Sometimes partners disagree on what makes up satisfying foreplay. Commonly female partners complain of insufficient foreplay, but some men, too, wish for more. The debate may include a discussion about how long it should last and which methods of pleasuring should be included. Often this issue is truly framed by factors of arousal. Among the reasons for the importance of foreplay are the significantly different rates of arousal of men and women.
Men tend to become aroused much more quickly, within a few minutes (longer as men age) whereas women generally take more time to reach full arousal, typically between twenty to forty minutes. Because of the longer time to grow to full arousal, the female partner is more likely to complain about inadequate foreplay. Men’s interest in participating in only brief foreplay, or of skipping it altogether reflects their quickness to full arousal, and thus their complete readiness to engage in intercourse. For a woman’s full pleasure, her high arousal and excitement are necessary. Negotiating this difference well so both partners arrive at a readiness for intercourse is one important function of foreplay.
The touching, caressing, squeezing, kissing and stimulating of the early phase of love-making are excitement-building efforts. If an eager lover moves too fast and begins something that builds excitement or intimacy too quickly, an assertive partner will and should signal that slowing down is needed. If such a request is not respected, discomfort will increase along with the potential for emotional disconnection between lovers and possibly even a damaged sexual opportunity. This is can be the case when direct stimulation is applied to an erogenous zone before a partner is sufficiently aroused.
The foreplay phase of a sexual experience serves several functions, one of which is to help the partners gradually invest in the sexual experience, thereby facilitating the simultaneous development of two seemingly contradictory states, excitement and relaxation. Relaxation is not easy for many lovers to achieve during sex because of the inherent physical and emotional vulnerability that sex requires. Early pleasuring activities also help partners graduate to increasingly deeper levels of intimacy. This is no small task, because intimacy does not come without vulnerability, an experience that raises fear and anxiety. Not just a few partners avoid sex altogether for this reason. Foreplay pleasuring helps to ramp up this closeness slowly so partners can adjust to this increased level of emotional risk. Partners who are uncomfortable with the vulnerability of sex may seek to avoid foreplay as a way to shorten the entire sexual session, thus more quickly escape from discomfort.
Foreplay also tests the level of intimacy each partner will allow. Intimacy is a test of openness, which for most is limited by the discomfort of fear; we become afraid of being hurt. Complete openness is characterized by the absence of protection. During foreplay, a negotiation occurs between partners as to the depth of intimacy which will be permitted.
The sexual differences between men and women are far less obvious than their physical differences. Many lovers will only come to appreciate these differences once the differences are explored and explained, the communication about which many women aren’t comfortable giving and many men resist hearing. It is the tendency of each gender to assume that the other sexually responds similarly, leading to potentially destructive negative assumptions. The kinds of sexual play that begins a sexual encounter may negotiate these differences so that they are as a cause for celebration instead of frustration. Foreplay sets the tone and tempo of a sexual drama the way a fine introduction grabs our attention so we can lose ourselves in a good movie. Andrew Aaron, LICSW, AASECT is a sex and relationship therapist who practices in the New Bedford Seaport.