Why foreplay isn't what you think it is

Why foreplay isn't what you think it is

Why foreplay isn't what you think it is

By Nicole Guappone

Common sexual scripts dictate that foreplay is everything sexual that leads to intercourse—with penetrative intercourse being the “goal” of sexual intimacy, the thing that “counts.” When we think about foreplay, we usually think about things like kissing and grinding and maybe even oral sex or sexting.

But this is actually a really limiting view that can make us feel like something is wrong with us if we’re not doing it “properly” or following the routine: foreplay, then intercourse, then (simultaneous!) orgasm, then pillow talk and cuddling. 

But it doesn’t have to be like that! (Unless you really, really like it.) Research shows that some of the cultural ideas we have about foreplay simply aren’t true.

But what is foreplay? How long should foreplay last?

In 2004, the Journal of Sex Research published a research study that asked 152 heterosexual couples about actual and desired duration of foreplay and intercourse. Regardless of gender, the ideal length of foreplay for all participants was almost exactly the same—18-19 minutes. However, women “significantly underestimated their partner’s desired duration of foreplay,” suggesting that they assumed men do not enjoy or need foreplay. 

This likely stems from the idea that men only value penetrative sex, and everything else is just something they have to do in order to get to the “good stuff.” But clearly this is a misconception! According to this study, men aren’t sacrificing anything during foreplay—and they are probably enjoying it just as much as their partners. 

Here at The Pelvic People we know that mainstream sexual scripts are often incomplete and sometimes even irrelevant…what if we told you that sex doesn’t start in the bedroom and that foreplay starts when the sex ends? 

Reframing sexual pleasure

Sex is about so much more than genitals and orgasms. While genitals are often sensitive and have lots of wonderful nerve endings, “they are not particularly dexterous” says Elle Hawkins, LCSW. “Bumping sets of genitals into one another can be fun,” they told us, “but it actually may not be as sensational as other types of stimulation.”

For a lot of people, their most enjoyable experiences of sexual or erotic sensations may not even include the genitals at all! 

One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to broaden our ideas of pleasure and sex, especially if we experience pelvic pain. 

“The more we are able to deconstruct our ideas of what sex ‘should’ be and the more we are able to sense into our bodies and notice what feels good,” Hawkins went on, “the better we’ll be able to create the sensual and intimate experiences that feel right for us and our partner(s) in that particular moment.”

Rachael Rose, a sex and relationship coach, told us how she deals with her chronic pain and the challenges around sex that it creates. “I have chronic health issues that led me to develop vulvar pain in my mid-20's, and in addition to navigating the medical side of that, it also impacted my sex life,” they said. “I wanted to have sex the way I wanted to have sex, and I was frustrated my body wouldn't let me enjoy it. That made it really hard to get into the mood.”

It may not feel like it all the time, but maybe pelvic pain can be, well… a gift? “The foreplay and sex I have now are better, more fun, and a lot more creative than ever,” Rose continued. “It’s much more about what I and whoever I’m with enjoy, and a lot less about what I think foreplay or sex is ‘supposed’ to look like.”

Every positive thing you do in a relationship can be foreplay!

The goal of foreplay is to cultivate desire and anticipation, to get yourself thinking about those steamy scenarios in advance—sexy pre-gaming, if you will. 

Something as simple as doing a chore your partner dislikes or sending your sweetie a secret smile across the table at a party can do that. So can snuggling while watching a movie or holding hands and talking about sex. 

These are all things that can reinforce connections and create intimacy, things that can help you ease off the sexy time breaks and start tapping on the gas.

Stress can be a major contributor to the “brake” pedal when it comes sex. Imagine the joy and relief on your partner’s face when they realize that they don’t have to do that thing they hate because you were thoughtful enough to take on that task yourself. It might be doing some extra emotional labor, or it can be something as simple as clearing the table after dinner or tidying the couch so there’s room to sit next to each other.

Then you’ll both be able to go to bed and be completely in the moment—feeling the feels, savoring the sensations. Knock out those mood-killers early to leave plenty of time and space for getting it on later. 

Understanding what makes us feel cared for AND how we like to show others that we care for them is crucial to broadening what we think of as foreplay and sex. Being able to explain these preferences, especially to our significant others, will help us co-create fulfilling, intimate, and pleasurable encounters. 

Anticipating your partner’s needs shows them that you’re thinking about them and consciously making an effort. If they respond well to gifts, get them something special or make their favorite cookies for dessert. 

Some people crave physical touch—sensual and/or platonic. Give hugs throughout the day, a gentle squeeze on the shoulder or hip as you pass them by in the kitchen, or a massage (all with prior consent). 

Pro-tip: If you’re someone who loves some sexy surprise touching, a way to involve active consent is to simply say “no thank you!” if your partner touches you and in that moment, you’re just not feeling it!

Create pleasurable experiences that are uniquely yours

What are some things you like doing for your partner that give you the warm fuzzies? Do you enjoy bringing them a glass of water when they aren’t expecting it (because staying hydrated is important but also good for that WAP!) or wearing underwear that you know they like? 

What gets YOU going? Think about things you may do every day but aren’t present in your body for. When you put lotion on yourself after a shower, do you just rub mindlessly while thinking about what’s for dinner or do you pause to really think about touching yourself? Notice what it feels like to receive pleasurable touch from your own hands. (This doesn’t have to be sexual!) The more we are present in our own bodies, the more discoveries we can make about what feels good to us, whether it involves “sex” or not.

 Explore and try to find new ways to experience and give pleasure, to yourself and to your partner(s)! Sex is an ever-evolving practice and broadening our ideas of it—and everything that goes along with it, like foreplay—leaves room for more creative, embodied, and pleasure-centered experiences.

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