Pleasure Activist

Foreplay: What a Stupid Word

By now, assuming you have read the title to this article, you probably realize I have some ambivalent feelings towards the word "foreplay." According to Merriam-Webster, "foreplay" is defined as "erotic stimulation preceding sexual intercourse." According to the Cambridge dictionary, "foreplay" is "the sexual activity such as kissing and touching that people do before they have sex." Basically, the assumption is that "sex" is specifically defined as penetrative intercourse. This is barely a step removed from the simplistic and moralistic view that the only purpose of sex is to create babies. (Cue the "Every Sperm is Sacred" song from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life).

While defining "sex" as penetrative sexual intercourse can be handy for people like Bill Clinton when seeking out a legalistic loophole to justify denying having sex with somebody, these implicit definitions can invalidate other forms of sex as unimportant side characters ... as merely "foreplay." More importantly, these definitions can also pressure some people into having specific forms of sex (penetrative sex) that they otherwise are not interested in, or unable to have.

This applies to all genders and sexual orientations.

While many same-sex female couples use strap-on harnesses to have "traditional" style penetrative sex, many also prefer to structure their sex without it and enjoy cunnilingus, fingering, stroking, massaging, hair pulling, etc. as the main course, instead. "How do you guys have sex?" is a very annoying and inappropriate (also: invasive, sexually harassing, and self-entitled) question many lesbian couples face from acquaintances, ignorant professionals, family members, and random strangers. This reinforces a narrow definition of "sex" and invalidates a whole other palette of sex (while also advertising one's own lack of imagination).

Again, this does apply to all genders and sexual orientations. There are heterosexual women who may not physically enjoy penetrative sex, or at least prefer more direct clitoral stimulation. Just as there are gay men who do not enjoy penetrative anal sex. Many will still have penetrative sex because they enjoy communing with their partners in this way for other reasons (e.g. enjoying their partner's pleasure, enjoying full body-to-body contact, sexually enjoying it but just short of being able to orgasm from it). However, if their "favorite" form of sex is always relegated to a perfunctorily performed thing to do on the way to "more important" things, that can be annoying, to say the least.

Conversely, I have had conversations with many men (and many partners of these men) lamenting the "end" of their sex life because they can't maintain a firm enough erection for prolonged penetrative sex or any penetrative sex at all. In many of these cases, the men were still able to enjoy manual penile stimulation and even were able to orgasm. However, they assumed their sex life was over because it did not resemble their sex life of yore. Spending a lifetime categorizing every other form of sexual activity as simply a lead-up, as "foreplay," can certainly make one feel fatalistic when the convenience of penile penetrative sex is thwarted. Yes, many of these partners miss the feeling of being "filled" by their significant other. There are penis sheaths that one can wear over their penis so that they can effectively achieve penetration. (They are also sometimes used to increase the length and girth of a penis.) It would also serve these couples well to explore other forms of sex that are just as valid. Just because a man may not be able to get it up anymore, doesn't mean he doesn't still enjoy being touched, sucked, and stroked. And it also doesn't mean, that he is incapable of providing pleasure to his partner with his hands, mouth, sex toys, dirty talk, fantasy play, etc. Change can be hard. Or not. No pun intended?

I remember an old Savage Love article where a guy wrote in expressing his concern that he had totally blown it with a foxy neighbor who had been flirting with him. Basically, one night, after months of wonderful sexual tension, he found himself in her apartment having a few drinks with her. In this guy's case, he may have had a few too many drinks because he ended up with "whiskey dick" (too drunk to get an erection). According to him, after a few failed attempts at getting an erection, he left her apartment in defeat, not able to "consummate" the act. He was asking Dan Savage if he totally blew it—if he perhaps would have another chance with her? She did seem a little more distant than usual.

Well, the answer was, YES. He blew it. And not because he couldn't get an erection. He blew it because there were dozens of other things he could have done instead of assuming that sex was simply putting his penis into her vagina and leaving when he wasn't able to do that. Example 1: He could have gracefully laughed off his uncooperative penis and offered to show off his oral skills. Example 2: After a nice little sensuous massage, checking in with her, then smoothly transitioning into an expert g-spot stroking. I doubt she would have been too upset about his softie after writhing and cumming around his confident hands. Example 3: Almost anything else rather than basically telling her the only sex that actually counts is when his penis is involved. I mean, she probably would have also enjoyed playing with his penis. However, those cards weren't on the table that night, were they? And he certainly made his priorities clear.

This is not a treatise about how other sex is better than penetrative sex. This is about the word "foreplay" and it's etymology—"fore" + "play": the thing that comes before the main show—it devalues it's own self. I personally love, love, LOVE heated penetrative sex. But it's all about context. I also love other things. I don't believe these other things are side characters. To make matters worse, what is touted as foreplay (stroking, kissing, licking, sweet talking ...) is basically an immersion into sensation-play, and the mindful exchange of sensations certainly shouldn't stop when things get heated up. Perhaps the speed and urgency change, but the basic premise stays the same. It should not be compartmentalized into the "wine and dine" portion versus the "getting down to real business" portion.

That said, our physical and mental erogenous zones do like being warmed up. "Foreplay," for better or for worse, seems to be the word we use to describe this warming up process. Join me next week where I stop complaining about the word and start talking about this warming up process (and, of course, bust some myths while I'm at it).

Ally Booker is a pleasure activist. She is passionate about educating herself and others on cool sexuality related things like communication skills, creating and respecting boundaries, sexual self-determination, destigmatization, gender and sexual expressions, sex toy use and safety, and all the other mechanics of pleasure. You can often find her milling around her Tucson shop, Jellywink Boutique, 418 E. 7th St. Contact the shop at 777-9434 or

About The Author

Ally Booker

Ally Booker is a pleasure activist. She is passionate about educating herself and others on cool sexuality related things like communication skills, creating and respecting boundaries, sexual self-determination, destigmatization, gender and sexual expressions, sex toy use and safety, and all the other mechanics...
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