Think about your last partnered sexual experience.
How sexually pleasurable did it feel? Were you sexually aroused? How sexually satisfied were you? Would you describe it as emotionally intimate?
Now think about whether your last encounter included kissing. Cuddling? A massage?
Whether it did or didn't, does engaging in these affectionate behaviors influence our sexual pleasure, sexual arousal, or emotional intimacy?
While we often hear the advice that intimate relationships benefit from affectionate and romantic touch, new research examining the degree to which kissing, cuddling, and massaging affect our sexual pleasure and arousal suggests this advice does not necessarily hold up to scientific scrutiny.
In a study recently published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Dr. Debby Herbenick and colleagues examined the presence of kissing, cuddling, and massaging at last sexual encounter in a representative sample of 1,493 American individuals between the ages of 14 and 90 years old (average age was 44 years old).1
Participants were asked about several behaviors that may or may not have occurred during their last sexual experience (including manual stimulation of the genitals, oral sex, penile-vaginal penetration, anal sex, etc.). Participants were also asked whether or not they loved, liked, or disliked their partner, how much they wanted to engage in this sexual experience, how emotionally intimate the sexual experience was, and their level of sexual arousal and sexual pleasure.
The authors were particularly interested in whether kissing, cuddling, and massaging (the big three measures of affection that are frequently used in the sex research literature) were related to sexual pleasure, sexual arousal, and emotional intimacy.
Who Is (and Isn't) Kissing?
The vast majority of the study sample reported engaging in at least one of the three previously described intimate acts. Specifically, more than 90 percent of the participants in this study reported either kissing, cuddling, or massaging their partner at their last sexual encounter.
Of these behaviors, kissing was by far the most commonly reported behavior (86.7 percent) followed by cuddling (69.5 percent), while only a minority of the sample reported massaging during their last sexual encounter (23.2 percent). About one-fifth of the sample (19.8 percent) reported engaging in all three behaviors at their last sexual encounter.
Kissing was most commonly reported by heterosexual individuals (88.2 percent), then by bisexual individuals (84.4 percent), followed by gay and lesbian individuals (69.0 percent). The most likely age groups to report cuddling at their last sexual encounter were those aged 18-24 and those 60 years and older.
Why Didn't You Kiss?
When participants in the study indicated that they did not kiss at their last sexual encounter, they were asked a follow-up question with various close-ended options that addressed possible reasons it may not have taken place. These options included: "We kissed but it was not very passionate, kissing would have been too intimate with this person, I don't like kissing, my partner didn't want to kiss, I wasn't interested in kissing this partner, I was concerned about my breath/my partner's breath, the person kissed me but I did not kiss them back."
The most common reason given for why participants did not kiss was because they didn't like kissing. Participants who indicated they did not kiss at their last sexual encounter were more likely be less than 30 years old and this specific subset of participants was most likely to indicate they did not kiss during their last sexual encounter because it would feel too intimate.
Is Sex Better with Kissing?
Participants who reported kissing, cuddling, and massaging during their last sexual experience were more likely to report engaging in other sexual behaviors during their last sexual event (including breast and/or nipple stimulation, hand stimulation of genitals, and vaginal fingering) and were also more likely to report higher sexual arousal and emotional intimacy.
When looking at these three behaviors separately (rather than collectively), the authors noted that individuals who reported engaging in kissing, cuddling, or massaging also reported higher emotional intimacy, sexual pleasure, and sexual arousal at their last sexual encounter with one exception: giving or receiving a body massage was not associated with greater sexual pleasure.
However, when the authors accounted for other possible confounding variables (such as age, gender, current relationship status, relationship structure, perceived feelings between partners, how wanted the sexual encounter was, and other sexual behaviors present during the sexual encounter), the findings lost statistical significance. The authors still note, though, that individuals who reported kissing, cuddling, and massaging at their last sexual encounter were found to be more than three times as likely to report greater emotional intimacy at their most recent sexual event.
The lack of significance after accounting for other variables indicates that kissing, cuddling, and massaging our partner may not be as important to our sexual pleasure or sexual arousal as is typically suggested, particularly when it comes to giving sex advice or tips.
It's worth noting that the findings from this study do not point to any downside to kissing, cuddling, or massaging. That is, participants who reported engaging in these behaviors did not have lower satisfaction, sexual pleasure, or sexual arousal. Kissing, cuddling, and massaging offer ways of connecting intimately outside of sexual penetration. Further, many people report enjoying engaging in these behaviors, even if doesn't affect sexual pleasure or arousal to a statistically significant degree.
Facebook image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
Debby Herbenick, Tsung-Chieh (Jane) Fu, Christopher Owens, Elizabeth Bartelt, Brian Dodge, Michael Reece & J. Dennis Fortenberry (2019) Kissing, Cuddling, and Massage at Most Recent Sexual Event: Findings From a U.S. Nationally Representative Probability Sample, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 45:2, 159-172, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2018.1494648