Those of us who study sex focus on specific types of sex. We ask about oral sex, vaginal sex, and increasingly we ask about anal sex. But in our scientific work – and similar to many Americans in their own sex lives – we often miss out on the rich details of sexual experience: that is, the hugs, kisses, cuddles that make sex more than just in-out-repeat. Not this new study, however, which focuses entirely on the value of sexual touching to arousal and orgasm.
Think back to the most recent time you had sex. How much did you kiss each other on the mouth, forehead or hand? Hug or spoon with your partner? Run your hands up and down one another’s back or chest? Kiss the length of your partner’s arms or legs? Did you lay your head on your partner’s chest? Did your partner run his or her fingers through your hair?
These are the kinds of sexual touch this new study, conducted by Dr. Adena Galinsky at the University of Chicago, focused on. She analyzed data from the 2005-2006 National Social Life Health and Aging Project, which surveyed about 3,000 women and men in the United States ages 57 to 85. Galinsky focused on a specific subsample of about 1,300 women and men who reported having had sex at least once in the past year in her quest to understand the relationship between sexual touching -- and the difficulties men and women experience with sexual arousal and orgasm.
One of the reasons this research is needed, according to Galinsky, is because of how sexual stimulation (often via sexual touch) and sexual problems and “dysfunctions” are defined. “According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), in order to diagnose sexual arousal and orgasm disorders, it is necessary to determine the adequacy of sexual stimulation,” she writes. “The DSM-IV-TR states, ‘If sexual stimulation is inadequate in either focus, intensity or duration, the diagnosis of Sexual Dysfunction involving excitement or orgasm is not made. In the absence of sexual stimulation, a difficulty which meets all other diagnostic criteria for arousal or orgasmic dysfunction is a (possibly dyadic) behavior problem but not a dysfunction.”
In other words, a woman doesn’t have orgasmic “dysfunction” just because she doesn’t easily have orgasms. If a hypothetical woman and her partner only have intercourse for 30 seconds, without any other sexual touching, kissing or buildup -- and with no focus on stimulating her in ways that are likely to lead to orgasm (such as focusing stimulation on the front wall of the vagina or the glans clitoris) -- then our hypothetical woman is unlikely to experience orgasm. That doesn’t mean she’s dysfunctional; it just means they’re not doing much to ease orgasm. Likewise, if you’re hungry after a lunch that consists of only three bites of yogurt, there’s nothing dysfunctional about your body. Most people would find that eating only three spoonfuls of yogurt isn’t sufficient to quell hunger pangs. And most women will find that 30 seconds of intercourse with no other touching or stimulation isn’t sufficient to trigger orgasm.
That isn’t rocket science. And yet how sexual touch fits into people’s experiences of sexual pleasure, arousal and orgasm is an important aspect of sexual science -- after all, we’ve somewhat just assumed sexual touch to be important for all these years and included chapters about it in various sex guides and so-called marriage manuals for decades.
Now we know that it matters a great deal. Most people – about 80 percent of men and 74 percent of women -- say they “always” kissed, hugged, caressed or engaged in other types of sexual touch when they had sex. Unfortunately, we don’t know from the survey how extensive the touching was or how they felt about it. (Was it welcome? Loving? Did it make them cringe some of the time?) We also don’t know much about the roughly 1,700 people who didn’t have any sex in the past year – did they engage in affectionate touching, even if it stopped there? Or did their sex lives disappear, in part, because they and their partner had failed to be affectionate with, or touch, one another?
The study also found that women were far more likely to report lack of pleasure from sex as compared to men (a full 23 percent of women, and only 5 percent of men, said that in the past year there had been stretches of time when they didn’t find sex to be pleasurable). This is similar to data from my research team’s National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, in which we found that 14.5 percent of women and 4.3 percent of men found their most recent sexual experience to either be only “a little” pleasurable or “not at all pleasurable.”
Given that Galinsky’s study focused on older Americans, it’s not surprising that men experienced erection and orgasmic difficulties at far higher rates than we typically see among younger men. About one in five men in this study reported having a period of at least a few months in which they found it difficult to climax (compared to about one in three women). More than a third of men reported erectile problems.
So how did sexual touching fit into their experiences?
At the outset, it became clear that feeling emotionally satisfied in one’s relationship was strongly linked with sexual touching. Finding one’s relationship physically pleasurable was also linked with sexual touching.
Sexual touching was associated, too, with men’s erectile function. Men who didn’t engage in much sexual touching with their partner had more than twice the odds of experiencing erectile problems than men who usually or always engaged in sexual touching.
For women, however, sexual touching was not linked with lubrication difficulties, probably because most of these older women were likely to be experiencing vaginal dryness due to menopause. It would be interesting to examine the role of sexual touching to younger women’s experiences with vaginal wetness and lubrication. My best guess would be that foreplay and touching matter quite a bit.
That said, sexual touching was highly linked with women’s arousal during sex, even after controlling for psychological factors and emotional satisfaction. In fact, women who only sometimes, rarely or never engaged in sexual touching were almost six times more likely to being “never or rarely aroused during sex” compared to women who always engaged in sexual touching. Infrequent sexual touching was also associated with climaxing during sex, particularly for women.
But while sexual touch is important, it’s what sexual touch represents that’s important to pleasurable sex and to emotionally and physically satisfying relationships. Sexual touch isn’t always the magic bullet that fixes things (though it can be). The absence of sexual or affectionate touching may be just as telling as its presence. Some women and men may not be kissing or cuddling because they may be having sex that they don’t particularly want or enjoy, but that they engage in to please a partner, to have an orgasm, to fall asleep, or to keep their partner from nagging.
If you’re like most Americans, you probably include at least some types of sexual touch (for example, kissing) in most of your sexual activities. But sometimes sexual touch fades with time, as relationships grow stale, partners disconnect from one another, or sex becomes rushed. Indeed, we often take these types of sexual and affectionate touches for granted until they’re gone. Recently I was meeting with a colleague about a project we’re working on together and the topic of affection came up. He told me about a male friend who never realized how much he needed to be touched, hugged or kissed until he and his girlfriend started having relationship problems and she became more distant – both emotionally and physically. I hear similar stories from men of all ages – from healthy young college students who are struggling with a lack of kissing and cuddling between them and the person they’ve been dating for only a year, and from men 20 and 40 years older.
Of course, women feel starved for touch too; it’s just that, at least in American culture, women tend to have more people they touch (friends, parents, kids) and men are often touched solely by their romantic or sexual partners.
Most of us could probably use a reminder to touch more often than we do. As Galinsky wrote in her article, "couples who limit or omit sexual touching from their repertoire are neglecting an important step in their learned behavior pattern that leads to sexual arousal.” And while enhancing sexual arousal is valuable, I would add that couples who neglect sexual touch and affection are also probably losing an important avenue for connecting emotionally, and for reminding each other – at a corporeal level – that they’re in this thing together.