I was driving back from the mountains late at night, rain pelting the windshield.
“Yeah, my friends are always asking me for sex advice. Sometimes I’m not sure what to say.”
Like parent like kid, I think, noticing how they look like a new adult and their adorable toddler self all at once.
As a sex and consent educator who is also a parent, I’ve always placed a high priority on talking to my children about sexual health. Not surprisingly, they’re all exceedingly comfortable talking about sex, and two of my children have completed Planned Parenthood’s peer sexual health educator program. One of those kids is now a sophomore at college, and our road trip conversation while bringing them home for winter break had not-surprisingly turned to sex.
I got curious. “What kinds of things do they ask?”
“Well, I guess one example is that they ask me about foreplay.”
“Foreplay?” I said, wrinkling my nose.
“Do you want to know my take on foreplay?” I offer.
“Your hot take?” they asked, laughing.
“Yes. Here’s the hot take on foreplay,” I said, trying to look excessively, studiously, absurdly serious.
They’d just told me they’re going through another peer health educator training next semester, to strengthen their skills and update their knowledge. We’re practically colleagues now, I think. That’s how we talk about sexuality after years of practice. My heart fills at this realization.
I explained my take on “foreplay” with a critique and deconstruction. In mainstream sexuality discourse, the entire concept of foreplay is rooted in linear, heteronormative scripts that privilege penis-in-vagina sex (PIV) as the end goal of all sexual activity. Everything leading up to that is filed under “foreplay,” and considered a warm-up for the main attraction.
The problem with this is that privileging PIV is heteronormative and excludes queer sex, nevermind that PIV is not the end-all, be-all of a good time in bed. Or on the floor. Or on the hood of the car. Mainstream society’s hyperfocus on PIV sets the stage for cis gay sex to require one partner to be viewed as feminized and for unimaginative, dickcentric dudebros to wonder “what do lesbians even DO?!”
If we queer up and broaden our conceptualization of sex in ways that are trans-inclusive and queer-friendly, sex is all the ways we touch each other’s bodies intimately for the purpose of shared pleasure, intimacy, and connection, usually involving genitals. Sex can involve mouths, fingers, genitals, skin, pleasure, shivers, altered states, changes in breathing, and (sometimes but not always) can lead to orgasm. If we’re broadening our definition of the goal of sex to resist rape culture, the goal of intimacy is not sex and the goal of sex is not orgasm — the goal of both is consent, and whichever practices bring all people involved emotionally and physically safe touch and pleasure are high ideals indeed to be breathlessly followed with our sensual intentions and experienced in rolling waves through our cells, organs, and bones.
This might mean hours of kissing, sensual massage, and intertwined bodies holding each other. It might mean exploring a partner’s body with your lips and tongue and mouth. It might mean (obviously consensual) wild, aggressive, pounding sex, or maybe it means gentle, subtle, slow-moving exploration of each other’s edges to co-create something intimate and safe and sacred. If consent is the goal and pleasure is the experience, each partner is going to bring something unique to the act — each partnership birthing a new kind of sensual encounter and each sexual experience a responsive dance of playful, sensory, embodied intersections.
If we’re willing to make our definition of sex this broad, this inclusive of identities and orientations and desires, foreplay then can be seen as all the behaviors and actions that create the setting, mood, and interest in that kind of expansive sex. Foreplay is then all the things, solo and relational, that create intimacy and interest. Foreplay is conversation, acts of service, and desirous looks, as well as subtle, everyday touches. Foreplay is listening intently to your partner’s dreams and needs, making simple efforts to create safety and trust, and respecting your partner’s boundaries. It’s taking time to get to know a hookup’s favorite things to give and receive, making sure your expectations around sex match those of a new partner, and gently navigating sexual encounters (especially those with new partners, or new activities with existing partners) with open curiosity, clear communication (verbal and embodied), tenderness, and a readiness to change course if needed. It’s the willingness to abandon sexual activity altogether if your partner becomes triggered or dysphoric, and the exquisite safety of realizing that sometimes your partner may change their mind and just want to be held, or to curl up next to you, or not to be touched at all. It’s continually developing the ability to handle rejection gracefully, and it’s expansive openness to a wide variety of activities that bring shared pleasure and joy. Foreplay is all day, every day. It’s how you live your life, the sweetness with which you touch your own body, and the way you interact with potential lovers from first eye contact to sweaty, tangled release.
I wasn’t able to say all of this in the moment, on the spot, on a road trip driving in night-time rain and mountain curves. It rarely comes out this clearly when I’m speaking spontaneously, and when it does I know I sometimes sound so far out of the mainstream as to seem out-of-touch with reality. But if reality is rape culture and its norms are silence, I’ll happily place my touch elsewhere, consensually, with gentle curiosity and playful exploration.