This article is written together with partner in crime Yugen Korat.
Ambitious title, we know. But we would like to draw your attention to the limitation that this word brings with it. So what do we mean, exactly, when we say there is no such thing as foreplay? How can it not be a thing?
So first of all, let us clarify that there is nothing wrong with engaging in the activities that are typically described as foreplay, which usually means holding or stroking various parts of your partner’s body, and kissing, licking or biting, usually softly and not focused particularly on erogenous areas. Rather, the main point we would like to make in this article is that using the word “foreplay” implies thinking about a sexual interaction in terms of “before” and “after”. This lends itself to what we call the linear perspective, from which there is a “main” part to the interaction, with foreplay leading up to it by building up enough arousal.
From the linear perspective, the activities described above are kind of like warmup, and after you are aroused enough, you get on to the thing itself, namely penetration, blow- or hand-job or whatever it is that leads to an orgasm, and that’s it, you’re done. This perspective, we argue, is counter-productive for your sex life.
Thinking about my (Kathrin’s) sex life in my twenties and thirties, where I had exactly this idea of foreplay followed by a main part, and it left me unsatisfied and unhappy for far too many years. Believing this could not be all there was to sexuality, I set out on a search for more, which eventually led me to my work as a sexologist. After 10 years, I never looked back, and I hope after reading this article you would give it a shot as well, if you haven’t already.
Considering the male perspective, a lot of men I talked to in both my personal and professional life report that letting go of the concept of foreplay befreed them from their performance stress in bed, as well as the feeling of responsibility for their partner(s) orgasm.
I (Yugen) can say that, as a man, my naturally born predisposition to sexuality has been to focus on my genital stimulation, usually with the intention of going straight to ejaculation. When I discovered that there was a whole world beyond this simplistic idea, I learned I could achieve much deeper states of pleasure than were achievable with the linear approach.
This is why we offer an alternative approach. Instead of thinking about sexual interaction as consisting of a warmup, a main part, and a finale, think of it as a dance, where you constantly play with the rhythm, speed and amplitude of your movement. Alternating between various types of touch, moving between them, switching them around, is what keeps the interaction playful and exciting, as opposed to the monotony of erogenous stimulation until climax. When applying any kind of touch, tune in to your partner’s body, and be ready to change it when you feel it’s the right moment. Do something new. And possibly return to it later. Then pause it again. It is more like Jazz improvisation than an orchestral piece: neither you nor your partner ever knows what’s going to come next, and when something stops, it doesn’t mean it won’t come back. There is neither end nor beginning, only transformation. Any kind of touch, be it a kiss, a stroke, or a thrust, is like a wave – it never truly stops, only takes on a new shape.
From that perspective, there really is no such thing as “foreplay”, only “play”. The activities usually labeled as foreplay are not warmup, and crucially, they are not meant to build up your arousal in preparation for the main part. Your arousal would go up and down, and like everything else, it has no threshold level that should be reached and then maintained. More arousal does not necessarily mean more pleasure. Think of the level of arousal/lust feeling as but one of the many sensations to play with, allowing it to oscillate between various heights throughout the entire interaction rather than monotonously trying to increase it. Remember, more arousal does not necessarily mean more pleasure. This is one of the keys to creating an engaging dynamic that keeps both (or more) of you in a mode of anticipation and excitement.
Going back to the main topic, all this means that since the activities often labeled as “foreplay” are oriented toward building anticipation for direct erogenous stimulation without being specifically focused on it, they play a major part in maintaining the playful approach we suggest. And the longer you can maintain it (up to a point!), the longer lasting your pleasure would be.
But we know you wanted to read about foreplay. So how about a compromise – we will give you some practical foreplay ideas, and your job is to remember that this is not really something that comes “before” anything, but rather, these are activities oriented towards building up arousal gradually without dedicated erogenous stimulation.
We divide touch into 5 broad classes – airy, watery, earthy fiery, and ethery – which are meant to be easily distinguishable from each other. But of course, these represent only points on a spectrum, not absolute categories, and you should feel free to combine them with each other or use them as inspiration to come up with your own creative ways to touch.
Airy touch is super light and fairylike, sometimes only fluttering over the skin surface with no contact at all. This is particularly effective for creating anticipation for more intense touch, as it stimulates your superficial skin receptors which sends your brain into expectation mode. You can use your fingertips, lips, breath, hair or tools like a silky cloth or a feather. Airy touch can focus on a single spot or range over different areas of the body.
Watery touch is long and slow, and stretches over the body surface without applying much pressure. You can use any part of your body that can freely move around, which usually means your palms and forearms, but can also be more creative body parts like your thigh, cheek, or penis, if you have one. This is a good type of touch to apply when you feel your partner is getting close to orgasm, as it can disperse the sexual tension from the genitals to the rest of the body, and sometimes even lead to the so-called “full body orgasm”.
Earthy touches are deep and grounding, and they stimulate the deeper touch receptors. You apply some pressure and a bit of weight at different spots one at a time, often holding it for a while and then releasing. This feels especially good on the belly, buttocks, back, thighs or arms. You can also try it in more sensitive spots, like around the trachea or under the pubic bone, or even on the genitals.
Fiery touch is fast, strong and intense, and is intended to awaken the nervous system, a little bit like setting it aflame. It can make the whole body feel alive, just like a good tickle. You can go so far as scratches, pricking, pulling, biting, slapping or smacking. Ice cubes, the end of a feather, and clothespins can be used for an even more intense experience.
Ethery play does not involve skin contact. Instead, you allow your hands to flow over your partner’s body, alternating the distance between a hair’s breadth to a few centimeters. Allow your partner to feel your temperature and wind created by your movement, and try to sense the subtle vibrations in the electromagnetic field by your nerves. You might feel a slight tingle or vibration when moving it slowly at a distance over your partner’s body. Try closing your eyes, letting go of all thoughts, and allow your hands to move by themselves. You can rub your hands before you start to generate some static electricity, which could enhance the effect.
These 5 classes of touch are distinguishable from each other by many continua – speed, contact area, muscular tone, amplitude, pressure, and so on. Being able to consciously adapt these parameters allows you to move between the 5 ways of touching according to what you feel is called for at any particular moment, and can greatly elevate your arousal and lust feeling, as well as modulate it as needed.
There are many other possible ways to classify touch, and each can be useful in its own way. For example, the Sexcorporel approach (which is one of the approaches Kathrin is using in her therapy work) talks about the 3 Laws of the Body, which are defined by amplitude, rhythm, and muscular tension.
To summarize, we offer a perspective to sexual interaction from which there is no “before” and “after”, and no appetizer-main course dichotomy. Rather, we suggest looking at it more like a dance of movement and breath, and an opportunity to explore creative ways of alternating between different amplitudes, speeds, pressure, distance, and tension. Crucially, arousal is not the goal, but rather, another one of the dimensions you can play with, since more arousal does not always equal more pleasure. When your touch is less predictable, and the level of arousal dynamic, you build up your partner’s anticipation AND YOUR OWN, which makes the overall experience more exciting and engaging.
Appendix for the more mathematically inclined reader (other readers can ignore):
These classes are proposed as the major anti-correlated components in a principal component analysis (PCA), compressessing it from an n-dimensional space into a 4-dimensional one. That is, we believe that between them, they account for the vast majority of variation in that space, and most kinds of touch can be expressed as a linear combination of them. The underlying n-dimensional space includes much more specific features, such as amplitude, frequency, pressure, contact surface area, etc’.
This is useful for the same reasons PCA is often useful in other areas. If you represent touch on this 4-dimensional space in your brain, you should be able to generate touch patterns with lower complexity than if you had used the underlying n-dimensional space, because of their high level of informativity about the space.
Naturally, there are other possible useful decompositions for touch and this is but one of them.