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What I Wish Everyone Knew About Foreplay: A Sexologist Explains

by Jennifer Litner

Imagine you’ve had a long, long day. Work was a slog, traffic was a joke. You’ve had a few things not go your way and you’re just ready to go home and let all the stress escape you. You decide to draw yourself a bath. That sounds nice, right? You grab your salts, collect your oils, you turn on that soothing playlist you use when you just want to forget the ails of life exist for just a few fleeting moments. You turn the water on. And then you immediately jump right in.

While you’re technically in the bathtub, you’re freezing and wondering why you thought this was going to be pleasurable in the first place. That’s what sex without foreplay can be like.

What is foreplay?

A quick search in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary yields two different definitions:

1) “erotic stimulation before sexual intercourse” and 2) “an action or behavior that precedes an event.” While many people may think of foreplay as the physical stimulation leading up to sex, we know that foreplay is much more complex than that. Particularly because sex is much more expansive than sexual intercourse and there are so many ways that people connect sexually. If we only define foreplay as the physical acts that partners engage in before sexual intercourse, then what about people who don’t engage in penetration?

Contemporary research tells us that the majority of women find external stimulation to be most reliable when reaching orgasm during their sexual encounters and not necessarily vaginal penetration. While orgasm is not everything when it comes to sexual pleasure, we know that penile-vaginal intercourse alone is not always the most pleasurable sexual behavior for women. A 2017 study using a U.S. Probability Sample found that less than 30% of women reported experiencing orgasm at least 75% of the time during penile-vaginal intercourse without any additional clitoral stimulation, and significantly more women reported experiencing orgasm at least 75% of the time during penile-vaginal intercourse with additional clitoral stimulation.

When we heighten narratives about foreplay that are inextricably tied to sexual intercourse, we are sublty reinforcing gender inequality by elevating a sexual script that says penetrative sex is the norm, when we know that it’s generally not the most pleasurable for vulva-owners. Research suggests that gender inequality is a predictor of sexual dysfunction among women -- and we certainly don’t want that. Thus, we need more inclusive definitions of foreplay.

Can a person still engage in foreplay if they don’t partake in penetration? Absolutely.

An Expanded Definition of Foreplay

Foreplay does not only refer to what happens in the moments precipitating sex, rather it also refers to what happens in between sexual encounters. For example, if an encounter takes place on a Sunday and the next one takes place on a Thursday, the interactions, emotions, and experiences between partners taking place between Sunday to Thursday are part of foreplay as well. While this sounds like it could be overwhelming for some, it can also bring about great opportunity to be mindful about relational dynamics and other contexts present, since we know that they greatly impact sexual desire and eroticism.

One Size Fits...No one (When it Comes to Foreplay).

What heightens one person’s interest in sex could very well dampen another’s. We know that context plays a huge role in sexual motivation -- so the best approach here is to consider your own and your partners’ needs. Some people are drawn into an experience by physical contact, whereas others need to feel emotionally connected to their partners from deep conversation. There’s no right or wrong way to get in the mood, but being communicative with your partner can help. Remember, there's no one size fits all approach to foreplay and preferences can vary by partner!

What can you do when you and your partner(s) have different visions for foreplay?

  • Discuss what methods of foreplay are preferred by each person --- sometimes the way people like to be pursued intimately differs from how they might pursue a partner. It’s best to have these conversations at a time when you’re not planning to be sexual, so there's no pressure or distractions. Afterwards, incorporate the feedback your partner shared with you!
  • Decide that you are going to engage in activities that are pleasurable for all partners involved. This way, you can focus on connecting and be present in the moment as opposed to worrying about what comes next.
  • Be mindful of all the “other stuff” that can come up and impact your desire for sex. The other stuff may include the way you and your partner(s) interact in between sexual encounters, your mental and physical health, and other stressors, which can all impact foreplay and contribute to sexual desire.
  • Experiment with changing up the pacing of your sexual style. Perhaps you typically have brief encounters - what would it be like to take your time? Or maybe you generally have longer encounters and want to experiment with shorter ones. A recent study suggests that many women prefer a longer duration of foreplay and afterplay than they actually experience with their partners. While everyone’s needs are different, consider trying something new to see how it feels for you.

Jennifer Litner has over a decade of experience working, studying and teaching in the field of sexual health, with a specialization in sex therapy, sexuality education and helping people thrive in their intimate relationships.