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What is foreplay?

Foreplay (also known as outercourse) is anything that you and a partner do together to feel turned on. It makes penetrative sex better. But it doesn’t have to lead to full-blown sex at all.

Foreplay can build sexual excitement between partners. It can also build emotional connection and help you explore your bodies.

Foreplay is for everyone, whatever your gender or who you’re attracted to. As long as you are both into it and consent, how you do foreplay is up to you.

What is foreplay?

Foreplay means different things to different people. It can include being romantic or seductive, kissing, cuddling, touching, rubbing, licking, massaging, grinding and even just talking.

The reason foreplay is called foreplay is that it makes penetrative sex better. Physically, it makes the vagina or the anus relaxed and wet enough for penetration and the penis erect. (But it’s still a good idea to have some water-based lube if you plan to go the whole way, especially for anal sex.)

Foreplay can be an important step in having penetrative sex. But it can also be a sexy and satisfying thing to explore on its own. If you’re not ready for sex it can be a great option.

What types of foreplay are there?

Foreplay is all about exploring what turns you on and what doesn’t. As long as you and your partner consent, foreplay can be anything you want.

The main thing to remember is that you do not have to go straight into anything physical – foreplay is all about the build-up! Here are some things you could try to get the mood going.

Anticipation

There are things you can do to build the anticipation of spending some intimate time together. You could leave a note that lets them know you are looking forward to things getting steamy later, or tell them on the phone.

IF you are both into it, you could sext. This is when you send sexy messages or photos. If you send pictures there is a risk they will get shared with other people. Some people only send pictures of their body so their face is not in them, but there is still a risk you could be identified. Depending on your age, sexting can also be illegal.

Romance

Once you are together, things like lighting, food, music and dancing together can help set the mood. Eye contact can be a big turn on. So can bodily contact, whether it’s holding their hand, brushing their leg or your bodies getting closer together.

Starting to get physical 

Kissing can be a huge turn on. How you do it is up to you – long and deep, with or without tongues, with some lip sucking and biting. Try things out and see what works.

If you are both feeling turned on, you may want to take things further. You could do this by rubbing or grinding up against each other in the way you might during sex, but with some or all of your clothes on. Other things you can try are massage or having a bath or a shower together. You may want to masturbate in front of each other or use your hands to stimulate each other’s genitals.

Can I use sex toys as part of foreplay?

Some people like to use sex toys instead of having penetrative sex, or in the lead up to it, or during it – or a mix of these things. Not everyone is into sex toys. But if you and your partner are, whatever your gender or sexuality there is a sex toy out there for you to experiment with. Dildos and vibrators can be used to stimulate the clitoris and to penetrate the vagina and anus. Other sex toys can be used for body parts like the nipples. If you are sharing sex toys that penetrate don’t forget the condom

Is oral sex foreplay?

Oral sex is when you use your mouth or tongue to lick, suck or stimulate your partner’s genitals or anus. It can be a great part of foreplay if you and your partner want it to be. Here are some tips on how to have oral sex.  But remember, your partner’s body has many other hot spots waiting to be kissed, licked and nibbled – so take your time and explore. And like any other sexual activity, if you or your partner aren’t into oral sex you don’t have to do it.

Is there a right way to do foreplay?

The best kind of foreplay is the kind that feels good for both of you. There aren’t any sure-fire moves that always work. What turns you and your partner on will depend on what you both like. One general tip is to try to focus on what is happening in that moment, not on what might happen next. If you think of foreplay as just something to get out of the way before the ‘main event’ you are going to miss out on a lot of pleasure.

One of the signs foreplay is doing what it should is if you and your partner become sexually aroused. Signs to look out for include:

  • your heart beats faster
  • you can feel your pulse raising
  • there are changes to the genitals and anus (for example, the penis gets hard, the anus feels relaxed, the vagina gets wet, the clitoris and labia might swell)
  • breasts swell and nipples get erect
  • you feel excited; you might have other feelings too, like feeling happy or really attracted or connected to your partner
  • you are thinking about what other sexual things you want to do with your partner.

How do I know what my partner likes?

The best way to know is to ask them. Equally, your partner is not a mind reader, you cannot expect them to know what you want unless you tell them. If you are not sure what you like sexually, masturbation can be a good way to work this out. The more open and honest you can be about the kind of foreplay that excites you, the more likely you are to enjoy sex.

Do I need to have sex after foreplay?

Saying yes to foreplay doesn’t mean you have to have penetrative sex. You can stop there if you want to. Having sex can bring up a mix of emotions – it can feel daunting, exciting and everything in between, so it’s fine if foreplay feels like it is enough. If you both decide you are ready to go further it’s important to think about how you can have safer sex. You can even make putting a condom on part of the foreplay.

Can I orgasm through foreplay?

An orgasm (coming or climaxing) happens when you are very aroused. Tension builds up in your body, the sexual pressure in your genitals is then released in a sudden pleasurable rush. Semen (white fluid) will come out of your penis. Women can release a clear fluid too.

Orgasms can happen during penetrative sex but they can also happen through foreplay. The important thing is not to put pressure on you or your partner either way, but to keep talking to each other.

If you want to reach orgasm and you feel you’re getting close, make it clear that you want your partner to keep touching you. Equally if for any reason you don’t want to orgasm, you can let your partner know how turned on you are but that you are ready to stop.

Don’t worry if you or your partner don’t have an orgasm straight away or even at all. It takes time to get to know what works for you and for your partner. Both men and women can enjoy foreplay without climaxing.

Does foreplay put us at risk of HIV, other STIs and pregnancy?

Foreplay carries a lower risk of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) than penetrative sex. But the risk of getting or passing on HIV or STIs also depends on the type of foreplay you are having. HIV is passed on through semen (‘cum’), pre-seminal fluid ('pre-cum'), anal fluids and vaginal fluids. It cannot be passed on through saliva and bodily contact. So if you are doing things like kissing, grinding, groping or touching each other’s genitals then there is no risk of getting or passing HIV on.

Some STIs can be passed on from genital contact and some can be passed on from skin-to-skin contact with an infected area. So using hands to stimulate each other’s genitals carries some risk (you can read about how different STIs are passed on here).

If the foreplay you are having includes oral sex, which can involve contact with all the bodily fluids mentioned above, there is a risk of HIV, although it is fairly low. There is a higher risk of STIs, like herpes, gonorrhoea and syphilis.  If you are planning on having oral sex, get some flavoured condoms and dental dams to make it safe. The same applies if you are using sex toys that penetrate as part of foreplay.

You can only get pregnant when sperm comes into contact with the vagina. Fingering alone is very unlikely to bring sperm into the vagina and cause pregnancy, but it can happen. This means, if a person's fingers are covered in preejaculate or ejaculate when they insert them into the vagina it is possible to get pregnant.

Should I get tested for HIV and STIs?

Whether you are sticking at foreplay or going further, one of the best things you can both do is to test for HIV and STIs. Getting tested is quick, easy, painless, confidential, and almost always free. And if you have anything that can be passed on through oral or penetrative sex, you can get treatment to stop this from happening.

Does foreplay require consent?

Yes! You might be ready for foreplay, but is your partner? Asking them is the best way to know for sure that they are giving their consent. And if they’re not up for it or if they're unsure, respect their choice. Don’t pressure them or make them feel guilty about it. Giving your partner this understanding can be sexy in itself. And once trust and connection is there, things might progress further.

Let's talk about foreplay!

We have the questions to help kick-off discussions on the issues you need to talk about! You can share them on social, on WhatsApp or just get talking.

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Looking for more detailed information?

If you are both ready to explore foreplay, it is a good idea to talk about it so you know what you are both comfortable doing. Talking about these things can be a real turn on. But it can also feel awkward and embarrassing.

It’s normal to have worries about sex, including foreplay. Here are some tips that can help.

How do I talk about what I want?

Be proud of yourself for raising the subject. It isn’t always easy to do, especially if you’re worried about how your partner might react. But communicating with each other about what you want is likely to help you both have more satisfying sex.

You could begin by telling them the things that they do that feel good and that you would like more of. If it feels great when they kiss or touch you, for example, tell them how turned on it makes you feel. You can also show them what you mean. The next time you hug or kiss, you could guide their hands or mouth to the parts of your body that need attention while telling them how good they are making you feel.

It's really important to know if your partner wants to explore the things that you are suggesting. If they don’t want to, you need to respect their wishes. It might be that they are unsure of what to do, even if they seem sexually experienced. That’s why talking about what you want is so important. It might help your partner feel more confident to explore foreplay with you, and for them to discover what they want too. A conversation about what turns both of you on can be foreplay in itself!

How do I talk about my worries?

Find a time that feels right. It is best not to choose a time when things are already getting steamy or you have just been physical with each other. Instead, find a time when you are just spending time together and are feeling relaxed and happy.

You could try beginning the conversation by talking about something they do that turns you on then ask them what they like. This can help open up an intimate feeling between you so you can then bring the conversation round to whatever it is you are worried about. You might feel worried that you won’t be able to satisfy your partner. Or that what you do or how you look or act won’t be sexy enough for them. And while it is true that confidence is hot, it is also true that honesty can be a big turn-on because it helps you connect on a deeper level. Sharing some of your worries with your partner shows how much you care and how you want to make this work for both of you. It might even help them share some worries in return.

How do I set boundaries if I don’t want penetrative sex?

If you don’t want foreplay to lead to penetrative sex – or other things like oral sex – it’s important to make this clear. Try to have this conversation before you start getting physical, rather than in the heat of the moment. That way your partner will know from the start what the boundaries are. But even if you haven’t had this conversation beforehand remember you have a right to stop at any time.

Before you get physical, it is also a good idea to think things through so you are clear in your mind what you are and are not comfortable doing. That way, you’ll know where the line is, and when you have reached it.

If you are having foreplay and you want to stop, try to be clear with your words and your body language. One way to do this is to put some physical distance between you and your partner. You can also say things like ‘I loved that so much, but I want to stop now’ or ‘that was hot but things need to calm down now’. Equally, if they try something that you don’t like, it’s fine to tell them that too. You could say something like, ‘I know you’re trying different ways to turn me on, but what you just did really doesn’t work for me’.

Remember that it is your body, so it is up to you what sexual things you do and do not want to do. It is okay to have foreplay but not go all the way. A good partner will understand this. If they react in a negative way or try to persuade or guilt trip you into going further they are not respecting you or your wishes. If they keep going when you have told them to stop, this is sexual assault.

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  • Last updated: 07 December 2023
  • Last full review: 05 December 2023
  • Next full review: 05 December 2024
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