Taking the word “foreplay” out of my vocabulary

Aerie's Room: Taking the word "foreplay" out of my vocabulary

“Foreplay” is a term I don’t use anymore. It wasn’t particularly a conscious decision; the word just faded away from my lexicon over time. I became acutely aware of this fact while having conversations with a couple people I’d met on OkCupid, when their use of the word suddenly snagged my attention. To my ears, it sounded glaring and dated, something I didn’t hear much in the sex blogging community.

Our mainstream culture very narrowly defines sex as penis-in-vagina (PIV) intercourse. The concept of foreplay is rooted in the belief that PIV sex is the be-all and end-all sexual activity: the main event, the primary act, the goal, the finale, the last (and most important) thing that happens when you sleep with someone. Or, as one guy from the cringe-inducing documentary Shy Boys: IRL explains:

“I know what goes on. The penis enters the vagina; thrust, thrust, thrust; question mark, question mark, question mark; profit.”

People use “foreplay” to describe any sexual activity that takes place before “thrust, thrust, thrust”.

When I started having sex with women, I realized the term “foreplay” didn’t relate to my sex life anymore. If there isn’t a penis going into a vagina at some point, then what is and what isn’t foreplay? What is and what isn’t “actual sex”? Oral sex: foreplay or not? Fingering? Mutual masturbation? Lying naked next to each other watching porn while using matching LELO Mona vibes?

Queer sex completely breaks the supposed ‘normal’ progression of sex; it often lasts for hours, an ebb and flow of different kinds of sexual play. Multiple orgasms may be involved, but orgasm is not the ultimate goal, nor does it necessarily indicate the end of sex. There’s no main queer sexual activity equivalent to heterosexual penis-in-vagina sex1, so the idea of foreplay does not apply at all.

Obviously, taking time to turn each other on, tuning into each others’ bodies, and prioritizing your partners’ pleasure is paramount. Arousal and buildup is important, especially as a prelude to penetrative sex. What’s problematic is our language: the word “foreplay” is incredibly heterocentric, lumping together everything that isn’t intercourse as “things you might do before intercourse”.

Broadening the definition of sex is beneficial to everyone. It’s more inclusive for people of different genders and sexual orientations, where sex involving a penis entering an orifice isn’t applicable or desired. For people with different ability levels or bodies, people living with STIs, physical health issues, PTSD or other mental health conditions, or any other situation where PIV sex might not be in the picture.

It is also beneficial to people who do engage in PIV sex (or for whom it is still an option). It’s common knowledge that a large percentage of people can’t reach orgasm through intercourse alone. If somebody can only come while getting fingered with a vibrator on their clit, why should that activity be categorized as foreplay: nothing more than a thing that leads up to the real sex part? Not only is it inaccurate, it severely trivializes anything that isn’t intercourse.

Aerie's Room: Broadening the Definition of Sex is Beneficial to Everyone

I’ve had more than one occasion when I’ve chosen to get naked with a friend, where we established ahead of time that the boundary line was mutual masturbation and sex toys (no oral or PIV). We made out and explored each others’ bodies for hours, we had orgasms, we played with toys. I reject the conclusion that the fact my partner’s penis never entered my vagina means we did not have sex.

Even more significant of an example in my life is my boyfriend. We’ve been together for over a year, but part of our current relationship rules include him and I not having PIV sex, because that’s what works for our polyamorous relationship right now. By our society’s standards, everything we do sexually would be classified as “foreplay”, which is untrue (and frankly, insulting) – anyone who wants to suggest that I’ve never had sex with my boyfriend is out of their mind.

Actively choosing not to have PIV sex does not invalidate all the other fun things he and I do in the bedroom. What counts as sex with my girlfriend absolutely also counts as sex with my boyfriend, regardless of the fact he has a penis and she does not.

Don’t get me wrong; I love penis-in-vagina sex. However, I refuse to perpetuate the idea that it is the #1 main sex act that all other sexual activity merely leads up to – which unfairly places all the importance on the cis male orgasm, as both the primary focus of sex and a signal of its completion. Redefining sex recognizes the sexual pleasure of everyone else, elevates it to the same level, and acknowledges the wide diversity of sexual interaction people can experience with each other.

Eliminating the term “foreplay” allows for the redefinition of what could take place during the beginning, middle, and end of sex. Intercourse doesn’t need to be the sexual finale, nor does it need to take place at all in order for people to have “actual sex”. It’s simply a popular pleasurable activity that falls under the wide spectrum of intimate things you can do with another person.

So let’s take the word “foreplay” out of our collective vocabulary. Let’s pay attention to the language we use and broaden our definition of sex. Let’s appreciate the variety of wonderful ways people enjoy each other’s bodies. It’s beneficial to everyone, no matter what gender or sexual orientation, because it’s another step toward a more inclusive, sex-positive world.

  1. For the love of god, please do not suggest that a strap-on dildo or double-ended toy should be considered the equivalent []

16 comments on “Taking the word “foreplay” out of my vocabulary

  1. You’ve written what I’ve been trying to explain to hetero friends for years: PIV is NOT the only sex that “counts” as sex! I hate having to explain this, but usually I can get them to somewhat understand by asking them if their partner gave oral to someone else, would they consider that sex? 99% do. Then I point out that most everything involving people enjoying each other’s genitals, whether directly or not, is a form of sex, not foreplay!

    Now, can I print this off to take to an old school doctor who says the number of partners I’ve had is merely the number of men who’ve put their penis in me? UGH!


  2. I hadn’t realized it before, but yeah, I haven’t really thought about the concept of foreplay in a long time, although in my head I still haven’t “had sex” with a person if my penis hasn’t been inside their vagina or ass, which is… yeah, I should fix that.

    Related: I’ve had people who expressed surprise when I talk about having sex with someone for hours. “Continuously!? For hours!?!?!?” then I have to explain that, no, we weren’t vigorously copulating for eight whole hours and that the level and kinds of activity varied and we might have popped out a few times for a glass of water or to take a leak in the middle.

      1. There have been times where I considered taking the 3L bag out of my camelbak and mounting it above the bed somehow. Stuck in the blinds or something. 😛

  3. I struggled for a while with the whole concept of PIV sex as being the “ultimate” and “expected” thing for a hetero lady. Up until recently, I had vaginismus and really did not enjoy any kind of penetration. But I had this idea that no man would want to be my companion if I wasn’t having successful PIV sex, an idea which gave me great anxiety.

    Even though I’ve gotten through my vaginsmus now, I’ve also luckily given up my need to always be working toward PIV. My partner and I enjoy all kinds of sexual activity and it’s great!

  4. This is a great post, Aerie, and it perfectly articulates one of my problems with the foreplay!

    I also feel like “foreplay” and the idea that PIV intercourse is the only real type of sex both combine to contribute to harmful ideas about virginity and, in association with that, sexual safety. I’ve met lots of cis hetero people “saving it for marriage” who were having just about every kind of sex other than PIV intercourse, which, you know, that part is none of my business, but what I did care about was that they weren’t being safe when they did it. They didn’t know about barrier STD prevention methods and didn’t practice safe sex, because in their mind condoms were only for “sex,” and oral/manual/anal sex “wasn’t sex.” Syphilis rates at my high school were appalling.

    With that said, sometimes I have used the word foreplay in the past, but when I have said it my definition has always been “the-part-that-comes-before-you’re-aroused.” Sometimes this doesn’t apply for everyone (after all, some of us go into sex horny and moist), but sometimes, even though my body produces a lot of lubrication when I am aroused, I’m not fired up and wet, and in my mind, all the stuff working up to making me wet is foreplay. That stuff might happen again once I am aroused, though! For me foreplay has defined a time period in the cycle of sex more than it describes a specific set of acts.

  5. YES. All of this!!! I have so many feelings about foreplay vs sex, and you have done such a wonderful job of eloquently going over every single one of them.

    I’ve always used “sex” to = anything with genital contact, nudity, kink, or orgasms, and it has definitely caused some confusion with my partners in the past. That being said, I wouldn’t want to redefine my use of the term to mean PIV even if it did get rid of any confusion, because that’s just not a functional term for me — there are just so many things in my life that don’t involve penises but ARE distinctly sexual (sex with my girlfriend, kink scenes, using sex toys with a partner, etc) that to say “oh no, we’re not having sex” would feel like the biggest lie.

    But anyhow. I am wayyy too tired to be leaving coherent comments right now so I’m cutting myself off! Thanks for a great post, Aerie!

  6. I totally agree with you. For me sex is the whole event; everything that goes on when I’m intimate with a guy. There’s no sequence of discrete activities that can be neatly compartmentalised; it’s one continuous flowing experience. For gay men there is of course an obvious equivalent to the heterosexual PiV sex, but as surprising as it is to some, not all roads lead to anal. It’s not be all and end all of sex, and sometimes it’s not on the menu at all, but its absence doesn’t detract from the experience because it’s merely one of many possible components.

    “Foreplay” isn’t a word I ever use either, and honestly in my mind I tend to think of it as a bit of a dated term. It takes me back to a time when it was the punchline of a joke in an old TV show. When I hear it I picture a Peggy Bundy figure bemoaning that her partner seems to treat their intimacy as little more than an extension of his masturbatory activities, and her need to educate him. I’d like to think that things have moved on and that people have a more rounded view of what sex is today, enough that we can throw out the term entirely.

    1. I really appreciate your comment! While I was writing this, I realized I didn’t know how to make this post inclusive of gay men, as my thoughts on the topic only came from my own experiences. I’m glad you could add your perspective here.

Leave a Reply