The Importance of Foreplay in Your Relationship
Medically reviewed by Ivy Kwong, LMFT
Foreplay is a series of intimate acts or behaviors intended to create sexual arousal, pleasure, excitement, and desire.
The goal is to help both partners feel turned on, excited, and ready to engage in intercourse. It is sometimes referred to as outercourse. Foreplay is often understood to consist of physical activities, but it can involve mental or verbal activities too.
Foreplay is an important part of any sexual experience as it helps all parties get both mentally, emotionally and physiologically prepared and comfortable.
The Purpose of Foreplay
Foreplay occurs before sex with the goal of getting all parties involved aroused and ready for intercourse. It might involve things like sending suggestive texts or photos, kissing and cuddling, dirty talk, non-penetrative sex, or using oils or other products on each other.
“Foreplay is not just about physical touch,” says Melissa Stone, specialized sex and relationships expert at Joy Love Dolls. "It's also about creating a sense of connection and intimacy between partners. Experiment with different types of foreplay to find what works best for you and your partner."
Foreplay is often particularly beneficial for women and people with vulvas, because it generally takes them longer to reach higher levels of arousal and potentially orgasm. And, foreplay can generate lubrication in the vagina, which is important for comfortable and enjoyable penetration. Not only that, but during foreplay blood rushes to the clitoris. This gives it an erection, which makes it more sensitive and receptive to pleasure.
“On a physical level, foreplay helps to create arousal between partners,” says Mangala Holland, a women’s sexual confidence coach. “This is often particularly important for women, who often require more time to get aroused. It helps both partners attune to each others' needs and build excitement.
“It also creates an emotional and energetic connection, which is so important for sexual fulfillment. Foreplay generates anticipation, and desire and helps to heighten pleasure and sensation. It can also really help to rekindle the spark in a long-term relationship.”
It’s sometimes thought that different genders prefer different durations of foreplay – it’s commonly assumed that men prepare the duration of foreplay to be shorter, but one study indicated that men and women have the same ideal length of foreplay.
Melissa Stone, specialized sex and relationships expert at Joy Love Dolls
Foreplay is not just about physical touch. It's also about creating a sense of connection and intimacy between partners.
According to another study, people were more likely to last longer during sex if they incorporated a wider range of activities—including oral sex and self-stimulation—into foreplay.
“To encourage more foreplay in relationships, have a conversation!” continues Holland. “Ask questions like "Can we try...." or "Have you ever thought about...." rather than making your partner feel like they're doing something wrong.”
She explains that if you’re not feeling ready for penetration yet, it’s important to communicate that with your partner, and describes foreplay as starting once the last encounter ends: “What can you do or say to help build anticipation for next time?”
Related: How to Show Affection in a Relationship
What Happens to Your Brain and Body During Foreplay
Foreplay isn’t purely physical; it helps to prepare the mind for sex. It can also release oxytocin, often known as the love hormone, and reduce the levels of cortisol – the primary stress hormone – in the body.
Foreplay stimulates the body and prepares it for sex by increasing the heart rate and pulse, and dilating blood vessels in the genitals. It arouses the body, and stimulates the erogenous zones. Foreplay also helps increase lubrication, making sex more comfortable and pleasurable.
Foreplay helps to build and sustain an emotional connection with your partner. It can make you closer, and boost intimacy. In turn, this can make you feel more aroused for sex itself.
Related: What Happens in Your Brain During Orgasm?
Foreplay Doesn't Mean the Same Thing to Everyone
People can have differing views on foreplay. For some people, it’s a vital part of sex, and of relationships. For others, it’s largely unnecessary—they might prefer to get straight into sex.
And LGBTQIA+ people can sometimes view foreplay differently than heterosexual people. Often, foreplay precedes penis-in-vagina sex, but for some LGBTQIA+ people acts that are often considered part of foreplay can be the main event.
“Telling your partner about your sexual interests can be challenging, but it's important to have open and honest communication in any relationship,” says Charlotte Johnson, sex and relationships expert at MegaPleasure. “If your partner is not initially comfortable with your interests, it’s important to be open to compromise and find a middle ground that works for both of you. Try to keep the conversation ongoing, as sexual interests can change over time.”
Related: How to Initiate Sex With Your Partner
Examples of Foreplay
You can kiss your partner as part of foreplay. And communicate with your partner, letting them know how you like to be kissed—encourage them to tell you how they like to be kissed too. Perhaps they don’t like using tongues, or they enjoy passionate kissing.
And kissing doesn’t need to be on the lips only. Many people enjoy being kissed in different places like their neck, ears, stomach, back, arm pits, thighs, or elsewhere on the body. Foreplay may involve kissing, sucking, biting, or licking all parts of your partner's body to discover their erogenous zones and find out what feels exciting and arousing for them.
Cuddling isn’t inherently sexual, and doesn’t need to lead to sex, but for some people, cuddling can be an important part of foreplay. It boosts intimacy and helps to foster a deeper emotional connection.
Some people enjoy massaging their partners or being massaged themselves. Like cuddling, it can increase intimacy in your relationship and help you feel closer to your partner.
Talking or messaging
Whether it’s ‘dirty talk’ or you’re whispering sweet nothings into your partner’s ear, talking can be an important part of foreplay. For some people, messaging or ‘sexting’ can also form part of foreplay.
“Offering compliments or engaging in playful flirting can help to build sexual tension and create a sense of anticipation before any sexual pleasure or physical stimulation,” says Stone.
Many people enjoy playing games with their partners as part of foreplay. You can find out more about your partner, and what they like or don’t like, through games, and gradually build up arousal before sex.
For some people, dressing up can be an exciting part of foreplay. If your partner has a particular fantasy, you may decide to dress up accordingly. Or, some people like to put on blindfolds or handcuffs during foreplay—or apply them to their partner.
Intimate touching or mutual masturbation can form part of foreplay for some people. It can build intimacy and get you and your partner ready for sex.
Some people enjoy masturbating or stimulating their own genitals during foreplay, and studies have shown that when self-stimulation is involved in foreplay it can have positive effects on the sex that might follow.
Related: What Is Intimate Sex?
What Foreplay Is Not
Generally, foreplay does not involve any penetration.
However, there’s no strict definition of foreplay, and what constitutes sex versus foreplay can be ambiguous. For example, some people may consider oral or anal sex to be part of foreplay. Whereas for others, they could be the ‘main event’ that foreplay leads up toward.
Related: How to Be More Sexually Intimate With Your Partner
What If I Don't Like Foreplay or My Partners Don't?
Maybe you don’t like foreplay, or perhaps your partner doesn’t enjoy it. This might feel awkward or difficult to bring up in conversation, but it’s important to communicate what you are thinking, feeling, and needing honestly and openly with them. You may decide to approach this topic when you’re both relaxed—perhaps already in bed, or in a neutral, calm, and private moment like sitting on the couch together or over a meal at home.
While foreplay is certainly beneficial in terms of preparing both mind and body for sex, there are alternatives. You and your partners might decide to simply skip foreplay if you’re both on the same page, or do something else together before sex—for example, cooking together or watching a movie. There’s no right or wrong way to do things, it’s all about what you and your partners are comfortable with.
Potential Reasons Why Someone Might Not Enjoy Foreplay
If somebody has had a negative experience or trauma surrounding foreplay in the past, they might not enjoy it.
They might feel insecure or concerned that they’ll do something wrong, or worry that they’ll come across as being “too much”. They might fear rejection, find it difficult to receive pleasure, or simply struggle to relax or overthink too much.
Or, they may simply not think it feels good.
If one partner enjoys foreplay but another doesn’t, this is an opportunity for open and courageous communication about preferences, desires, and needs that may or may not be met. It may be helpful to discuss foreplay, preferences, boundaries, and interests early on to assess for compatibility in this kind of connection.
When addressing issues related to trauma, individual therapy may be supportive in the healing process and restoring your sense of sexual safety, comfort, pleasure, and well-being. For couples in need of additional support, seeing a sex therapist or trying couples counseling may be helpful.
Related: What Is Sexual Performance Anxiety?
Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I improve my foreplay?
If you’d like to improve your foreplay, communication is key. It’s important to speak to your partner to find out what they like and dislike. You might try new things, like games, or using oils or flavored products. Or, build up excitement throughout the day. You could text your partner while you’re both at work, for example, telling them how excited you are to see them later.
“Remember, communication is key, so be open, honest, and respectful, and you'll be more likely to have a positive and fulfilling conversation with your partner,” says Johnson.
Is foreplay necessary for satisfying sex?
Foreplay is important, as it can make sex more pleasurable for everyone involved, and prepare the body for sex both physically and mentally. However, it might not be for everyone, and skipping foreplay might work for some people.