As the duration of foreplay increased, so did both men’s and women’s relationship satisfaction.
- And as foreplay increased, women reported fewer sex problems.
Now, foreplay may not be as important to younger men, few of whom report difficulties with arousal, erection, ejaculation, and orgasm. But young men are interested in their own sexual satisfaction and in their lovers’—and foreplay substantial improved the quality of sex and both genders’ sexual satisfaction.
More Foreplay, Enhanced Sex
No doubt many women still wish that the men in their lives felt more committed to sex based on leisurely, playful, whole-body mutual massage that excites every square inch of the body before focusing on the genitals.
It’s long been one of my missions as a sex educator to persuade men than if they make love the way women prefer, both men and women enjoy sex more, suffer fewer sex problems, and report greater sexual and relationship satisfaction. These studies bolster that argument.
But what do you think? Do you and your lover agree on the duration of foreplay and intercourse? Or do you find yourself longing for more extended lovemaking? And have you noticed any connection between foreplay and sexual satisfaction?
Galinsky. A. “Sexual Touching and Difficulties with Sexual Arousal and Orgasm Among U.S. Older Adults,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2012) 41:875.
Hite. S. The Hite Report: A National Study of Female Sexuality. Originally published in 1976. Currently in print from Seven Stories Press, NY, 2003.
Lloyd. E.A. The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005.
Miller, S.A. and E.S. Byers. “Actual and Desired Duration of Foreplay and Intercourse: Discordance and Misperceptions Within Heterosexual Couples,” Journal of Sex Research (2004) 41:301.