Breaking the word down literally, foreplay is the sexual play before penetrative sex. It usually describes the sexual acts before penis in vagina (PIV) penetration, including kissing, touching, dirty talk, fingering and even oral sex. It’s how we ‘warm up’ before having sex, getting our bodies ready but also connecting to our partners.
Let’s explore why foreplay is important, and why we shouldn’t always call it foreplay:
Why foreplay is important
Even though it’s what we usually see portrayed in mainstream media, most people (especially people with vaginas) do not experience spontaneous sexual desire. For most people, desire doesn’t come out of nowhere, sparked by the smallest thing that makes us want to have sex with our partners right there and then. Instead, most people experience responsive desire, which is a response to arousal or sexual stimuli. It’s perfectly normal for our desire to have sex to arrive after we’re already turned on.
Foreplay is where we cultivate that arousal and desire for sex. Our bodies don’t go from ‘not aroused at all’ to ‘ready to have sex’ in seconds. Foreplay literally gets the juices flowing by increasing our arousal. For people with vaginas, foreplay is especially important because your body needs time to self-lubricate so you don’t experience discomfort during penetration – though it’s also normal if you don’t get as turned on and wet as you think you “should” be and need to use more lube. There's no shame in grabbing some lube - like the Momentum Organic Aloe Lubricate, an 100% organic lube that's compatible with condoms.
If our bodies are warmed up and turned on before we start having penetrative sex, the experience is enhanced for everyone and ultimately more pleasurable. For people with vaginas, it also increases the chances of having an orgasm during sex. Foreplay isn’t solely physical either – it can also make us feel closer to and more intimate with our partners, which leads to a deeper connection during sex itself.
Why we shouldn’t call it foreplay
The issue with defining all these acts as ‘foreplay’ is that it limits ‘sex’ to just mean PIV penetration in a way that is harmful for everyone. We’re so focussed on achieving penetration that we can skip over other parts of the sex that might feel really good to us. This not only encourages us to race through what might be a very pleasurable experience in pursuit of our goal of PIV, but also puts pressure on penetration itself to be the pinnacle of the sexual experience.
This can mean one or both partners worried that they’re not aroused enough for penetration, leading to anxiety and discomfort – neither of which are sexy! Taking the focus off PIV penetration takes away this pressure to perform and allows you to spend more time exploring what feels good for you and your partner. You’re essentially extending the foreplay – or redefining what you call ‘sex’ to include the acts we usually lump together as ‘foreplay’.
Our bodies are all different: what one person enjoys in bed might be a complete turn off for someone else. Dividing sexual experiences into ‘foreplay’ and ‘sex’ means that we don’t see acts like oral sex or hand jobs as “real” sex, even though they’re just as much sex as PIV penetration. While it’s important to warm our bodies up and cultivate arousal before we have sex, what ‘sex’ might look like for each of us might be completely different.
The sex you have should work for you
The scripts we’re taught about how sex “should” look work for very few people. In reality, sex isn’t a linear progression from kissing to touching each other over clothes, to fingering, to oral sex, to penetration that ends in simultaneous orgasms. Sex shouldn’t be a checklist of items you and your partner have to tick off before you reach your goal of PIV penetration. Sex should be whatever you want it to be. For LGBTQIA+ people, the scripts about what sex “should” look like often don’t work in the first place, so they have to redesign what they want their sex to look like. However, this is something that everyone can benefit from doing.
For you and your partner, ‘sex’ might mean PIV penetration, but maybe penetration isn’t on the table for you and your partner at all. Maybe you and your partner don’t especially enjoy oral but you’re really into lubed up hand jobs with lots of making out. Maybe you’re more interested in playing with butt plugs and dildos than penetration with a penis. The important thing is to work out what you and your partner enjoy, rather than trying to have sex based off a script written for someone else.