by Dr. Denise Renye, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Sex Therapist, PsyD, MA, MEd, in San Francisco, CA
When many people think of sex, they think of penis-in-vagina (PIV) intercourse. They may also think of orgasms and ejaculation. However, as a sexologist, I take a broader view of sex. There are at least five circles of sexuality, and I include foreplay as well as aftercare in the sexual experience. Foreplay and aftercare are just as important, even integral, for sex as orgasm and/or ejaculation.
A Broader Understanding of Sex
In U.S. culture (and many others), we’re encouraged to think of sex as having an endgame. There’s something to achieve, accomplish, reach. Many people enter into a sexual experience thinking it “has” to end in orgasm or ejaculation, but that’s not true. Foreplay — glancing, gazing, touching, talking, and even fantasy exploration — is a part of sex.
So too is aftercare. The word “aftercare” originates in the bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism (BDSM) community wherein the Dom/Domme checks in with the Sub and vice versa to process, debrief, integrate, and regroup following a BDSM scene.
Aftercare following “vanilla” or “traditional” sex would be great as a regular practice! However, aftercare throughout a sexual experience would be even better. The aftercare process between two, or more, humans allow for potential healing through vulnerable connection wherein the people involved express their feelings and share past experiences. Let’s get our healing on through sexual expression by incorporating aftercare!
Let’s also stop thinking about intercourse as the “main event.” The idea of foreplay is a heterosexually focused concept, and it can limit and restrict the sexual experience even for heterosexual partners.
“Foreplay” Can Be a Problematic Idea
As I’ve written about before, I have a problem with the concept and word “foreplay.” To start with, the word itself designates a before. Etymologically speaking, foreplay comes from the root word “fore,” meaning before, ahead, or in front of; plus “play,” meaning an activity for enjoyment and recreation. However, the word “foreplay” assumes the fun has not already begun! If looks and energy are being exchanged and consensual touching is resulting in pleasure, doesn’t that mean the fun has already started? This view of sex is so limiting!
Sex Isn’t Linear
Calling, texting, holding hands, talking over tea or a glass of wine, caressing, admiring, stroking, massaging, tickling, kissing lips and necks and arms and bellies and inner thighs are all forms of play (fore and beyond). Sex is not linear – it doesn’t start with kissing, progress to foreplay, and culminate in heterosexual intercourse. Sex could go from talking to kissing to talking to hand-holding to caressing to massaging to intercourse (if applicable and desired) to massaging to stroking, etc.
The other thing about foreplay is it’s heteronormative, because if foreplay is the lead-up to sex, that means digital, oral, and anal sex are not sex. (Hi, Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman.”) Well, no. All of it is sex. It all counts, which the queer community has known and has been teaching us for ages. PIV sex is not the only kind of sex. It’s not superior sex, either. None is better or worse than another. Plus, there’s the matter of people with disabilities who may not have the capacity for anatomical penetration, as well as those who prefer outercourse. Employing the concept of foreplay means these folx will never have sex, which again, is just plain wrong.
Sexual Activity Is Not Just About Orgasms
Lastly, the way foreplay is often presented in heterosexual relationships is it’s the “work” beforehand to turn on a woman to get to the “fun stuff” or “real sex:” penetration, orgasming and/or ejaculating. There’s nothing wrong with orgasms and ejaculations, but focusing on them so much leaves pleasure out of the equation. I know that may sound paradoxical because orgasms seem like they would be inherently pleasurable. However, when it’s the focus, dissociation from the body can occur. Pleasure-oriented sex means focusing on pleasure during the entire sexual experience – not just at one specific point. Also, if you’re focused on pleasure, orgasms and/or ejaculations are effortless byproducts of the play – they occur as a natural progression.
How We Think About Sex Affects Our Experience of It
Our view of sex has a lot to do with how we experience it. Given everything I’ve written above, you might be asking, “How can I have better sex?” Discuss potential scenes, likes, dislikes, hopes, and desires. Let sex be play as opposed to filled with “musts” “have to haves” and other rigid approaches. Pleasure and anxiety cannot coexist, so when you are playing, if anxiety arises, voice it to your partner(s) so you can move through it. If voicing it doesn’t feel safe, neither is playing with this person or people. You can always shut down a scene anytime. Yes, even midway!
And again, incorporate aftercare. What we need in this world is more attention to each other’s internal landscapes so healing through sex can occur. The way we pay attention to each other’s internal landscapes is also by paying attention to our own. Notice what’s happening in your body. Pay attention to what feels good, not good, safe, not safe. The more you have an understanding of yourself, and are able to communicate that to your partner(s), the better your sex life will be.
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