Here’s How Long Foreplay Should Last, a Sex Therapist Says

Does the timeline really matter when you're getting frisky? A sex therapist reveals the truth, and what will actually get you to the big O.

There are a lot of questions, or maybe private curiosity, on the length of time a couple should invest in letting things get heated before doing the deed. Just for example: one 2004 Canadian psychology study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Sex Research surveyed 152 heterosexual couples about their perceptions related to foreplay and sex. The researchers found that on average, women tended to feel that longer foreplay is ideal, while men significantly underestimated the amount of foreplay their partners desired. This study might suggest the length of foreplay is a common question in intimate relationships, but one that doesn’t come up for discussion among many couples.

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What is foreplay?

Foreplay might be described as the intimate, physical exchange of gestures that lead up to sex, serving the purposes of increasing arousal and preparing the body (and mind!) for sex. As nationally certified licensed marriage and family therapist Erin Rayburn, LMFT, LPC-MHSP, NCC, explains, “Foreplay is beneficial for warming up the body and mind for sexual chemistry. It also leads to an increased experience of pleasure and intensity.” 

But to experience the greatest effects physical, psychological, and emotional effects from sex, how long should said foreplay last? And, is it always necessary? There are answers…sort of.

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How long should foreplay last?

“Everyone is different when it comes to sex and experiencing pleasure,” Rayburn says. The Canadian study might illustrate her point: “Women and men have different sexual arousal and peak needs,” she says, “so foreplay should not be put on a timeline, but rather be determined through preferences and response.” In the study, the actual timing of foreplay varied from person to person—meaning a specific timeline doesn’t matter when it comes to how long foreplay should last. “Think quality over quantity,” Rayburn says. In other words: don’t get caught up in what others think or do. It’s all about what works for you and your relationship.

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Because what makes sex great is authentic connection. Research has suggested that when some couples engage in “proceptive” behaviors, this appears to stoke the flames and makes sex particularly powerful. The American Psychological Association describes proceptivity in a romantic relationship as actions that “actively solicit” sexual engagement from a partner, such as courting, flirting, seducing and eventually foreplay. In one review published in Human Reproductive Biology, couples who’d engaged in proceptive interactions only needed one minute of foreplay before engaging in sex to reach an orgasm, while others needed up to 20 minutes or even more. 

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.