If you ask almost any sexually-active woman, she will tell you in no uncertain terms that warming up before the main event is paramount to finishing the race. This message seems to get lost in translation between the sexes, most probably because of the differences in sexual response cycles for men and women. While it takes women a considerable amount of time to become fully aroused, it can take men mere seconds to reach the same level of arousal that a woman could work hard for 10 minutes to achieve.
Today we have a much better understanding of the female orgasm and how to make one happen. However, there is still a great divide between the sexes when comes to "warming up." Women generally want and need a lot; men need very little and vary on how much they want/are willing to do. The more time men spend engaging in foreplay, the shorter they will last during sex. Yet another roadblock to mutually enjoyable intercourse, oy vey!
However, all is not lost. There are many couples out there who make it work, who find that perfect median where the woman is aroused enough and the man is not aroused too much (the "Goldilocks" approach to good sex). This balance is best achieved when couples take the time to really figure out their own and their partner's sexual responses -- what method works best and how long it usually takes to get to the "ready for action" phase. Popular choices for warming up are necking, petting and oral sex, but are certainly not limited to these three.
So, why exactly is foreplay so important for women? While the result of arousal is pretty obvious for a man (tent pitching, anyone?), the physiological results on a woman can be a little more subtle. Perhaps the most obvious result is the presence of natural lubrication, which allows for easy entry into the vagina and minimizes friction, which ultimately protects the vulva from sores and tears. Other physiological happenings include swelling and engorging of the labia and enlargement of the clitoris. The swollen clitoris is more sensitive and can therefore cause an orgasm to happen faster (or happen at all) for the women. The vagina also expands, which can better accommodate the girth of a penis. Foreplay makes ideal conditions for sex in the female body, conditions that don't just happen in seconds.
Before I continue, I'd like to make a point about the word "foreplay." While I use it often in this column, I use it for lack of a better term. While warming up is crucial to the enjoyment of intercourse, the sex acts men and women use to "warm up" often remain classified as only foreplay in most peoples' minds. Oral sex and mutual masturbation -- acts that frequently fall under the category of foreplay -- can be perfectly enjoyable and orgasmic on their own. Reducing their value to only warm-up activities delegitimizes the sex acts. This interpretation means that anyone who uses oral sex and mutual masturbation as their primary forms of sex, which includes but is not limited to GLBT people and those who practice everything but intercourse as a form of abstinence, do not have a "real" sex life. I think that the word foreplay is appropriate when used in context, but coining acts as foreplay limits our interpretation of sex and ultimately the pleasure we can seek from sex in all forms.
We continue to get more and more evidence that foreplay is incredibly important to mutual satisfaction and orgasm in heterosexual sex. Effective foreplay is able to warm up both man and woman while still leaving the actual orgasm for during sexual activity. Foreplay is an incredibly personal process for each individual. What might be an effective foreplay regimen with one partner will simply not work with another. Take the time to figure out what works best for you and your partner and reap the benefits of mutually enjoyable sex.