“Foreplay”—It just Makes Us Nervous About Sex

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I continue to be baffled by the relationship many people have to “foreplay.”

I’ve been putting the word in quotation marks for decades (driving print magazine editors crazy as far back as the 1980s), because it describes a state of mind I don’t want to endorse.

First, it supposes that intercourse is “real sex,” and everything else isn’t—that other activities are just second-rate sex. Furthermore, “foreplay” supposes that one is preparing for something—that these activities don’t have a satisfaction or integrity of their own.

When I was in high school, “foreplay” was what a guy did to get a girl hot for “real sex.” A lot of guys rushed through it, because they had their eye on a bigger prize beyond it (“real sex”). Guys also rushed through it because they didn’t enjoy it very much—it was a perfunctory ritual, a necessary procedure that girls apparently wanted, although we didn’t much understand what they got from it—other than making us jump through hoops before giving us what we really wanted.

As stilted and empty as that sounds, I see too many adult men and women in my office with the same attitude. They rush through “foreplay,” because they simply don’t enjoy it. They’re too distracted by concerns about erection, lubrication, or orgasm. They’re too anxious about succeeding. They’re too worried about how their partner is feeling, and how close they are to saying “let’s forget the whole thing tonight.” No one can enjoy “foreplay” very much when they’re distracted like that.

When patients have concerns about how their bodies function sexually, I invariably want to slow them down. I want them to feel their body parts, experience the wonder of seeing and touching a naked person, I want them to activate their sensorium: find something about your partner that looks good to you, tastes good to you, smells good to you, and so on.

I honestly don’t care if it’s a “sexual” body part (as opposed to a “non-sexual” part like an elbow, knee, or leg hair); anything we can enjoy during sex IS sexual. The elbow doesn’t know it isn’t “sexual” any more than the thigh knows that it is. Flesh doesn’t think; it waits for the brain to code an experience as erotic, annoying, threatening, whatever.

When couples come into my office with virtually no sexual experience (say, an arranged marriage of a virgin and a near-virgin), they often ask my advice about “how to do foreplay.” Or they tell me they dutifully have some minutes of “foreplay” before attempting intercourse, at which they repeatedly fail.

The idea that “foreplay” would be a period of relaxation rather than of duty, or a set of behaviors that were enjoyable rather than prepatory, is completely foreign to them. Many actually don’t know that some people enjoy those things and do them for pleasure, rather than because they’re supposedly required for “successful” sex.

I understand that intercourse is necessary for conception (fertility treatments are still crushingly expensive and even risky for many people), and some couples are in a hurry to conceive. Therefore many people prioritize intercourse over other sexual activities. Far more couples prioritize it, however, because they think it’s synonymous with sex, real sex, good sex, etc..

Many people have seen little or no “foreplay” of even the mildest kind in movies or TV. If they haven’t dated, they may have no personal experience of it. Imagine going from nervously holding hands to clueless intercourse—you’d want to do things “right,” even though that pressure only made you more nervous.

Deemphasizing intercourse would be a great step toward making sex more satisfying, less stressful, and simply easier for a huge number of people. Encouraging people to do what they like during erotic activity, rather than doing sex “the right way” would reduce everyone’s anxiety and even promote communication. “What do you like?” “How does this feel?” “Would you like more of this? Want it a little different?”

Those are the sexiest words on earth.

“I want to do foreplay right so we can succeed at sex” never put anyone in the mood, never helped anyone relax, never made anyone feel playful or confident. Lovers should not be technicians—in fact, sex is where we can go to get away from the need to do things “right” that’s so common in the rest of our lives.


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