What is foreplay? It might be your key to pain-free sex

Sex Education

0 mins reading time
Written by:
Emma McGowan, writer, editor, and SFSI-certified sex educator
Reviewed by:
Dr. Elena Heber, psychologist
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What is foreplay? It might be your key to pain-free sex

So you've heard the term "foreplay" before but you're not exactly sure what it means or why it matters, especially when penetrative sex isn't on the table. Foreplay is any activity before intercourse (as in, “p in the v” or “p in the a”) that gets you turned on and ready for penetrative sex, if that’s the goal. For most people, foreplay is a fun way to connect physically and emotionally, build anticipation, and ensure everyone is ready for whatever sexual activity comes next.

When you have vaginismus, foreplay takes on an even bigger role. Since penetration may be difficult or impossible, foreplay is how you and your partner can experience intimacy and pleasure together. The good news is there are many ways to be intimate that have nothing to do with penetration. Foreplay can include kissing, touching, massage, dirty talk, watching each other masturbate, and more. 

Don't worry if some of these options seem intimidating at first. The key is to start slow, communicate openly with your partner about what feels good, and have fun exploring each other's bodies without pressure or expectation. Foreplay is all about pleasure and connection, so take your time and do what feels right for you.

What is foreplay?

So what exactly is foreplay? Foreplay refers to sexual activities that precede intercourse. But before we get into the specifics, we do want to make one note: “Foreplay” is itself kind of an outdated term. It assumes that “real” sex is penetrative sex and that anything else is just a “nice to have.” Not only does that perspective not take most queer sex into account, it also minimizes the importance of what is, for many people, one of the really great parts about sex! 

But while foreplay is an outdated term, it’s still a really common one–and we always want to meet people where they’re at. So we’re going to continue using it in this article, but now we know that you know that it’s not just about getting ready for penetration.

Okay, back to the regularly scheduled programming: For people with vaginismus who want to have penetrative sex, foreplay is especially important for relaxation and lubrication. Let’s take a look at what that can mean.

Starting slow: Focusing on sensuality over sexuality

Starting slow is key. Forget about intercourse or any kind of penetration at first. Instead, focus on sensuality over sexuality. This means exploring each other's bodies through touch, smell, sound, sight, and taste. Sex is a full body experience, so now is the time to engage those senses!

Touch each other gently. Caress, massage, stroke. Pay attention to how different touches make you and your partner feel. Ask what feels good. Try lightly scratching or tickling if you both enjoy that kind of sensation.

Smell each other's skin and hair. Perfume, cologne, natural scents: discover the aromas that get you going. Breathe each other in.

Whisper or gently moan. Make sounds of pleasure as you touch and explore. Hearing that your partner is turned on can be highly stimulating.

Look at each other. Admire each other's bodies. Make eye contact. See the desire and passion in your partner's eyes. A lot of people get really turned on by what they see.

Kiss and lick. Don't underestimate the power of kissing. Start with lips, tongues and mouths. Nibble ears or necks gently. Lick and suck fingers or other erogenous zones. Let tasting each other's skin become a sensual game.

Take it slow. There's no need to rush into anything else. Savor this unhurried, playful time together. Stay present in the moment, focusing all your senses on your partner's pleasure as well as your own. This foundation of sensuality over sexuality will make any future steps towards intimacy far more pleasurable and comfortable for you both.

How to Talk About Foreplay With Your Partner

Start the conversation

The first step is simply starting the conversation. This can definitely be awkward, but open communication is key. Let your partner know you want to talk about being intimate and what you're both comfortable with. Make it clear that you want to go slow and avoid vaginal penetration for now. Ask what kinds of touch and foreplay they enjoy. Really listen to understand their needs and desires. Share what you like too, while also expressing any anxieties you may have. The more you openly discuss it, the more natural these conversations will feel.

Explore your options

There are so many ways to be intimate that don't involve penetration. Discuss exploring foreplay through kissing, touching, massage, and more. Some options to try:

Manual stimulation: AKA hand jobs. Using your hands to stroke, massage, and tease sensitive areas of the body. Touching breasts, inner thighs, and genitals releases feel-good hormones like oxytocin that reduce stress and increase arousal.

Skin contact: Cuddling, hugging, caressing–any contact between bare skin releases oxytocin, the "love hormone." Strip down to your underwear or less and simply hold each other. Make eye contact, synchronize your breathing, and enjoy the warmth of skin on skin.

Deep kissing: Passionate kissing ignites desire by stimulating the lips and tongue, which are connected to the same parts of the brain that control arousal and pleasure. Kiss slowly, gently suck on your partner's lower lip, and use your tongue to stroke theirs.

Sensual massage: Using massage oil or lotion, slowly rub and knead your partner's neck, shoulders, back, arms, and legs. A full-body massage eases tension and creates intimacy through touch. Pay extra attention to erogenous zones like the inner thighs, lower back, and feet.

Sex games: Playing sexy games helps build arousal in a fun, low-pressure way. Try strip poker, truth or dare, or role playing different fantasies. Feed each other chocolate-covered strawberries or whipped cream. Read passages from erotic novels to each other. The possibilities are endless!

Dirty talk: Whisper sexy compliments, fantasies, or words of affirmation in your partner's ear to turn up the heat. Another smart move? Saying out loud what you both want to do to each other. It’s a great place to get going if you’re feeling awkward about dirty talk.

Build anticipation

An important part of foreplay is building sexual tension and anticipation. Take breaks from touching to gaze into each other's eyes, whisper in your partner's ear, or feed each other snacks. The longer you draw out foreplay, the more aroused and eager you'll both become. But go at the pace that feels right for you, without pressure to rush into anything you're not ready for.

Remember that foreplay should be fun and pleasurable for both you and your partner. Don't focus so much on the end goal of intercourse that you miss out on enjoying the journey. Take things slow, communicate openly about what feels good, and don't be afraid to laugh–sex is supposed to be fun! 

So go with the flow and enjoy this time connecting with your partner. You've got this!

Emma McGowan

Emma McGowan is a writer, editor, and SFSI-certified sex educator with over a decade of content marketing experience. She is currently the managing editor of consumer-facing blogs at the global cybersecurity and privacy company, Gen. Emma was formerly a sex/relationships/dating writer at Bustle, including their sex advice advice column SEX IDK, and the senior writer at Startups.com. Her work has appeared on Buzzfeed, Broadly, Bedsider, Mashable, The Daily Dot, Mic, and The Bold Italic, and Sexual + Being, among others. When she's not writing and editing, Emma can be found sewing, reading, and playing with her two cats, Dwight and Poe.
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