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Foreplay is most commonly defined as sexual or erotic stimulation preceding sexual intercourse. Foreplay can consist of a wide variety of activities, including massage, kissing, caressing, teasing, removal of clothing, manual or oral genital stimulation, verbal stimulation, stripteases, and fantasy role-play. Foreplay is also sometimes used to encompass activity leading up to a sexual encounter, such as flirting or romantic dates. Foreplay may also include activities such as bondage, discipline, humiliation, or erotic torture.

The activities that constitute foreplay are thus highly contingent, both on what individuals find erotic or stimulating and on how they define sexual intercourse. Widescale surveys of sexual practice, including those by Kinsey (1948, 1953), Hunt (1974), and Janus (1993), have tended to privilege heterosexual (and often married heterosexual) practice and therefore define sexual intercourse as vaginal penetration by the penis. This definition of intercourse, however, excludes gay and lesbian experience completely and places homosexual sexual encounters entirely in the register of foreplay. Limiting the definition of intercourse to penetrative activities similarly excludes individuals whose sexual practice excludes penetration. Many gay men and lesbians, for example, prefer oral sex to anal or vaginal penetration; additionally, an increasing number of straight men and women consider oral sex to constitute sexual intercourse. The precise definition of foreplay is thus somewhat flexible and highly dependent on individual sexual preferences and beliefs.

Foreplay is generally considered to heighten sexual excitement and response, and is meant to ignite sexual desire and to prolong the tension that precedes orgasm. In men, for whom arousal and orgasm can often be attained faster than for women, foreplay is thought to intensify orgasm. For women, foreplay is often a crucial component of sexual satisfaction; for women with male partners, extended foreplay allows time for the woman to match her partner's level of arousal. Many women, moreover, report being unable to attain orgasm without sufficient foreplay. Foreplay is additionally used as mechanism for enhancing closeness and intimacy and thereby heightening the emotional connection experienced between partners during sex.

As the culture meanings of sex have changed and as the erogenous zones fetishized by society have changed, so too have the kinds of foreplay activities that couples have engaged in. In the nineteenth century, when many religious and social strictures limited appropriate sex to procreation, foreplay of any kind was often minimal. In Victorian society, which emphasized the control and regulation of sexuality, indulgence in foreplay for eroticism's sake was hardly encouraged. Some groups, however, began to challenge the primacy of marital sex and to experiment with other forms of sexual organization. In the case of the Oneidans, a commune of "free love" advocates in Oneida, New York, in the mid-nineteenth century, the re-visioning of sex and marriage had profound effects on foreplay. The community trained its men in the practice of coitus reservatus, in which the male partner refrains from ejaculating. This practice allowed the community to retain control over procreation, while freeing men and women for sexual exploration with less risk of unwanted pregnancies. The Oneidans adhered to nineteenth-century gender norms, construing men as active and controlling and women as passive and subordinate. However, they refigured the application of these roles in the arena of sexuality; men were to take on the responsibility of preventing ejaculation, which required significant control, while women were to succumb to sexual desire. Men prided themselves on their ability to bring female partners to multiple orgasms, and extended foreplay was thus desired and widely used.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as sexual pleasure came to be seen as increasingly important to a happy marriage, extended foreplay became more important to sexual unions. In many cases, however, such foreplay was considered necessary strictly for the woman's sake. Male desire was thought to be quickly aroused and easily satisfied, and many men therefore opted for quick and efficient sexual intercourse. Sex manuals and researchers, however, increasingly encouraged men to engage in more prolonged foreplay so as to increase pleasure for their partners. By the 1920s and 1930s, sex writing emphasized sex as an expression of love, self, and togetherness, rather than as a matter of male control and efficacy, and sex manuals began providing detailed advice on how to extend foreplay so as to augment mutual satisfaction.

Though Kinsey's sex surveys (1948, 1953) restrict their most extensive detail regarding foreplay behavior to that of married heterosexual couples, the results are nonetheless revealing. Kinsey's discussion of sexual techniques includes data on the frequency of lip kissing, deep kissing, breast stimulation, manual genital stimulation, and oral genital stimulation. His findings reveal substantial variation based on educational levels: In those with no more than a high school level education, foreplay was most often perfunctory, involving little kissing and minimal bodily contact. Kinsey claimed that lower-educated men often regarded oral-genital contact, oral breast stimulation, and even deep kissing with some aversion or suspicion. Cunnilingus and fellatio were widely avoided and were practiced frequently by only a small minority of married couples. The prevalent attitude toward sex of men with some or no high school education was utilitarian: the goal was to achieve orgasm as quickly as possible after instigating sexual relations. Among college-educated men and women, foreplay tended to be much more extended, generally ranging between five and fifteen minutes. Those with higher education were far more likely to regularly utilize a variety a sexual techniques, including manual stimulation of the genitals, deep kissing, and breast stimulation. Though fellatio and cunnilingus were more likely to be practiced by college-educated couples, frequent usage was limited to a small minority.

Morton Hunt's 1974 follow-up on the Kinsey data finds much more practice of a wider range of sexual behaviors and a concomitant rise in the duration and variety of foreplay activities after the sexual revolution. Hunt finds an increase in the prevalence of most kinds of sexual behaviors, noting that the greatest increases correspond to the most taboo behaviors. Oral-genital contact, then, had become a fairly widespread practice by the 1970s. Such contact, moreover, was comprising a greater proportion of the total time spent on foreplay, particularly among younger respondents, 60 percent of whom indicated that as much as half their foreplay time was devoted to fellatio or cunnilingus. Hunt also noted a greater usage of anal contact as part of foreplay. More than half the married respondents under age 35 reported experiencing manual stimulation of the anus, while more than 25 percent had engaged in oral-anal stimulation.

Hunt also remarks on an overall emphasis on the importance of foreplay among sexual partners, though, as with Kinsey, he focuses on heterosexual couples. Hunt finds that the variations in the prevalence of foreplay between high school and college-educated men had closed up by the 1970s, with both groups spending about fifteen minutes on foreplay. Single men and women under twenty-five also average about fifteen minutes on foreplay, while those between twenty-five and thirty-four years of age average about twenty minutes. Foreplay has become a consistent practice among both married and single couples. Taken as whole, married and single couples appeared to engage in roughly equivalent durations of foreplay; the most consistent statistical differences in the duration correlates to a group's age, with the youngest people spending the most time on foreplay.

Received wisdom about foreplay has often been that men want less while women want more. Early twentieth-century interest in foreplay was explicitly based on this belief, arguing that mutual sexual pleasure required the male to put off his own desire for orgasm in order to further arouse his female partner. However, researchers have increasingly found that partners of both sexes are genuinely concerned about their partner's pleasure. Janus (1993), for example, finds that a significant percentage of both men and women are more concerned with their partner's satisfaction than their own. Hunt implies a similar concern with mutual satisfaction in his analysis of Kinsey's foreplay data, when he suggests that educated men spend more time on foreplay because they have been made aware of its importance to female satisfaction. Hunt further believes that his own data, which mark an all-around increase in the duration and range of foreplay behaviors, reveal a growing pressure, in the age of sexual liberation, to be sexually expert. Kahn (1981) finds that men and women place similar value on foreplay, ranking nude petting fourth and third respectively in a list of sexual preferences.

see also Arousal.


D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. 1997. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hunt, Morton. 1974. Sexual Behavior in the 1970s. Chicago: Playboy Press.

Janus, Samuel S., and Cynthia L. Janus. 1993. The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Kahn, Sandra S., and Jean Davis. 1981. The Kahn Report on Sexual Preferences. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Kinsey, Alfred C., et al. 1948. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.

Kinsey, Alfred C., et al. 1953. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.

                                             Maureen Lauder