This essay was originally published in Hustler Magazine.
I was sitting with my laptop on the couch, trying to get a little bit of work done, while my partner texted with me from the bathtub. We weren’t sexting; we were discussing our car. It’s barely hanging on, and we were trying to hurry up and decide on a replacement before this one leaves us stranded on the side of the road.
Back and forth our messages went: Can we afford certified pre-owned? How important is AWD? Are we planning on keeping it long enough that our kid can drive it down the line? Links, reviews, listings and YouTube videos followed. Finally, he emerged from the bath and sat down next to me on the couch. He looked over my shoulder to see all of the open tabs with cars on my laptop screen. I could feel his breath, his thigh pressed against mine.
I set my computer down on the couch next to me, looked him in the eye to be sure he knew what I wanted, and straddled his lap. He ran his hands up my thighs under my dress until he got high enough to realize I wasn’t wearing any panties. “Naughty,” he whispered in my ear.
He pushed me off his lap so that I was laying on my back on the couch in front of him, opened my laptop back up again, and told me in a commanding voice that made me wet to keep looking. He pushed my dress up, spread my knees apart and buried his head between my legs. I scrolled through car listings, occasionally commenting, until I got so distracted that I came. He kissed me, closed my laptop and got down to seriously sexy business.
Perhaps it seems odd to start an article on foreplay with an anecdote about used cars. But this is the true story of what unfolded when I was supposed to be writing this article: I got overwhelmed by car choices, and then by desire. Both led to hotter and more connected sex than we’ve had in a while. The question is, why?
Certainly, it wasn’t the car talk itself. There isn’t anything sexy about APRs and Carfax reports. So, what was it? Is it that he sat close enough to me that I could feel him breathe? Or that the light pressure of his thigh against mine ignited a desire? It certainly didn’t hurt, but that wasn’t exceptional. We live in close proximity, so we often touch. Is it that we were working on a joint project, even a domestic one like buying a used car? We run a business and a family together so, again, this is not unusual for us.
In trying to identify why the exchange became so heated, I am pushed to consider what foreplay is. In this particular example, when did it even start?
By definition, foreplay is what happens before sex (whatever sex means to you); the things that warm our bodies up and make them ready for and receptive to sex. Was it when he started going down on me? I think of oral sex as sex, not foreplay. Maybe it was when I climbed on top of his lap and he started running his hands up my thighs. But we were both already turned on when that started. Was it when we sat next to each other and started to feel sexual tension rise? Was it before that, when he was laying naked in a warm bath texting with me? Maybe it was all those things.
Or maybe foreplay isn’t any particular act, or set of acts, but rather a more subtle dynamic: those small gestures we communicate to let our partner or partners know that we are becoming open and desirous.
To help think through foreplay, I turned to Sonora Grace who, as a somatic sex educator, recognizes pleasure as a resource for healing and, as such, works with clients to help them feel more in tune with their own bodies and what brings them pleasure.
Feeling safe and alive in our own bodies, as well as knowing what sort of sexual experiences we want to have, Sonora suggests, is what creates the possibility for connected and pleasurable foreplay and sex with our partners. Good foreplay isn’t just about the right moves or the technique; it’s also about self-knowledge and openness to your partner. “The more embodied we are in sex, the more connected we can be to another person,” she says. “Knowing oneself and being able to stay with oneself, one’s own sensations, joys and pleasures, lead to being able to connect with someone else.”
For me, a really important part of even thinking about having sex or playtime or sensual activity is connecting to myself and figuring out how relaxed I am, how aroused I am.Sonora Grace
This self-knowledge, Sonora points out, needs to include getting in touch with both what you want and also what you don’t want: “For me, a really important part of even thinking about having sex or playtime or sensual activity is connecting to myself and figuring out how relaxed I am, how aroused I am.” For foreplay to even begin, Sonora advises that both people need to be tuned in to their own desires and the possibility of sex with one another.
Sonora also emphasizes the importance of good communication in foreplay: “I think that we can’t ever overstress communicating, asking, talking. There are so many ways to speak [about] your needs and desires and escalate the way you do your dirty talk.”
Sex writer R.T. Collins (aka Disco) says this sort of mutual openness is essential for any flirty gesture to be considered foreplay. Foreplay is “the moment where sex actually gets onto the brain for both people. The moment it becomes remotely sex-related, it becomes foreplay,” they say. Collins is quick to point out that foreplay requires everyone to be in this space: “Not only one person—that’s a horny person annoying someone.”
This rings true, given my example above. If my partner was insistent about choosing a car immediately, and I climbed on his lap with no panties on, he quite possibly would have expressed annoyance. The same actions can be either foreplay or unwanted advances, then, depending on context. Similarly, if he demanded I scroll through cars while I was actually stressed about this article, his dominant tone would have turned me off, not made me wet.
Yet, when I climbed on his lap, I knew he wasn’t going to be annoyed. Something had already changed in the way that we were interacting that made it feel like sex was on the table. This can be directly communicated or, according to Disco, “It can come with reading chemistry.”
You could be just having a nice kiss, then you linger the kiss, or kiss with more pressure. Foreplay is the moment where kissing gets more intense.Disco
For Disco, one of the tangible changes that marks the distinction between everyday interaction and foreplay is intensity. Disco uses kissing as an example; we can kiss our partner merely to show affection, or we can kiss our partner as a form of foreplay. “You could be just having a nice kiss, then you linger the kiss, or kiss with more pressure,” Disco posits. “Foreplay is the moment where kissing gets more intense.”
Reflecting on the complexity of foreplay, Disco concludes, “The world is all the more diverse and brilliant than you realize, and so is sex.”
In the end, foreplay is what you make of it. It is two or more people expressing openness to each other in a way that allows for mutual pleasure. Today, for my partner and I, it came out of a car-buying research session. I don’t imagine foreplay will ever take that shape again, but that is the beauty of it.
Jessie Sage is a sex worker and writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s also the co-founder of Peepshow Magazine and the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast. Her words can be found in the Washington Post, VICE’s Motherboard, Hustler Magazine, Men’s Health, BuzzFeed, and more. She’s currently writing a book on sex work, motherhood, and illness called An Unexpected Place (forthcoming on West Virginia University Press).