I’ve been having sex for over 25 years and for over 25 years I have been frustrated with the term ‘foreplay’. It’s used very specifically in mainstream sex discourse, often as a safe-for-work starting point for talking about sex and pleasure without setting off too many alarm bells. The focus that’s sometimes put on foreplay seems positive at first glance but upon further inspection, I find it’s a more problematic term than one might initially think. Foreplay is defined as ‘sexual activity that precedes intercourse’. So, foreplay ends at intercourse. Got it. But when does it start? What if intercourse doesn’t happen, what is it then? And why are we looking at sex and intimacy as something that comes in these distinct phases?
Foreplay and Arousal
The process of sexual arousal is physical, mental, and emotional, making it a very subjective experience. Add to that natural, individual process, other factors like medication side effects, mood, past experiences, etc. and it becomes apparent why “warming up” and not diving straight into penetrative sex acts make sense. Whether arousal comes on strong, or requires a bit more time, engaging in mental and/or physical stimulation and building desire and relaxation often impacts orgasm, both whether you have one (or more!), and how intense it is. However, everyone’s different, and for some people creating urgency and skipping what most people would call foreplay, is how they get most excited. This almost mythical window of time is hard to define which makes me wonder why we must define it, and who benefits from the definition.
Foreplay And Heteronormativity
Intercourse refers to sexual activity between two or more people that involves penetration, but it primarily refers to heterosexual vaginal intercourse. The idea that having sex means a penis goes into a vagina may be linguistically correct, but it’s also correct that sex is understood as a larger concept and an umbrella term that includes so much more than heterosexual intercourse. Reducing the idea of sex down to something that is completely heteronormative is not constructive, nor is it sex positive. Simply put, there’s no reason to reduce the concept of sex to just intercourse, which erodes the need for the term foreplay. Isn’t it all just sex?
Foreplay As Currency
There’s another frustrating theme that surrounds foreplay, positioning it as something to be bargained for, versus something that is simply part of sex and intimacy. Women’s magazines, for example, are forever boasting articles like “10 Ways To Make Him Love Foreplay” or “How To Get The Foreplay You Want And Deserve From Your Man”. These tropes set women up to think that foreplay (what many women feel is the most intimate part of sex) is scarce, and something men inherently don’t want. Let’s consider the subtext of that: The assumption is that men love sex, but don’t like or want foreplay, therefore women will have to bargain and barter to get it. Why is the woman expected to make the concession? Why is she responsible for convincing him that sex is more than PIV? Shifting foreplay away from it being a discreet act, separate from sex, and towards the whole experience of sex being multifaceted with peaks and valleys, asserts that sex is a bespoke experience, not a series of predetermined actions to go through.
Taking A More Expansive Approach
I considered calling this post No Such Thing As Foreplay, but as reductive as I find the term, I don’t think it needs to be eradicated, simply reimagined. Is that possible? The expectations about how foreplay is separate and different from sex seem unnecessary, but when you include mental and emotional foreplay that may start well before any physical contact, describing all of it as ‘sex’, doesn’t work as well. How we use words matters, and we have more influence over language than we sometimes realise. Could ‘foreplay’ ever get out from under the definition of “everything sexual that happens before sex”? Probably not. Perhaps another term is needed, or no term at all. Better yet, we could keep shifting the paradigms around sex and intimacy, normalising talking about all parts of sex. Just like ‘foreplay’ the conversation doesn’t have to end.