Time to ditch the idea of foreplay?

I recently did an interview with Franki Cookney about how problematic the concept of ‘foreplay’ is. You can read Frank’s excellent articles here, and my interview below.

Where does the concept of “foreplay” come from in the first place?

I believe it dates back to the studies that Masters and Johnson did on sex in the 1970s – or certainly it became a more common idea around that time. They observed many male/female couples having sex and came up with the sexual response cycle which mapped on to the common model we now have of sex following these stages: foreplay to get aroused, penetration as ‘proper sex’, orgasm as the goal of sex. 

Why do so many people struggle to get their heads around the idea of sex being more than just PiV (or PiA)?

That model of what sex is has been reproduced and reinforced in numerous sex advice books and other media which tend to assume that this is what we mean by sex. In fact many of those books are even structured around the model, with early chapters on foreplay and oral sex, most of the middle of the book devoted to multiple positions for PiV, and perhaps a chapter towards the end on ‘alternative’ kinds of sex like anal and kink.

Why does it matter that we get away from viewing sex as “foreplay” vs “intercourse”? And who is affected by this?

It is really important and everybody is affected by it! We know from recent sex surveys that over half of people think of themselves as having at least one sexual disorder. This is ridiculous! And a big part of the reason is that psychiatry, sex therapy, and sex advice define ‘sexual dysfunction’ in relation to this model of sex. People have to be able to get erections or be penetrated, and they are expected to be able to orgasm from this.

Actually we know that over two thirds of women can’t orgasm from PIV alone, and many men can’t either. Beyond that many, many people find other kinds of sex as exciting – or way more exciting – than PIV. If we could wrestle all the things that are labelled as ‘foreplay’ (i.e’ not ‘proper sex’) or ‘alternative’ (i.e. ‘weird’ sex) back onto our sexual menus then people would have a much better time sexually. So that includes all varieties of oral and anal sex of course, but also touching each other, mutual masturbation, dry-humping, passionate snogging, touching other parts of the body than the genitals, all kinky activities, tantra breath practices, sharing fantasies, playing with sex toys, watching porn, etc. etc. etc.

It might seem like a paradox, but letting go of the centrality of penetration and orgasm generally leads to a way more satisfying sex life. It means that people can tune into what actually turns them on, and they can enjoy what they’re actually doing instead of chasing the goal of an orgasm, or worrying they’re going to ‘fail’ by not getting there. 

Taking the ‘fore’ off the beginning of the word and focusing on play is a great approach. What feels playful, joyful, fun, exciting, naughty, enjoyable, arousing, delicious, pleasurable? What happens when we share our answers to that question with somebody that we have sex with and focus on doing those things?

Are there any places where we are seeing a broader view of sex being embraced, for example in subcultures, in toy design, in sex tech, in educational resources? 

Kink and LGBTQ+ communities generally have a wider understanding of what counts as sex, and the kinds of yes, no, maybe checklists that kink people use to figure out what they’re into can be a useful starting place for everyone. However, being outside the mainstream doesn’t completely protect you from believing that it’s only ‘proper sex’ if there’s some kind of penetration. Also LGBTQ+ people can end up with their own cultural norms which can be just as restrictive (e.g. if it’s assumed that gay men should like anal sex, or that lesbians should – or shouldn’t – use strap-ons, for example).

The asexual community is a good place to turn. Because ace people don’t experience sexual attraction, many think a lot about other ways they could enjoy intimacy, sensations, or play with other people without any genital involvement, again assuming that it’s worthwhile in its own right rather than a prelude for something else.

Justin Hancock and I try to promote this wider view of sex in our resources and podcast (megjohnandjustin.comrewriting-the-rules.com, and bishuk.com). Scarleteen is a good resource for younger people, and Lori-Beth Bisbey does a great A-Z of sex podcast (the-intimacy-coach.com). Browsing sex toys at a store like Sh! can be a good bet also, and many people put on excellent workshops on more conscious sexuality (like those related to Urban Tantra and the Wheel of Consent). Check out sexpluszine.com and pleasureinstitute.org.

What might the personal benefits be of broadening our understanding of sex?

Just huge – we will have a much more fulfilling and enjoyable sex life, and the things we learn from this can also teach us a lot that is valuable for the rest of our lives. For example moving away from a set script means we have to do consent better (which is useful in all areas of life), and taking the focus off any goal for sex cultivates the capacity to be present to what we’re doing (which is also useful in all areas of life). Remembering how to be playful is great for mental and physical health.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).