The sexy science of edging

Lorenza Centi
Originally Published: 

Until the pandemic inspired us to start cooking at home more, my partner and I would order tacos to-go from one of our favorite Mexican spots. I remember salivating over the savory aroma of crispy tortillas bulging with carne asada, wafting from the bag on my lap. As much as I wanted to tear into our dinner right then and there, I waited. My patience paid off: The endless car ride home seemed to make succumbing to my craving all the more pleasurable.

If it sounds like I’m talking about sex, I am, sort of. A similar principle supposedly applies to climaxing. Many an article has sung the praises of a technique called edging, which is based on this concept of delayed gratification, claiming it can lead to better orgasms. For the single among us who aren’t boning as much because of the pandemic, or for the booed-up who are too sad or sick of each other to get it on, it's certainly worth a shot. After all, we’ll probably try anything to resurrect our sex lives. But what does the science say? To find out, I consulted Maureen Whelihan, a gynecologist based in Florida.

Edging basically refers to bringing yourself or a partner close to orgasm, then stopping right before climax — and it’s nothing new. Whelihan tells me that “edging” is essentially the modern-day terminology for the stop-start technique, developed decades ago by Duke University surgeon and urologist James Semans to help penis-havers with premature ejaculation. (And yes, “Semans” really was his last name.)

In the stop-start technique, “each time they masturbate, they come a little closer to orgasm, and then they stop, and they try and make it go away,” Whelihan explains. “They learn to have better control. Then they develop confidence.” (Note that, as Vice points out, edging is distinct from edge play, a BDSM term that refers to bringing someone to their psychological brink — like through erotic asphyxiation, which limits a person’s oxygen supply.)

Whelihan says edging sounds like a combination of the stop-start technique and tantric sex, a longstanding practice with roots in India that focuses on intimate encounters as whole-body experiences. “It takes a lot of time, where couples usually… pleasure each other in various ways and find out how to prolong that arousal, with or without orgasms,” she says. People who practice tantric sex “have a belief system that this whole-body attention to pleasure and arousal may mean expanded pleasure for everyone.”

So the origins of edging seem to suggest that they could help you go longer without climaxing and potentially unlock “expanded pleasure,” both of which are good reasons to give it a go. But is there actual evidence that shows it results in better orgasms?

Whelihan says there doesn’t seem to be research that investigates this, which makes sense. After all, the question would be really challenging for scientists to answer, she notes. How would they define “better?” Is a “better” orgasm more intense? Does it leave your whole body trembling? Does length matter? Do short bursts count as “better” if they’re still mind-blowing? "Better" can also differ vastly from one person to the next.

As for my taco comparison, we might not be able to draw as neat a parallel between resisting orgasm and resisting food cravings as we might think. Whelihan explains that dieting data shows that if you can delay eating a chocolate chip cookie, you’ll probably just avoid eating it altogether; it doesn’t necessarily mean the cookie will taste better if you do eat it.

Going back to sex, Whelihan says that while edging may be fun to try, it might not be for everyone. If you’re a busy parent, you probably don’t have time to delay your orgasm and might just want to bang one out while the kids are still napping. And if you’re perimenopausal or menopausal, chances are hormonal changes already make orgasming hard enough.

You might also find edging not-so-fun if you have a mood disorder that isn’t properly or fully managed, Whelihan adds, because of an imbalance in the neurotransmitters involved in sex, like norepinephrine and serotonin. Very simply put, if you have an anxiety disorder, the urge to orgasm is likely so great that delaying it might be frustrating. People with anxiety “can’t focus,” Whelihan says. “It’s the distraction that’s the problem, and then they just give up.” Meanwhile, if you have depression, you may have little desire to do much of anything, much less edge.

“If you happen to be in one of these three groups, you may not find [edging] as exciting, so don’t get frustrated, but give it a try,” Whelihan says. And even if you don’t fall into one of these groups, sometimes you may "lose" your orgasm and your arousal could subside while edging, which can be annoying. Other than frustration, though, it doesn’t seem to pose any risks.

If you want to experiment with edging, whether solo or with a partner, set aside a stretch of uninterrupted time (as in, not right before a Zoom meeting). Schedule one or two hours of exploration with your partner, if you have one, without any distractions, tiredness, gassiness, or anything else that could keep you from being fully present, Whelihan says.

Try to find your most sensual places, and if you’re partnered, listen to each other’s feedback, she adds. Begin the arousal process slowly, working toward each other’s favorite means of stimulation, and agree on a hand signal in advance so you know when to stop. This is important: Actually respond to your partner’s signals. As Healthline notes, you should delay your partner's orgasm only if they consent to you doing so. The website also rightfully emphasizes that sex is about more than just reaching orgasm, and it can be great even if you don't climax.

It’s totally fine if your edging session doesn’t last as long as you want. “This takes practice,” Whelihan says. “Don’t worry if you’re not an expert on the first attempt.” While edging may or may not give you better orgasms — whatever that means for you — if you try it with an open mind and aren't too hard on yourself, you just might have a good time.