Where does foreplay end? When does sex begin?

Image by the fabulous Stuart F Taylor

Yesterday I asked Twitter to give me a hand with blog topics – I have a few drafts but none are quite ready, and I was in a bit of a funk and feeling meh about writing in general. Not only did they come through in a powerfully brilliant way, with tonnes of questions that I may well tackle later, but one question in particular leapt out at me and begged for a longform answer. So with apologies to those of you who asked ones I have not answered (I’ll try, I promise), today I’m going to have a crack at this one from Quinn Rhodes: where does foreplay end and sex begin?

Where does foreplay end and sex begin?

Thank you Quinn for handing me the philosophical torch, the flame of which I shall briefly cherish before tossing it into the pile of petrol-soaked rags that is my actual answer. I adore this question, because although I suspect most people (myself included) would be able to offer a kneejerk answer that feels right to them, the actual answer by necessity must be far more complex.

Back when I was eighteen and I chose to study philosophy at university, some people warned me it was a total waste of time. In one of the toilet cubicles in our student union, just above the bog roll dispenser, someone had graffitied that age-old joke “Philosophy degrees: please take one.” AND YET. Here I am, doing my actual real-life job, about to embark upon an enquiry into ‘where does foreplay end and sex begin?’ for which it feels like my degree is relevant as fuck. There are few questions in life which lend themselves so neatly to the kind of thoughtful, chin-stroking pondering that I used to enjoy getting stuck into in seminars. Or, because I often slept through my seminars, stuck into over double-vodka RedBulls with a hot coursemate in Wetherspoons.

What is sex?

Let’s begin with a very simple, tentative definition of ‘sex’, then test that definition and zoom outwards from there.

I like to write from the personal, so we’re going personal to begin with. The basic (and therefore basically wrong) answer to the question ‘when does sex start?’ – the one I’d have given if you’d asked this when I was eighteen – is this: sex begins when a dick goes into my vagina. Under this definition, sex for me is purely about penetration: cock goes in cunt, sex is being had. Foreplay has ended, sex has started, tick ‘fuck’ off the list, add ‘+1’ to my bodycount: job done.

But as with all basic answers, there are edge cases that blow them apart and force us to revise our definitions. By which I mean ‘I met a man who fucked me without once ever penetrating my actual cunt.’

On the day that I first met him, he performed what I can only describe as an intensely sexy full-body grope on me up against a shed in the garden at a house party. He ordered me to spread my arms and legs and place my palms against the wood above my head, shoulder-width apart, then used his own hands to explore and massage and fumble with every single inch of me – squeezing through the fabric of my costume (yeah, it was a fancy-dress party, I used to do that back when I was young and lacking in cynicism) making me so wet that I worried quim might start trickling down my thighs. The whole experience was meditatively powerful and utterly drenched in fuck vibes, despite my clothes remaining firmly on.

That same man later facefucked me in a variety of different locations in and around the city, while we dodged CCTV cameras and broken glass to try and avoid arrest or injury as we got our public horn on. During one date he made me suck him off in the toilets of a cheap restaurant, then the next he made me remove my knickers and hand them to him under the table at a posh one. One day, while my then-boyfriend waited outside in the car, this dude whipped me with a selection of items that started with a plimsoll and ended in a wire coathanger, before coming in torrents all the way down my throat.

This man’s dick never penetrated my vagina, and yet he definitely fucked me. He fucked me good.

Sex is penetration, except when it isn’t

So maybe I should revise my definition?

Sex begins when a dick goes into my vagina. Except when it doesn’t. 

This doesn’t feel like an especially good definition, to be honest, as it’s so centred around individual feelings that it can never be used for anyone other than me. What I’m saying here is that some acts have ‘fuck vibes’ and others do not. Sucking someone off is sometimes just a blow job, and could easily fall under the ‘foreplay’ category if it’s done as a prelude to sex (like when I’m sucking someone hard). But at other times an extremely similar blow job might have some intangible quality that leads me to label the act ‘sex’.

Let’s abandon the personal and look more broadly, see if there are any clues out there.

The first clue is the one that (I hope) has been screamingly obvious to you ever since reading my first definition in bold. Namely: sex doesn’t always involve a penis and a vagina, because there are myriad ways to fuck which only involve one (or which involve neither) of these things. Some people penetrate without dick (YAY FINGERING), some people penetrate different orifices, some fuck without any penetration at all. Some might include phone sex or sexting under their definition of ‘sex’, while others would say there needs to be physical contact in order for it to ‘count’. Some people would firmly include kink play in their definition of sex, and thus we need something that’s broad enough to include things like spanking, bondage, or getting into a bath of green goo then squishing around together.

Saying that sex begins when ‘dick’ (whether flesh, glass, silicone, metal or anything else that’s vaguely long-object shaped like fingers) penetrates ‘hole’ (whether vagina, ass, mouth, closed fist, or some other hole-shaped item) is a definition so limiting as to be utterly absurd. When I was younger, the counterpoint to “sex equals dick in cunt” was “what about gay people though?”, because that’s all my limited smalltown imagination could conceive of. But as I get older and learn more about sex, the ‘what abouts’ come thick and fast: what about trans people? What about people with vaginismus? What about people who simply prefer non-penetrative sex? What about people who only get off on kink? There are hundreds. The more you learn about sex, the more edge cases you discover which make you realise ‘sex equals dick in cunt’ was never a good way to define something that so many of us have in so many different ways.

Some questions are just too big to lend themselves to simple answers. Perhaps if we tackle ‘foreplay’ first we might shed a little more light.

Tut tut. Typical me! Always trying to skip the foreplay…

Where does foreplay end?

This is a much easier question to answer, because foreplay is generally considered to be ‘the thing(s) you do before sex’ so I can cheat: foreplay ends either when sex begins, or when you call it off. For example, you’re rubbing away at your partner’s junk, both hoping to get horny enough to do the kind of fucking that feels like fucking to you, and at that point shagging might begin, or one of you might declare that actually you’ve been turned off by the fact that your partner’s sex playlist includes the song ‘Bad Touch’ by The Bloodhound Gang so you’d like to stop and have a sandwich now.

It’s easy to tell when foreplay ends, but only because I’m cheating by dodging the question about when sex begins. Zooming out a little further though, here’s another relevant question: when does foreplay begin?

Does foreplay begin when your lips touch in an electric kiss? Does foreplay start when you’re in a posh restaurant and one’s handing the other their knickers under the table? Does it only start when clothes start to come off, or when someone asks the question ‘shall we fuck now?’. Foreplay, like sex, can encompass almost anything as long as the people participating feel like it ‘counts.’ It’s the rush of blood to your junk, the flash-frame fantasies in your head. It’s feather-light touches and whispered conversations and that split-second moment when they stop talking and start grinning and then you pounce. It doesn’t even have to involve physical contact. It could be a filthy hot DM chat that you have with a guy who has promised he’ll fuck you in the mouth if he’s ever in London. That edge-wank with a new toy your dominant has sent in the post so you can build up to the punishment-fuck they’ve promised to give you later. It might be the group email you send to a bunch of fuckbuddies in order to plan an orgy. Foreplay could even be as simple as the very first ‘like’ they ever give one of your filth-laden tweets – or the tweet itself, because you started the chain.

Perhaps foreplay can only ever really be defined after the fact. If it started the horny chain that eventually led to sex (however you define it), then it was foreplay. And by this logic, perhaps ‘sex’ could only be classed as such once you’ve finished and you can check whether you’re feeling well and truly fucked. Do post-hoc definitions help us get to what’s important? As someone who’s frequently failed at seduction, I can tell you that sometimes you embark on what you hope is foreplay only to find it’s a swing and a miss. Just as sometimes even the most basic penis-in-vagina penetration doesn’t feel like ‘fucking‘ after the fact, even if it technically fits what’s covered in the dictionary definition.

What is sex? What is foreplay? What are words?

I’m reminded of an interaction with an infamous bigot on Twitter who kept trying to get people to define ‘woman’ in a way that was satisfactory to him (transphobes love to do this because they think it’s clever, instead of what it actually is which is pathetic. It’s like repeatedly insisting ‘sex equals penis in vagina’ despite living in a world that is teeming with living proof that the answer’s far more interesting than that). At one point, someone replied to this dude (who shall remain nameless because I don’t want to say his name in case he appears like Candyman) asking him to define ‘chair’ and he said a chair is ‘a thing with four legs that you can sit on’, to which his interlocutor responded by immediately posting a picture of a horse. Four legs! You can sit on it! Checkmate, bellend!

I bring up this example only because it’s a neat way to highlight the limitations of our language. Language is extremely useful, but strict definitions are an imperfect tool. I – a professional writer – would be absolutely buggered if we couldn’t express ourselves and have our meaning broadly understood by those around us. When I say here on this blog that ‘I had sex with a dude’, you understand roughly what I mean, even if our individual internal definitions of ‘sex’ diverge because we have different biological equipment, kinks, preferences, and therefore different attitudes to what constitutes ‘fuck vibes.’ But when my doctor asks me if I’ve had sex, I understand that she means ‘have you been penetrated by a penis?’ because chances are she’s asking in a context (such as potential pregnancy) where sex means ‘penis goes in vagina.’ If a relationship counsellor asks about my sex life, I can be much broader in terms of what I include because the sex that is relevant to intimacy within a relationship is broader than sex that’s relevant to pregnancy – it includes blow jobs and hand jobs and sometimes my partner popping on an Oculus headset and blindly beating one out in the hope I’ll be knelt in front of him at just the right moment to catch all his spunk on my tits.

Language is a vital tool to make ourselves heard, but – huge ‘but’, massive ‘but’, absolutely colossal ‘but’ – it has always been imperfect. Language is not like pure mathematics, and when you’re using it to describe the human experience you cannot deal in absolutes. It’s messy and hard. This is why I gave the Wittgenstein modules at Uni an extremely wide berth – a fact that I hope by now is obvious to any real philosophers who might have made the mistake of reading this far. Language attempts to describe the world, sometimes usefully points to things within it, and it can even sometimes change that world too: language is pretty damn awesome! But it will never be able to perfectly capture all the things that make up human existence.

Where does foreplay end and sex begin? It’s a wonderful, exciting question, like ‘what is love?’, and I’m very grateful to Quinn for asking it. But just like ‘what is love?’ I don’t think it lends itself to a simple, universal answer. What counts as ‘sex’ will depend on your body, your perspective, and your experience, as well as those of the person or people with whom you’re hoping to have it.

When does foreplay end? When does sex begin?

Not only have I deliberately failed to approach an answer to Quinn’s question, I hope I’ve actually pushed the answer further away than it was when you started reading. I suspect this will be obvious to Quinn – an experienced and thoughtful sex writer who I suspect would have a really interesting answer of his own – as it will be obvious to those of you who are thoughtful sex nerds yourselves. But there are people who follow this blog who may never have been introduced to the idea that sex doesn’t have to mean penetration, as well as many who may have just accepted ‘sex’ as defined by the people they have fucked in the past, or what society’s told them. I totally did, back when I started blogging.

In picking this question to answer, then drinking two ciders while I did it, what I’ve done is exactly what I imagine my philosophy tutors did in all those seminars I missed: open the door to a room then invite you to explore it for yourself.

When does foreplay end for you? When does it end for your partner? What do you consider to be ‘sex’ and what isn’t? If you had to make a list of the things which contribute to ‘fuck vibes’ in your hot interactions, what would make the cut and what wouldn’t?

I reckon these are questions that simplistic answers can never hope to solve. As we stumble around the world trying to make sense of everything, we’re always on the lookout for easy answers. Definitions which include everything within category X but exclude everything from Y. A clear line drawn at the end of foreplay that denotes the beginning of sex. A one-sentence answer to a moral conundrum that’ll guide us to being better people.

But although (as I hope is now clear) I can’t remember much actual philosophy, I do know these days that answers aren’t always the point. The point is that you asked in the first place, and opened up a new avenue to explore something that matters to you. The journey we came on from ‘easy answer/gut feeling/penis-goes-in-vagina’ to a more expansive ‘actually let’s break this down/zoom out/recognise complexity and nuance’ might not be as satisfying as the basic ‘put thing X in hole Y’, but it’s far more interesting (I think) when it comes to working out how to live, and define, our own lives.

As mentioned a couple of times already, I didn’t have the best record of seminar attendance at uni. But I did spend a lot of time fucking. Flirting with a guy over vodka RedBull in Wetherspoons, hoping I could get my hand (and my face) down his pants. I spent a lot of time embarking on stuff that I believed might be foreplay, that in turn I hoped would become the start of a shag. And I hope that as you’ve read some of the examples here – both penetrative and non-penetrative – you’ve been thinking about your own experience and wondering where that might fit. The make-outs you had that felt like fucks, and the sex that felt unworthy of that term. The fingering-in-alleyways and blow jobs with serious feeling. The eager masturbation with your partner at the end of a phone line. The orgies you hovered on the periphery of – touching and groping but never penetrating or being penetrated – which felt either ‘sex’ or ‘not sex’ depending on where you sat within that complex dynamic.

I don’t have a simple answer to Quinn’s question that’ll tell you anything more useful than when sex begins for me. And even that one will change depending on whether I’m talking to a doctor, a relationship counsellor, a partner or – frankly – you. If one of my partners asked me this question, I’d give them a variation on my own basic answer: sex begins when a dick goes inside me, except when it doesn’t. Your answer will be very personal, and likely different. And possibly different depending on who you’re fucking (if your partners have different genitals, for instance, or different things they prefer to do in bed).

I know that if you’ve come here from a search or a curious click on twitter, the hand-waving uncertainty of this answer might frustrate you. But the reason this is my favourite kind of question is that there really isn’t one concrete answer to give. There’s just a journey with an uncertain destination, on the hunt for what counts as a ‘fuck’. And it doesn’t really matter if we find the fuck or not – the journey’s the whole fucking point.

Thanks for joining me.




PS If you define sex – as Google does – as ‘sexual activity’, and you are also one of those lovely people with great taste who’s masturbated eagerly to my audio porn, then it does raise the question: have we technically fucked? We might have, mightn’t we? I’m adding 4 million to my bodycount, just in case.


  • fuzzy says:

    After a half century of sexual activity I define foreplay as sex which does not lead to orgasm; i.e., it is a subset of sexual activity. And sex is what doing whatever turns you on (stimulates sexual pleasure); e.g., you can sit without moving and be doing sex, solo, if you are in the right headspace. All of this begs the question of what do you call sex which *does* lead to orgasm?

    I realize this may be too general for many folk, but it’s a definition which has caused me the least number of “no that’s a horse, not a chair” problems.

  • Valery North says:

    Always love philosophical/linguistic nerdery! Especially when it’s also sex.

    But… now the jerk in my head just pictures a jerk going…

    – “Are we having sex yet? How about now? What about now?”
    – *sigh* “I promise, I’ll -tell- you when we’re having sex”
    – “Is it now? Is it? Is it?”

    Because my brain hates me.

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    You’re making more use out of your philosophy degree than I am… :)

    I’ve seen sex defined before as something like ‘two or more people doing something together, where at least one of them is trying to get off as a result’ (and the others are aware of it, I should add!). But the foreplay/sex borderline seems a much more nebulous question. Maybe it’s just a question of attitude? Between ‘hmm, shall we…’ and ‘yes, let’s!’

    • Girl on the net says:

      “The point between ‘hmm, shall we?’ and ‘yes, let’s’” holy fuck this is actually one of the neatest ways to encapsulate the spirit of it I have ever heard. Cannot tell you how much I love it!! Thank you SCS! Also I did not know you did philosophy, that’s awesome!

  • Mathematics *is* a language—dear @girlinthenet—but it has properties common human languages hide—its words are not only nouns, but also verbs (at the same time)—operating in context & enviroment. To get language we need a web of relations in-between anchoring points like words—or less specific, symbols & the rest of recursively defined language productions. To top it off it also has a whole language used to meta (talk about it) in arbitrarily abstract way. Nouns (say, an empty set {}) relate to other words forming symbol clouds. Verbs (or operations) are generating rules. An empty set {} generates a zero for example. Sorry—if I were able to explain it completely in a comment I would be famous. And maybe rich. Rich does not necessarily follow. I hope you’re now thoroughly confused. I’m confused too. I did not plan to write this. Things/processes just happen at random as a manifestation of the dragon of chaos. YES—I’m insane. NO—it’s not nonsense. MAYBE—

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