Let's stop calling everything that actually gets women off 'foreplay'

By Suzannah Weiss

On my backyard trampoline in the summer of 2002, two friends explained the “bases” to me: kissing, feeling up, below-the-belt touching, and then the “home run”: intercourse, AKA “sex.” The most intimate, enjoyable, and significant sexual act you could perform, it seemed, involved a penis in a vagina.

Magazines confirmed this with their endless “sex position” articles. None of the positions were for fingering or oral sex. They were all for intercourse. 

I learned that “losing your virginity” meant having a penis in your vagina for the first time, as if every other act were just preparation for that big moment. 

I learned that foreplay was, as the dictionary defines it, “erotic stimulation preceding sexual intercourse,” not something important enough to stand on its own. 

So, I spent my first few years of sexual activity wondering when my vagina would sprout new nerve endings. As my partners and I glossed over foreplay, I felt defective for not feeling much at all during intercourse — not even in the positions that magazines promised would deliver mind-blowing orgasms. 

I concluded that I must have some emotional blockage preventing me from climaxing with a partner — until my current partner taught me that I very much could. The secret? “Foreplay.” Instead of treating foreplay as a way to get me warmed up, he treated it as a way to bring me to a boil. 

I felt guilty at first, like I was getting double what he was getting, since I was receiving either oral or digital sex and vaginal sex. But then I realized, I wasn’t getting much out of the vaginal sex (a weird term to me, BTW, because from the perspective of a woman being pleased, all sex is vaginal).

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It felt nice, but it was mainly for him. What we were actually doing was very equitable: spending half the time on him and half the time on me. We were taking turns. 

So now, I don’t distinguish between foreplay and sex. In fact, I sometimes treat intercourse as foreplay. After it, I’m even more excited for my turn. 

It’s disturbing to me that for a while, I viewed the activities I get the most pleasure from as an entrance fee men paid into my body, not a goal in of themselves. It’s disturbing to me that we teach women that their pleasure is just a lead-up to male pleasure.

After all, the majority women need clitoral stimulation, like that which foreplay provides, in order to orgasm. Only one in four women consistently orgasms through intercourse, according to a meta-analysis of 32 studies in Elisabeth Lloyd’s The Case of the Female Orgasm. And that number is likely lower because many of the women in these studies could’ve been stimulating their clits during intercourse.

One study in the Journal of Sex Research found that women say their best orgasms come from oral sex, AKA “foreplay,” while men’s come from intercourse. When the thing that gives men the most pleasure is on the prix fixe menu while women’s pleasure is on the special menu… I see you, patriarchy. 

As University of Florida psychology professor Laurie Mintz, PhD writes in Becoming Cliterate, “What would the world be like if men’s orgasms were ‘just foreplay’ and women’s orgasms were the main event?”

According to Mintz, the number one reason for the orgasm gap (the tendency for men to orgasm more than women) is that we consider intercourse the main event. If we broadened our definition of sex to include what was previously considered foreplay, women would be having just as many orgasms as men do (or, honestly, more — there’s no rule saying you can’t also whip out a toy and enjoy another orgasm during intercourse).

Putting intercourse above other sexual acts is also extremely heteronormative. It implies that sex between someone with a penis and someone with a vagina is the most significant, desirable kind. Not to mention, building up intercourse feeds damaging ideas around virginity that say you become a different person after just one act (but somehow not others). 

So, here’s my challenge: stop using the word “foreplay.” There are just different kinds of sex. Different people prefer different ones in different orders, but none of them are right are wrong.

Rather than aspire toward intercourse by default, take the time to figure out what kind of sex you and your partner want. Whatever that is, it deserves main-event status.

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