In the summer of my first year at university, I started hooking up with a guy who lived across campus. Barbecues and games of cricket on the lawn after lectures gave way to drinking in college bars. We made out on the dance floor of the grimy student nightclub, and he invited me back to his dorm. There was just one problem: He didn’t want to have sex. “But foreplay is fine,” he said.
Nineteen-year-old me didn’t need to ask what he meant. I’d had enough experience by then to know that fooling around, getting fingered, giving head — none of that counted. Sex — proper sex — was when a guy put his dick in your pussy. That’s all that got discussed in biology; it was how we knew who was a virgin and who wasn’t; it’s the reason I was on the Pill. So when I realized it wasn’t on the menu I felt short-changed.
Studies have shown that for most people, “sex” means penetration, ideally penis-in-vagina, but a high percentage include anal. Only around 40 percent say oral sex counts as sex. Things that happen with lips and hands and tongues and fingers and toys are lumped together as “foreplay,” i.e., the stuff you do to get ready for Proper Sex. Yet for most women, this stuff isn’t a warm-up: It’s the headline act.
In The Case of the Female Orgasm, Elisabeth Lloyd concluded that only 25 percent of women reliably orgasm through penetration. Penetration, then, is not so much the highlight as a chance to think about what Deliveroo we’re going to order when it’s over. So when, in her 2017 book Becoming Cliterate, psychologist Laurie Mintz suggested we ditch the idea of “foreplay” altogether, it tapped into something many of us had long suspected: Foreplay is actually kind of bullshit.
Heterosexual hookups, Mintz explained, follow a “traditional sex script,” which starts with foreplay, moves onto penetration and finishes when the man cums. “We need to stop using the word ‘sex’ to mean intercourse because it gives the false impression that intercourse is the main event for both men and women and you now know it’s not,” she wrote. “Let’s use the word ‘sex’ to denote the whole sexual encounter. … Also, since sex will no longer mean just intercourse, we can do away with the word ‘foreplay.’”
That sentiment is increasingly being echoed across the educational and therapeutic world. Sex education website BISH points out, “What people often call foreplay is actually just different kinds of sex.” Illustrator Hazel Mead’s viral artwork draws attention to the array of erotic activities that don’t involve PIV sex. Sex podcast Project Pleasure even made “stop using the word foreplay” one of its New Year’s resolutions.
“Sex acts we deem foreplay have no validity in their own right,” stated co-host Anouszka Tate. “People are belittling their own pleasure. They might have experienced earth-shattering orgasms but it’s brushed off, whereas if they’d had penetrative sex, they’d say it was sex, even if they personally didn’t come.”
The idea that sex encompasses more than just penetration isn’t new, of course. The Kama Sutra covers all kinds of sexy activities outside of intercourse, including kissing, embracing and a whole section on scratching. The word “foreplay” didn’t even come into use until the 20th century: Dictionaries date it from the 1920s, but it rose to prominence following Masters and Johnson’s work on the human sexual response cycle in the 1960s, which emphasized the importance of the “excitement phase” of sexual arousal. This has since become the template for sex advice.
“That model of what sex is — foreplay to get aroused, penetration as ‘proper sex,’ orgasm as the goal of sex — has been reproduced and reinforced in numerous sex advice books,” writer, academic and activist Meg-John Barker tells me. “Books are structured around it, with early chapters on foreplay and oral sex, most of the middle of the book devoted to PIV and a chapter toward the end on ‘alternative’ sex like anal and kink.”
Most medical definitions of the term specify that it “precedes intercourse.” And the majority of us will have been taught that sex = penis-in-vagina. “Ask most people what their definition of sex is and they will give you that answer,” says sex-and-relationship therapist Kate Moyle. “Sex education has been almost solely focused on reproduction, prevention of unwanted pregnancies and protection from STIs.”
When I ask my straight male friends where they drew the line between “foreplay” and “sex,” almost all say sex starts when penetration does. “If you asked me if a blow job was sex or foreplay, my instinctive answer would be foreplay,” says Josh, 35. “I suppose I personally define sex quite narrowly, but that’s not necessarily the same as saying sex is better.”
Isn’t it, though? When we make penetration the definition of sex, don’t we in some way elevate it above all other activities? This is not just about me wanting my orgasms to take center stage: When we relegate certain kinds of sex to foreplay, we exclude people with disabilities, conditions such as vaginismus and erectile dysfunction and many LGBTQ+ folks. Research suggests that men who have sex with men, for example, are actually having less penetrative sex than other groups, but given our cultural preoccupation with putting dicks in holes, identifying as a “side“ can be a confusing, stressful experience.
For people with conditions such as vaginismus, where penetration is painful and often impossible, saying no to partners causes rifts in relationships. Comedian Fran Bushe talks openly on stage about how boyfriends see her condition as a problem to fix, or else a reflection on their sexual prowess. “In the past I’ve felt bad for my partners, like I’m denying them ‘proper sex’ and have felt like a failure if penetration isn’t included,” she replies when I email her. “Sometimes I’ve felt completely broken as a woman, as penis-in-vagina sex can still feel like the Holy Grail of sexual experience.”
Similarly for Joe, 40, who’s struggled with erectile dysfunction most of his adult life and can’t afford to regularly take medication, inability to have penetrative sex has made him question his masculinity. “My wife tries to make me feel like it’s okay, but in my mind she’s disappointed and I feel like less of a man sometimes because of it,” he says. “This issue really messes with a guy’s mind. I just don’t want to feel subpar.”
Em, 35, has a skin condition called lichen sclerosis which makes the skin around the genitals prone to tearing, so penetration is a no-go. “I date quite a lot, I’m pretty up front, and men will always say it isn’t a problem… until they realize you mean it,” she explains. “They all tell me they’re fine with it, but when it comes down to it, they do mind — even the seemingly ‘woke’ men. Then the subtle pressure begins: ‘Why don’t we just try?’ ‘I’ll be gentle.’ ‘Just let me put it in a little bit.’ ‘You seem ready.’ Honestly, it’s a bit heartbreaking because there’s always the implication something is missing.”
Both Moyle and Barker tell me that increasing numbers of people are reporting anxiety around sex, or even describing themselves as having a sexual disorder, because penetration doesn’t work for them. “Psychiatry, sex therapy and sex advice define ‘sexual dysfunction’ in relation to this traditional model of sex,” says Barker. “If we could wrestle all the things that are labelled foreplay back onto our sexual menus, people would have a much better time.” Moyle agrees: “As a therapist, I try and take the sole emphasis off intercourse and talk instead about the goal of sex as pleasure and enjoyment.”
A shift is occurring in sex tech, too. After decades of dildos, toy manufacturers such as Mystery Vibe and Hot Octopuss are making toys specifically aimed at activities other than penis-in-vagina sex. When the latter launched their PULSE penis vibrator, it was in response to the needs of men with spinal cord injuries, for whom ejaculation isn’t normally possible. Taking inspiration from medical technology used to help these guys cum in order to participate in IVF, the “Guybrator” can be used on an erect or flaccid penis and does not need to be held in place.
“Our whole company is founded on the idea of making sexual pleasure possible for those who may not be able to have the kind of sex you see in these narrow definitions,” says Hot Octopuss co-founder Julia Margo. “It’s vital to expand definitions of sex simply because we see so many people whose lived experience sits outside that.” When it comes to canceling foreplay, Margo is fully on board. The web copy for the PULSE’s sister toy, the PULSE DUO, describes it as “the couples’ sex toy that turns foreplay into the main event,” since, she explains, SEO demands they continue to use the word, but they link to articles that dispel the myths around it.
So are people ready for a foreplay revolution? When I put out a request on Twitter asking men to give me their views on foreplay, dozens slid into my DMs to stress how seriously they took it. “I sometimes consider myself weird,” ponders John, 38, “because I think foreplay is not only essential but it has the benefit of sometimes being far more pleasurable than penetration.” Scott, 24, adds, “I genuinely believe that for both myself and my partner it is a crucial (and more enjoyable) stage as it is where you can feel more intimate with and discover each other’s bodies more.”
When I further explain the angle of my piece, most were open to it. “I think it’s a good idea,” says John. “Sex should encompass all the acts of physical and preferably emotional pleasure two (or more) humans can provide for each other. No one act is the main event.”
Sadly, however, the women I speak to say that when it came to accepting sex without penetration, a lot of guys are all mouth and no trousers. Sonia, 34, tells me how she’s recently come to the end of a six-month “no PIV” experiment. “I go to a lot of sex parties, and it’s funny how much less interested men are. I was kissing a guy and I felt I had to say that I’m not currently having PIV sex. He said, ‘I wasn’t expecting that,’ but sure enough he vanished within a minute.” By comparison, her hookups with women have been far more open-ended. “I still remember the first time I did strap-on sex. I asked, ‘How long do we do this for?’ She said, ‘Until you don’t want it anymore or I get tired!’ It was the first time I realized how much we [as a society] center male pleasure.”
Honestly, in the sexual realm, there’s actually a lot we can learn from LGBTQ+ folks. “Interestingly, the asexual community is a good place to turn,” says Barker. “Because asexual people don’t experience sexual attraction, many think a lot about other ways to enjoy intimacy. Taking the ‘fore’ off and focusing on ‘play’ is a great approach. What feels playful, exciting, naughty, enjoyable, arousing? What happens when we share our answers to that question with a sexual partner?”
If only 19-year-old me had asked that question, I might have realized my hookup didn’t need to be defined as “foreplay” — it could just be fun.