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Foreplay

Sex, like any other meaningful event, requires adequate preparation. Foreplay provides a transitional stage between the suggestion of intimacy and engaging in sex—giving partners time to prepare mentally, emotionally, and physically.

An important part of foreplay is the understanding that it is time set aside for the express purpose of creating a positive atmosphere and building anticipation: in other words, the acknowledgment of the importance of feeling comfortable with the situation before engaging in sex. Being at ease makes intimacy less stressful, more fun, and more pleasurable.

Our societal expectations, our psychology, and our physiology all play a role in how we approach intimacy. We all adhere to some form of cultural traditions and to unwritten and generally unspoken rules. However, foreplay is often an unfairly overlooked part of the sexual encounter.

There are no set rules for foreplay other than being mutually respectful. A carefully planned dinner date, a series of kinky texts, or an intimate massage could all potentially be understood as foreplay, but are also nice on their own. Each of us has an individual understanding of what it means to ‘set the mood’—foreplay in a relationship therefore can become an exciting exploration of the preferences of each partner.


Although foreplay implies escalation, is need not necessarily be a promise of sex. Pressure to follow through ‘now that we’ve started’ defeats the purpose of foreplay, and coercing someone into having sex is not okay, whatever the context.

The function of foreplay

From a physiological point of view, foreplay signals a desire to engage in sex, which facilitates arousal and prepares your body for intercourse. Sexual arousal causes a number of physical responses in your body, including:

  • an increase in heart rate and blood pressure
  • an increase of blood flow to the genitals (the penis becomes erect, labial lips swell and redden)
  • vaginal lubrication and the emission of pre-cum
  • vaginal walls tensing and swelling
  • testicles ascending and swelling
  • tensing and thickening of the scrotum
  • nipples becoming erect, breasts swelling slightly
  • quickened breath
  • pupil dilation

Physical arousal is designed to make intercourse pleasurable. Engaging in sex too soon can be uncomfortable and painful, e.g. when penetrating an insufficiently lubricated vagina. It’s important to be honest and let your partner know if they’re moving too fast.

In men, arousal usually happens faster than in women, and each couple will differ at least a little in the speed and intensity of arousal. Foreplay can ‘level the playing field’, letting one partner catch up to the other if necessary. As an added benefit, taking your time makes it easier to notice what processes your partner goes through while becoming aroused, and learn what facilitates their arousal.

Foreplay is also a good time to establish physical rules and boundaries, and to get some of the prerequisites out of the way so you can feel safe. This may include mentioning some likes and dislikes, off-limits activities and phrases, discussing safety, birth control, and whether or not you’ve recently been tested for an STD. Not only will this clarify how to proceed so both participants feel comfortable, you will also avoid scenarios where it turns out no one brought condoms, or having the sudden realisation that you aren’t quite okay with what the other person had in mind.


Even if you have talked about every possible variable before having sex and were 100% comfortable to begin with, it’s okay to stop if something feels off. Ignoring the signals your body or mind are sending can result in unpleasant experiences.

Sometimes our bodies don’t react the way we want them to. Physical arousal and mental arousal often don’t operate at the same speed, which can be inconvenient and frustrating when we really want to have sex but can’t quite get our bodies to cooperate.

Most notably, this manifests as erectile dysfunction in men and vaginal dryness in women. Although such problems can be due to a hormonal imbalance, they can also stem from one’s state of mind. Underlying anxiety or depression are very real reasons a person may encounter these difficulties.

There is no shame in taking a break from sex if that’s what you need to do. Otherwise, there are a variety of short-term solutions at hand, such as sildenafil (popularly known as Viagra), many different kinds of lubricants, and a huge array of kinky toys. You can read more about sex toys and lubricants in our other article here.


What is foreplay to you?

Whether we are aware of it or not, social norms and expectations have a significant influence on our views and approaches to sex, foreplay, and pleasure in general. Sexual exploration can lead to unexpected discoveries that might not align with the roles we’re familiar with. In this context, tradition often does us a disservice, discouraging the change and growth we need to understand our impulses and desires.

Foreplay can be anything and everything as long as it serves its purpose (and doesn’t damage mutual trust or break the law). How you approach it should be enjoyable and fun for both you and your partner, whether taking a shower together, putting on a private show, or verbally expressing your affection.

You and your partner are two different people—no matter how similar or compatible, you each have your own understanding of pleasure. As far as science is concerned, there are no mind-readers, so we have to communicate effectively in order to understand each other. Talk to your partner! Talk about what you enjoy (and what you don't), ask them questions, and encourage them to ask questions of their own. Keep it light and curious, since sex can be a sensitive topic. Knowing what your partner likes and vice versa will enhance your shared experience. Before you can express your desires, you need to be familiar with them—experiment, explore yourself, notice what turns you on.

As with everything, without change even sex can become mundane. Open yourself up to trying something new, but not at the expense of making yourself or your partner uncomfortable. Try new things and use your imagination to make it fun. Even simple things that evoke intimacy will make a world of difference if it hasn't been part of your day-to-day.

Emotional foreplay

Foreplay is much more than physical affection—there is a vast and exciting emotional side to it. Emotional intimacy is the key. In the midst of dealing with the stresses and responsibilities of our everyday lives, meeting in intimacy is not always easy or straightforward. The way we see ourselves in relationship influences how we believe we are allowed to behave and react. Sometimes our perceptions of ourselves don’t have a positive effect on sexual and emotional stimulation.

If this is the case, taking familiarity out of the equation might help disconnecting you from the ever-present to-do list in the back of your mind. Meet for a dinner date at an unusual location where the scenario is harder to associate with home, or pretend to meet your partner for the first time—act out all the playful and flirtatious details that often fade from the usual routine, or try roleplaying, where you intentionally play a character other than yourself. If it helps enhance your emotional connection with your partner, it’s working.

Here are some suggestions for fun and intimacy:

  • Play games and make it interesting. Any game can be converted into an exciting and revealing evening. Sometimes all you have to do is add in a rule—when someone loses, one piece of clothing comes off. Now this isn’t purely about seeing your partner’s naked body and vice versa, since you’ve probably seen it already, it’s really about anticipation.
  • Go on a date. Plan dates that have some unfamiliar or unusual aspect (like arriving separately at a previously arranged location). The unfamiliarity of the situation can have an aphrodisiac effect.
  • Watch movies, and not the family-friendly kind. Watching adult films can serve as a source of arousal both separately and together.
  • Strip yourself or your partner. Make it sensual and playful, or exactly the opposite—rough it up a bit if that’s what works best!


Physical foreplay

When it comes to physical foreplay it’s not only about the erogenous zones (although these are important), physical contact outside of sexual context is equally important. Intimacy can be achieved through the smallest of deeds, for example, entering another’s physical space, holding hands, caressing their skin, and hugging can all be significant. If you want to take it up a notch, then try taking a shower (or bath) together or massaging each other, this can be foreplay, if intended as such.


Where intimacy is involved, everyone has their own individual response to stimulation. Textbook solutions will be ineffective if you aren’t listening and communicating with your partner.

Both men and women have multiple erogenous zones—five or six primary ones—generally the breasts, nipples, clitoris, mouth, the G-spot, anus, and penis. In addition to these, there can be any number of secondary erogenous zones, for example the neck, lower abdomen, inner thighs, scrotum, forearms, ears, lips, and more. The most effective way to understand what works for your partner is to ask, listen, and notice Take into account your partner’s responses and heightened sensitivity during arousal. Also, be aware of over-stimulation, when a particular area is so sensitive that any touch can become unbearable.

Embarrassed?

If you are unused to experimenting (you have only recently become sexually active, you are just discovering yourself, or have been adhering to a few select methods for a long time), you might find the freedom a little difficult to get used to. Fumbling, making mistakes, and generally feeling awkward or inadequate are experiences everyone has. Remember to allow yourself the time you need to learn and grow!

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