What do you mean by foreplay?
In the latest 'Anouszka Asks', our sex positivity columnist questions the way we talk about, and indeed the very existence of, foreplay...
It was a balmy Tuesday evening last year when an uncharacteristic red hot rage washed over me. I was watching Love Island (no, I shan’t apologise) and we’d just been introduced to the ‘Do Bits Society’. I’d long felt uneasy about the idea of ‘foreplay’, but this was the moment my muddled musings took physical form. I watched, dismayed, as of a number of painfully chiselled men and women explicitly belittled non-penetrative sex acts.
“Did you have sex?” “NO!” an exasperated girl would gasp. “We just did bits”, they would say. “Hand stuff.” Meanwhile across the villa a group of lads were lazing in the sun, relating the same tale of “‘just doing bits.” Their accounts of their encounters betrayed the feeling that some cursory handsy bits or oral stuff are just a warm up act. An entry fee that must begrudgingly be paid to access the main event.
The couple in question, their limbs intimately entwined, had used their hands to stimulate each other. Thanks to the focus on the clitoris, manual and oral are the kinds of sex most likely to make women orgasm. This female Islander may well have experienced earth-shattering pleasure, but brushed it off as “other stuff.” If they’d had penetrative sex and the guy had ejaculated, they’d both be telling those same friends they did indeed have sex, even though she didn’t cum…
It’s not that orgasm is the sole goal of sex, by any means, but it’s telling that the sex acts that most reliably get a woman off don’t really count.
They exist only in relation to what they come before.
So, we need to ban the word ‘foreplay’, and regardless of your gender or sexual orientation, you’d benefit from signing up to this crusade too.
The Love Island villa is just a microcosm of the real world. 95.5% of people define ‘sex’ as penis-in-vagina penetration, and anal penetration counts as sex for 80% of the population too*. Only 40% agree that oral sex is real sex.
Before you launch your own angry penetration-worship counter crusade, I’m not wanting to downgrade penetration. I’m just keen on giving everything else a shiny new upgrade, so that whatever you or your partner derive pleasure from counts. Instead of this unimaginative foreplay starter, P-in-V main course script we’re currently stuck with, we could be treating ourselves to an inventive, personalised sex life that actually caters to our desires. Think pick ‘n’ mix but for pleasure. Yes, I’ll take a blow job, two nipple clamps and a light spanking today please. I’ll come back for some anal and a sensual massage tomorrow, thanks.
There’s a huge portion of the population who don’t have a penis, don’t want a penis, or can’t enjoy penetration even if they have a penis available to them. So when we use the words ‘sex’ and ‘intercourse’ synonymously we’re not only erasing opportunities for personal pleasure, we’re erasing the experiences of a whole host of other people too.
One of the questions asked of me in my last Ask Anouszka is a case in point. A gay man told me he enjoys exploring sexually, but the pleasure he gets from what he does do is overshadowed by concerns about what he’s not doing. He’s troubled by the fact that he just doesn’t like anal penetration. Feeling unable to identify as a top, bottom, or both (the only options traditionally presented to gay men because, of course, the sexual sorting hat must categorise all humans according to their status as a giver or receiver of penis), he was contemplating ‘learning to like it’. Like his current likes are the wrong things to like so please can you find some likes that other people deem appropriate.
What about the men who would like penetration but are physically unable to have it? Disability could mean the mobility and dexterity we see in conventional high energy, acrobatic depictions of sex are more difficult. There are numerous wonderful options now – sex chairs can essentially do the thrusting for those with spinal cord injuries, and there exist hands free toys that elicit sensation for flaccid penises – but if we’re not framing those things as legitimate sex acts in their own right, individuals will continue to feel they’re missing out on something better. That their sex life will never quite be complete.
Erectile dysfunction affects 58% of men aged 25 – 35. Almost half of this group avoid sex because they’re worried about their performance. With masculinity so tightly bound up with sexual prowess, it’s easy for men to feel their body has let them down if, for whatever reason, penetration doesn’t happen. When your role is to perform proper sex, and proper sex is so tightly prescribed, identities can be lost.
Even little lifestyle changes like stress, medicines, or alcohol could temporarily affect your ability to get hard. I get it; in the moment this can feel horribly frustrating. Embarrassing, even. No sex tonight then I guess. That’s a failure of an evening, eh? But I wonder if – with a more open mind about what sex is – this can sometimes be a blessing.
Ok sure, had you not had that last whiskey you probably could have got in two perfunctory pumps and technically earned the right to put another notch on your bedpost. But alas, your penis was temporarily unavailable. So what if, still wanting to feel close to your partner, you instead spend hours kissing and writhing and exploring the curves of their inner thigh? You expertly use your tongue to elicit ecstasy. Their fingers deftly stimulate your prostate. You orgasm from that alone. Do you still feel your body has let you down? Do you really think you haven’t had sex?
Kate Moyle, a Psychosexual & Relationship Therapist and Therapist on BBC’s Sex On The Couch, agrees with me. Differentiating between foreplay and sex creates a failure driven model. ‘This sets up the idea that if you aren’t ‘doing’ intercourse then you aren’t ‘doing’ sex’.
A common theme in all these situations is shame. Shame about apparently non-normative desires. Shame about being unable to physically perform the sex society expects. Shame at letting a partner down. Because as well as allowing you to have the sex you physically enjoy, banning the word foreplay will also quiet the deafeningly garrulous internal monologue that’s mocking you – or your partner – for the type of sex you want to have.
“This idea [of being broken] further emphasises the distress, often worsening symptoms and having a negative impact on mental wellbeing,” Moyle explains. Essentially, if you’re anxious about the type of sex you’re having, your body is less likely to respond positively to any kind of sex at all.
Simply giving yourself permission to count whatever brings you pleasure as ‘having sex’ is a revolutionary act.
This is a consent issue too. When we frame foreplay as acts that lead up to penetration in a nice orderly fashion, we’re suggesting that if we’ve made it to penetration, we must be entirely comfortable with everything that we deem to come before it. So there’s no need to talk about boundaries around manual and oral sex if we’ve already had penetrative sex, right?
I actually had penetrative sex many times before I first had oral sex, because to me the latter was more intimate. Even now, I’ll happily have penetrative sex with a man on a first date, but will very, very rarely perform oral sex. We all deserve the autonomy to decide which acts to perform, in what order, and with whom, otherwise we’re all complicit in sacrificing our own most personal pleasure in order to pander to the will of, well, who exactly?
So, I’ll ask you again: what do you mean by foreplay? Because, if we’re using ‘sex’ to denote the entire sexual encounter, hasn’t the word ‘foreplay’ become redundant…?
This has got to be a mutually enjoyable experience for us both, so I want you to ask me questions too. What are you confused, curious, or concerned about? Ask me a question in the comments below or on my Instagram page, and I’ll do my best to answer in my next column!
* ‘How do heterosexual undergraduates define having sex?’ Sewell & Strassberg, 2014
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