Last week I discussed the problem with the word "foreplay." Here's a recap: compartmentalizing sexual activities into the categories of foreplay versus the main feature reinforces a very narrow definition of sex as "penetrative intercourse." More importantly, it implicitly devalues other sexual activities as side-props. In fact, any sexual or erotic activity can be the main feature of an intimate rendezvous. So basically, let's not think of sex as a one trick pony show.
That said, the word "foreplay" is also trying to communicate the point that there is often a warm-up process involved before getting all hot and heavy. Basically, there is some sort of stimulus—whether mental or physical—that "turns on" our sexual arousal. A common gender stereotyping trope regarding sexual arousal is that women need more time to get aroused and men come ready to go right out of the box. This has been demonstrated as false (as many stereotypes often are).
In 2006, McGill University researchers created an environment with minimal distractions (as far as these things are possible) to measure how long it takes men and women to reach "peak arousal." Arousal was measured using thermal imaging—basically, a remote camera that measures heat—so that instruments didn't need to be directly attached to the subject's genitals. The subjects were given sexually explicit films (catered to their taste) to view through special goggles that further minimized distraction. Monitoring genital and other bodily temperature changes (to within 100th degree) from another room, researchers found that both men and women began showing signs of arousal in 30 seconds. For men, maximum arousal was reached at 664.6 seconds, and for women, it was reached at 743 seconds—basically 11 and 12 minutes, respectively. After the margin of error factors in, it's a statistically negligible difference.
Don't go taking this research and expect your lover to show signs of arousal in 30 seconds flat after you take off your clothes. (It may work, but still.) Sex isn't usually introduced in such a controlled environment as this experiment was. Presumably, there was a sense of safety in that academic setting. Distraction was minimized. There wasn't any pressure to perform. They were watching erotic films that were catered to their taste. They didn't have to deal with any relationship anxieties. And presumably, they carved out time and space for this volunteer gig so they didn't feel an urgent need to get other things done.
In the real world, there are many more factors at play. Sexual arousal is influenced by the level of comfort, familiarity, and/or safety in a situation. Conversely, it may also be influenced by the novelty, sense of adventure, and risk. Relationship health, past personal experiences, work life, family life, physical health all may have an effect on our arousal times. This is the background tapestry of our sexual encounters. We may not necessarily see it with our eyes, but it nevertheless influences the ways our bodies react.
Furthermore, our lovers and our selves are not statistics. Research volunteers tend to be a self-selecting group comprised of other university students. This implies a certain age, education level, financial means, geographical location, etc. Learning that these co-ed volunteers reach peak arousal at roughly 10 minutes can prove a point regarding sexual arousal times as being gender neutral, but really
We shouldn't take it farther than that. Some people may peak at 15 minutes, 5 minutes, or 20 minutes. Many of us have different arousal times at different times. Some of us are on medications that influence our arousal times (and levels). Some of us work to cultivate much longer arousal times. Some of us have perfected the art of the quickie. Basically, it doesn't do any good to compare our selves to dubious "averages." If you and your sexual partners are happy, then the peak arousal time of volunteers strapped to a chair watching erotic films through goggles shouldn't really mean anything to you.
So Where Exactly is the "On" Switch?
Humans are amazing, beautiful, distinct, and complex creatures. We are sensate beings integrating with the world around us through the pores of all our senses. We are a bundle of nerve endings, bio-chemicals, and synapses. We are energetic beings. We are a collection of memories and experiences. And more. A certain scent can unlock a whole world of memories in an instant. There is no manual.
Basically, what this means is that there is no one "on" switch. We're more like musical instruments. Depending on the musician, different music is created. (And yes, in this scenario, you can be your own musician.) Even a single note can sound beautiful when artfully expressed. Sticking with the musical instrument analogy, our erotic stimuli are like strings of a guitar that can be plucked independently or strummed in harmony.
There is visual stimulation. The volunteers in the McGill University study were aroused through visual stimulation in the form of erotic films. The sight of somebody wearing silky lingerie, leather harnesses, or football pants can be quite arousing. The sight of our lover's engorged genitals can be highly arousing. The shapely human form can evoke feelings of lust.
There is olfactory stimulation. The musky smell of fresh sweat. The scent of your lover's aroused vulva. A particular essential oil that brings back positive memories of earlier sexual experiences. A perfume that makes you feel extravagant (and horny).
Aural stimulation. Is there certain music that puts you in a sensual mood? The sound of your lover's raspy bedroom voice? A fetish for a certain language? Having your partner whisper in your ear, telling you what they are about to do to you, you naughty little thing?
Somatosensory stimulation is a biggie. Touch is a very direct way of erotically stimulating our selves and each other. It's also a pretty broad category! There are light feather touches, massaging, stroking, rubbing, paddling, licking, and kissing. Remember the time you first touched the fingers of someone you were crushing on? That simple hand caress can be intensely sexually charged. How about the feel of satin on your genitals? A warm bath? The way your thighs rub together when you're working out?
Sexual arousal can be generated mentally. This is also another very broad category, and in fact is difficult to separate out from all the other musical strings of erotic stimulation. For many, wearing sexy lingerie not only makes them feel sexy, but is actually physically arousing. A fantasy role-playing scenario can heat things up real quick. I would put anticipation arousal under the category of mental stimulation. Knowing that you're about to have sex can be very arousing in and of itself. Some people even love to prolong this sexual tension with games of tease and denial! Sneaking in a quickie can be experienced as mental stimulation. The idea of sneaking one in can be hot. Or the suddenness of the sex can get our blood flow going (However, use lube!). Some other forms of sexually arousing mental stimulation include erotica, thinking back on a hot experience, and our own imaginations.
But wait, there's more! Emotions! There's a reason many people have sex several times a day when they first fall in love! We are running on high. Basically, we're on natural drugs, and well, these drugs can make us really horny for each other. As I mentioned earlier, the feeling of safety can be a sexual aphrodisiac for some, and for others, the feeling of adventure and risk can be a big turn-on. Some love their angry break-up sex, and others love their passionately tender make-up sex. Emotions! They're great!
Arousal and the sexual response cycle can indeed be thought of as a musical composition. The narrative arcs are unique to each individual experience. Some begin with a bold introduction, a meandering melodic middle section, and an amazing crescendo in the end! Others may be more into mellow space jams all the way through. So yeah, there's no manual, but perhaps you and your lover can exchange sheet music.
Ally Booker is a pleasure activist. She is passionate about educating herself and others on cool sexuality related things like communication skills, creating and respecting boundaries, sexual self-determination, destigmatization, gender and sexual expressions, sex toy use and safety, and all the other mechanics of pleasure. You can often find her milling around her Tucson shop, Jellywink Boutique, 418 E. 7th St. Contact the shop at 777-9434 or AllyBooker@Jellywink.com.