At first glance, this recommendation may seem to go against previous advice you’ve heard about sex and intimacy. Perhaps you’ve been encouraged to increase foreplay as a way to enhance the sexual experience for yourself or your partner. If you consider the underlying motivations for both suggestions, the ultimate goal is the same: eliminating the sex hierarchy and ensuring a pleasurable experience for all.
Merriam-Webster defines foreplay as “erotic stimulation preceding sexual intercourse.” Under this framework, foreplay is the appetizer before the meal. It is a way to fill time or warm-up before the main event, in this case, intercourse. In our heteronormative society, this positions penetrative sex–particularly Penis in Vagina (PIV) sex –as the pinnacle of the sexual experience and creates a sexual hierarchy.
What’s so bad about a sexual hierarchy, anyway? I’m glad you asked!
For one, this perspective ignores or minimizes the experiences of many people. For example, not every sexual experience will involve a penis and vagina. Some with a penis or vagina may not wish to use their genitalia for sex. Others, such as those identifying as intersex, may not have genitalia that neatly fits into the anatomy binary. Does this mean none of these people are having sex?
Another pitfall of the sexual hierarchy is the potential dismissal of pleasure for people with vulvas who do not reach orgasm with penetration alone. A large percentage of cisgender women are in this category. Many of these women report activities that are relegated to foreplay including cunnilingus (oral sex on a vulva) or stimulating the clitoris manually as a vital factor in whether or not they orgasm. Foreplay implies that there is a designated window of time in which these women must orgasm if they hope to at all. Once that time limit has expired–due to arbitrary ideas of how long it should take, a partner that’s ready to move on, or any number of reasons–oh well, on to the main event.
Have you ever gone out with your partner just for appetizers? Maybe you each chose a few options to try and took turns sampling each other’s selections. Time goes on as you laugh and converse until you leave satisfied, resolving to consider trying an entree the next time you visit the restaurant… or maybe you won’t. This so-called warm-up fulfilled your ultimate goal — to have a satisfying meal.
Imagine if you approached sex the same way; instead of treating any particular activity as the main event or the purpose for coming together, what if the only goal was to have a satisfying experience — even if it never involved penetration? Just as not having an entree does not mean you didn’t have dinner, not having intercourse does not mean you did not have sex; it’s ALL sex!
I’m a therapist who loves giving homework so here’s yours: reflect on the following questions for yourself and ask your partner(s): Have I/we created a sexual hierarchy, and if so, what is typically at the top? Are there any non-penetrative activities that you would like to incorporate more? After discussing the answers, give a few ideas a try.
–Ceara Corry, MSW, MPA, LCSWA
Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/
Ceara Corry is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Associate in North Carolina and former employee of Carolina Sexual Wellness Center. To schedule an appointment with one of our therapists, please call 919-297-8322.