We are going to look at foreplay today. But before we do, please be reminded that emotional factors are a much stronger determinant of sexual satisfaction and orgasm frequency than biological or practical factors like sexual frequency and lack of foreplay. So make sure the emotional connection gets most of your focus, and then consider what we’re thinking about in this episode!
Questions around foreplay and orgasm are fairly common in marriages. How much foreplay does my wife need to reliably reach orgasm? How much time should I expect my husband to devote to foreplay each time we have sex?
Today we’ll be looking at some of these factors that affect foreplay, orgasm frequency and sexual satisfaction overall, so if your sex life isn’t all you’d like it to be, this is definitely worth your time. But let’s just briefly reiterate the disclaimer above. A study from 1993[i] showed what we probably all know already: individual relationship variables like closeness, intimacy, marital satisfaction etc. predict female sexual satisfaction over and above biological and practical issues like sexual frequency and length of foreplay. We’ve seen this fact reflected numerous times in the research for this podcast, and even produced a whole episode on why emotional intimacy is the key to great sex.
So we’re going to talk about these things, but if you want to improve your sex life, you’ll get the most benefit from improving your emotional connection to one another.
Foreplay and Orgasm
Duration of Foreplay
What’s interesting about this research is that there are some general observations, but the research also really seems to highlight the fact that everyone is unique. There’s no recipe for orgasm: it’s more like a journey of discovery that a couple needs to tackle together and explore together. It requires gentleness and collaboration and curiosity.
However, if you are experiencing some kind of sexual dysfunction then there may be no benefit to spending more time in foreplay: A study by Huey et al[iv] examined 619 women who reported sexual dysfunction and found no support for a link between length of foreplay and female orgasmic response.
Further, the duration of foreplay may differently affect women depending on how regularly they already achieve orgasm during sex. “Extending foreplay and intromission (penetration) might enable some women who were already orgasmic to have more frequent orgasms than they would under shorter periods of stimulation.[v]”
For women who already achieve orgasm at least some of the time, increasing foreplay can make orgasm even more regular. However, for women who rarely or never achieve orgasm, duration of foreplay appears to have little effect. This again suggests that foreplay is not the main issue in sexual satisfaction and orgasm: if you already have the emotional connection then foreplay can help, but if you don’t have that connection then foreplay isn’t an adequate replacement in itself.
Assuming you’ve got the emotional connection thing nailed, then is there an ideal amount of time to spend in foreplay? Unfortunately it’s not that simple. There are high levels of variability between women. We do not mean to imply promiscuity, but just managing expectations about one’s own personal experience. Some women achieve orgasm with little or no foreplay and some remain inorgasmic after twenty minutes or more of foreplay[vi].
There is also high variability in desired levels of foreplay: when given a questionnaire about their ideal foreplay length, different men and women both reported anywhere from “less than five minutes” to “more than thirty minutes”[vii]. So there’s a huge range in what both men and women prefer.
Nature of Foreplay
Now the nature of foreplay also is worth considering in addition to the duration of foreplay.
A study by Hoon & Hoon[viii] found that women who were most satisfied with their sexual activity and responsiveness enjoyed foreplay featuring:
- “Gently seductive” erotic activities
- Breast stimulation
- Genital stimulation
- Varied foreplay
These women enjoyed high satisfaction with their sex lives, frequent sex and consistent orgasm. They were also unresponsive to “erotic literature and media” (porn), so as a side note good sex guards against the desire or need to look for satisfaction elsewhere. Consistency of orgasm was also linked to a greater understanding of the physiological changes that occur during orgasm- knowing physically how it all works seems to help encourage orgasm in practical terms.
Direct clitoral stimulation is strongly correlated with frequency of orgasm[ix] so sexual behaviors directly targeting the clitoris during foreplay are good for arousal and orgasm. Uninterrupted pressure and rhythmic stimulation and external genital friction are all important.
So there’s some good practical tips there for you to get to grips with.
Once again we’ve created a bonus conversation guide for our much appreciated supporters. This guide will help you get your own and your spouse’s expectations about foreplay out in the open, so that you can start creating a more enjoyable sexual experience. This guide will also help you discuss the quality and quantity of your foreplay. If that’s a discussion you need to have, make sure you become a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People if you haven’t done so already!
Compatibility is an issue too, but maybe not the kind of compatibility that immediately comes to mind.
When we talk about compatibility in the context of romantic relationships we’re often asking if two people can get along with each other. Are they compatible?
But sexual compatibility is about things like interest in sex, interest in duration and type of foreplay, and communication about sexual issues.
Now I think it’s almost universally true that there are differences in desire and frequency and those things. Also men and women work differently: the physiology and even the orgasmic processes are different. What happens around this compatibility issue is that the couple gets out of sync or loses patience with each other or takes these differences personally etc etc and then you have sexual distress as a result of problems in sexual compatibility. It is possible for sexual dysfunction to follow and even the inability to orgasm[x].
So problems that arise out of not discussing preferences and not finding the right balance of foreplay/activities may be more important than simply looking at the duration of foreplay. For example 42% of women complain that there is “too little foreplay” in their sex lives. It’s not about the lack of duration as much as the lack of working together on duration.
Communicating your preferences is key, as often men and women fall back on gender stereotypes in determining how to act in foreplay and sex. Here’s a study that’s going to challenge your stereotypes: Miller & Byers[xi] interviewed couples about their actual foreplay duration, ideal foreplay duration, and what they thought their partner’s ideal duration would be. They found that:
- Both men and women reported that their ideal foreplay duration was longer than what they were actually experiencing.
- Women significantly underestimated how long their husbands would want to spend in foreplay: men wanted to spend longer in foreplay than their wives thought they would.
- Men were fairly accurate in their estimations of how much foreplay their wives wanted.
Both men and women believed in stereotypes that men want sex to be short and “to the point” while women want longer in foreplay, even when this was not true of their own marriage.
Both these stereotypes or “cultural scripts” and their own ideal preferences influenced the actual levels of foreplay and intercourse they participated in. So there are unseen, assumed expectations which are influencing the most intimate part of marriage, just because you aren’t talking about your own preferences.
Women are also probably more likely to disclose their sexual preferences, which could be why men were better at predicting their spouse’s desires than women were. Again: there are conversations not happening that need to happen.
Other Factors Affecting Orgasm
To wrap up let’s run through some other factors that might be influencing your rates of orgasm other than foreplay. All these things are worth being aware of so that you don’t assume that the problem is a lack of foreplay when really there’s something else going on that’s easily solved.
Some (not all) research shows that it takes longer to orgasm the older you get, or that female orgasm becomes more difficult to achieve with age[xii], often due to physical changes like dryness. These issues can easily be compensated for (e.g., by using lubrication) and do not have a large impact on sexual satisfaction. But for many, this may be an unexpected change so it’s good to know about.
Arousal and orgasm involve a complex system of chemical and bodily changes, which can sometimes be impaired. For example, antidepressants can interfere with serotonin production, reducing orgasm rates. Or, pelvic injury, surgery, hormone abnormalities and generally poor health can also cause problems[xiii]. Asking your family doctor may be wise as well, even for finding out about known side effects of medications you may be taking.
Age at First Orgasm
Younger age at first orgasm is predictive of later ease of orgasm. Younger orgasm experiences are linked to higher orgasm frequency in that they “prime” women for sexual activity and help them become receptive to sexual stimulation[xiv].
So if you’re a couple who has married later in life you should recognize that it will take longer to reach frequent orgasm as you may not have had this earlier experience. If you’re in this situation you’ll definitely want to check out our episode on how to have your first (or best) orgasm.
Other physical or contextual factors like race, socioeconomic status, personality traits and sexual history (number of partners etc) have been found to have little significant effect. Which is good, because those aren’t really issues that you can change. But turns out they aren’t going to impact your sex life all that much.
However, if you think these things are an issue, the thought itself may be the problem. For example, if you have a longer sexual history than you would like to have and perhaps feel guilt over this, that could be impacting your ability to achieve orgasm.
This is another area where working with a qualified marriage or sex therapist can be a really effective way to find help with these kinds of challenges.
So I hope this has helped you see that while foreplay can be an important thing to get right, you need to see it as just one piece of the puzzle. Your emotional connection, your individual preferences and joint communication are all vital for a fulfilling marriage and sex life. Working on your foreplay is great but make sure you’re getting those things right too.
[i] Hurlbert, Carol Apt Ph.D., and Ph.D, “Key Variables to Understanding Female Sexual Satisfaction.”
[ii] Gebhard, “Factors in Marital Orgasm.”
[iii] Mah and Binik, “The Nature of Human Orgasm: A Critical Review of Major Trends.”
[iv] Huey, Kline-Graber, and Graber, “Time Factors and Orgasmic Response.”
[v] Huey, Kline-Graber, and Graber.
[vi] Gebhard, “Factors in Marital Orgasm.”
[vii] Miller and Byers, “Actual and Desired Duration of Foreplay and Intercourse: Discordance and Misperceptions within Heterosexual Couples.”
[viii] Hoon and Hoon, “Styles of Sexual Expression in Women.”
[ix] Peterson, The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Sex Therapy.
[x] Witting et al., “Female Sexual Dysfunction, Sexual Distress, and Compatibility with Partner.”
[xi] Miller and Byers, “Actual and Desired Duration of Foreplay and Intercourse: Discordance and Misperceptions within Heterosexual Couples.”
[xii] Peterson, The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Sex Therapy.
[xiv] Mah and Binik, “The Nature of Human Orgasm: A Critical Review of Major Trends.”