The Day that Foreplay Died

I had just finished giving a lecture on sex to 600 students at a major West Coast university. As I was gathering my notes, I looked down from the stage and there were two students in front of me who were holding hands. The young woman said, “I can’t thank you enough for your talk. It’s going to make a big difference in my sex life.” And her male partner said “Me too.” 

I thanked them for thanking me. Then I asked how it was going to make a difference. 

She said she has always thought there was something wrong with her because she isn’t able to become sexually aroused as soon as her male partners. It struck a meaningful chord when I had explained that sex educators and sex therapists used to tell women it can take up to twenty minutes or more of kissing, caressing, and fooling around with a partner before they were ready to have intercourse. (I told them we used to call this “foreplay.” )

This young woman said she thought that twenty minutes of foreplay would be perfect for her.

Then her partner said he has always assumed he has premature ejaculation. But when I’d told the audience the average male lasts between 3 to 8 minutes of thrusting during intercourse, it definitely caught his attention. 

I asked him how long he thinks he can last during intercourse. He said, “around 8 to 10 minutes.” 

So how is it, in an age where technology allows us to communicate massive amounts of information, have we done such a terrible job of providing competent sex education to intelligent, young adults like these?

I think there are two reasons.

The first, is that porn has become the de facto sex educator for every boy and girl from middle school on, and often from before middle school. Given that we provide little education about sex and no education about porn, children automatically assume that porn is an accurate reflection of how sex is supposed to be in real life.

This is consistent with the assumptions of the the young woman who standing in front me—there was something wrong with her for not being ready to have intercourse the second her partner got an erection.  

Her partner was also correct in assuming he has premature ejaculation based on what he has seen in porn, even though it sounds like he has better control than a majority of men who are having sex today. 

(While I have no problem with people watching porn, I’m not a fan of porn for sex education. However, I’m not sure it is as toxic as Abstinence Only Sex Education, because at least porn doesn’t try to make women feel shame for wanting to have sex.)

The second reason today’s young adults are so ill informed about sex is because as sex educators, we started to view “foreplay” as being an endorsement of penis-in-vagina intercourse. We believed that sex should include more than just penis-in-vagina intercourse, so we stopped taking about foreplay and even began to criticize its use. 

Unfortunately, in our haste to encourage others to adopt our views of sex, we forgot that for the vast majority of heterosexual couples, penis-in-vagina intercourse remains “the main event.” It’s what they want to do.  So we stopped providing information about foreplay that would help intercourse feel better for women. We did, however, tell women about the wonders of sex lube, which in some ways has reinforced the message of porn: that a vagina can be ready to receive a penis the moment the penis is erect, as long as you use lube.

Another reason why it became unpopular to talk about foreplay is because some women don’t need or want much foreplay. Also, there have been political considerations: Saying that women need foreplay might imply that women are somehow deficient and not equal to men when it comes to sex. 

While our motivations to demote foreplay as an important part of sex education may have seemed reasonable, it is now time for us to rethink and revisit the subject. This is especially true in light of the fact that most young adults now learn about sex from porn. We need to explain what foreplay is, and we need to make it okay for women to want foreplay. We must also help couples understand that few men have the kind of control over their ejaculation and erections that porn has been so carefully constructed to portray.

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