It’s unfortunate that so many people regard foreplay as if it were a flight layover—that is, the place you stop by really quickly on the way to your final destination. But, since many of us understand foreplay to be the opening act for penetrative sex, the mind-set isn’t surprising. After all, the word foreplay literally means “before play.”
The problem? That understanding of the term suggests that only vaginally or anally penetrative acts constitute sex, says sex educator and sex-positivity advocate Lateef Taylor. And that’s simply not the case. “The word ‘foreplay’ is a bogus term that reinforces a penis-centric, heteronormative, cis-centric, exclusionary, and ableist understanding of what sex is,” they say, adding that the currently understood meaning of foreplay creates a hierarchy in which all other types of pleasure rank below these two forms of sex. “It delegitimizes sex acts that aren’t insertive.”
Sexologist Carol Queen, PhD, also takes issue with the term because it validates rushing through certain acts with high pleasure potential to get to a designated main event. This pattern can result in people not understanding that many of these acts can be essential to arousal. In fact, rushing through or skipping foreplay acts altogether and then jumping into insertive sex can result in less pleasure or even downright pain.
“Reinventing the term and ridding it of its ‘lesser-than’ connotation could help close the orgasm gap.” —sexologist Carol Queen, PhD
That’s why, in the name of inclusivity and increased pleasure for all, Dr. Queen and Taylor call for a complete rebranding of the meaning of foreplay. “Folks of all genders, sexualities, and relationship structures could benefit from really reveling in the pleasure of non-penetrative sex,” Taylor says.
Dr. Queen calls out that a rebrand would be especially valuable for vulva-owners. “In my opinion, reinventing the term and ridding it of its ‘lesser-than’ connotation could help to close the orgasm gap.” That’s because it would minimize an inclination to skip or hurry non-penetrative acts like dry humping, grinding, oral sex, or digital sex, all of which can help many vulva-owners reach orgasm, she says.
More orgasms and heightened pleasure seem like worthy enough causes to give foreplay the rebrand it so desperately needs in order to be inclusive. Below, get expert tips on how to embrace five highly pleasurable, non-penetrative sex acts as your next encounter. Because that’s what we’re going to start calling them now—sex acts, aka, what they actually are.
5 non-penetrative, highly pleasurable sex acts experts want you to try.
1. Explore sensation play
“Sensation play entails engaging someone’s senses in order to heighten their awareness of their body—and ultimately boost arousal,” says Taylor. Sometimes that means depriving one sense to heighten the others. For instance, using a blindfold can make every touch, smell, and sound more intense since you can’t see. Using different textures, pressures, and temperatures to ignite your senses also works.
“You might use a Wartenberg wheel, the tail-end of a flogger, a feather duster, an ice cube, or sex wax on your partner’s non-genital erogenous zones,” says Taylor. And then you might switch to tracing a stainless steel toy, like the Njoy pure wand, along their body, which has a different weight, texture, and temperature than all of those, they add, because contrast is the name of the sensation-play game.
Note: While surprising your senses is a component of sensation play, consent is still crucial. Dr. Queen recommends checking in with your partner ahead of time to talk through which toys, textures, and temperatures you want to choose. You can also choose to rule out any genital touching for your first few sensation-play sessions. Instead, use it as an opportunity to learn about other sensitive body parts.
This won’t shock you: “There are an incredible amount of nerve endings in the lips, so bringing your lips and mouth together with another person can create a tremendous amount of erotic pleasure,” says Dr. Queen.
To that point, consider making kissing the sex act of an upcoming encounter. Set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes, and go for it. You might even try kissing without using your hands at all to intensify the sensation. Another idea? “Ask your partner how they like to be kissed, then have them show you,” says Dr. Queen. Then, show them how you like to be kissed. “Explore gently biting and sucking your partner’s bottom lip, increasing intensity if it feels good for you and them,” she says.
3. Dance (with or without clothes)
“Dancing together with your clothes on may not be a sex act, but it can be seriously sexy,” says Dr. Queen. You can do it in a public place, as a precursor for more overt sex acts later, and if you’re already at home, with the place to yourself, you can turn on your favorite tunes, strip down, and dance with your clothes off, says Dr. Queen. As you do, revel in the sensation of the skin-to-skin contact.
4. Masturbate in front of your partner
Attention, Dr. Queen has a PSA for you: “Solo sex isn’t fake sex.” And, perhaps counterintuitively, it’s something you and your partner can do together. “Mutual masturbation is basically a ‘you-do-you, I’ll-do-me’ approach to sex,” says Dr. Queen. It entails you and your partner touching your own bodies at the same time.
Keeping the lights on also makes it a fantastic way to add a visual element to your sex play that allows you to watch your partner. “You get to see exactly how your partner chooses to pleasure themselves, which, chances are, is the way that brings them the most pleasure.” So pay attention and copy what you see next time your hand is on the steering wheel, so to speak.
5. Go down
“No matter what genitals someone has, [oral sex acts] can be incredibly pleasurable,” says Dr. Queen, who adds that this pleasure extends to both the giver and receiver of oral sex. There are physical sensations both parties can enjoy—whether you’re, say, licking or being licked—and as a direct result, intimacy gains are likely to abound.
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