Foreplay: How to Be Better at It

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on November 20, 2023
7 min read

Foreplay -- also called “outercourse” -- is any sexual activity that happens before sexual intercourse. You can think of it like the warm-up to the main event, although foreplay doesn’t always have to lead to intercourse. Foreplay can include things like kissing, cuddling, touching, texting, or just talking.

Foreplay doesn't look the same for everyone. Getting in the mood for sex can vary from person to person, and not all men, women, or nonbinary people have similar preferences. Often, foreplay precedes penis-in-vagina sex, but for some LGBTQIA+ people, acts that are often considered part of foreplay can be the main event. People assigned female at birth may also find foreplay to be critical in helping them orgasm.

What is afterplay?

Afterplay is any intimate activity that happens after sex. It can involve hugging, holding, and talking. During afterplay, you can also stimulate yourself if you're still in the mood. 

Foreplay can make sex more exciting. For example, kissing releases oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. These feel-good hormones can reduce stress and help you get out of your own head while you’re with your partner and enjoy sex even more. More foreplay benefits include:

It helps get your body ready for sex. When enjoying foreplay, you may notice your heart pounding. There's an increase in blood flow to your genitals, causing the labia, clitoris, and penis to swell. Arousal also helps lubricate the vagina, making sex more pleasurable and helping prevent pain during intercourse.

You may last longer. Incorporating a wide range of activities, including oral sex and self-stimulation, into foreplay can extend your experience before orgasm or ejaculation.

It helps build emotional intimacy. Engaging in foreplay can make you and your partner feel more connected in and out of the bedroom.

Lowered inhibitions. Foreplay also lowers inhibitions, which can make sex hotter between couples and virtual strangers alike.

You or your partner are more likely to orgasm. It’s important to keep in mind that, for some people, foreplay is a very important aspect of sex. In fact, many women or people with a vagina or clitoris can’t reach orgasm from intercourse alone.

A major myth about foreplay is that partners who don’t do it are lazy or selfish. However, a lack of sexual confidence or experience is much more likely to be the cause. The best way to overcome this hurdle and add foreplay to your life is to keep the lines of communication open. Keep sexual talk positive. Don’t accuse or shame your partner. Take the lead if they don’t seem to know what to do.

More myths about foreplay include:

  • Only cisgender people enjoy or need foreplay. Everyone can benefit from foreplay, and talking openly is key to sharing what you like with your partner. For transgender people, foreplay can sometimes be the “main event,” and their preferences can change depending on whether they've completed gender-affirming medical treatment.
  • Oral sex is the only form of foreplay. You and your partner may prefer a variety of ways to warm up, from making out to massage.
  • Foreplay is only physical. Before you even touch your partner, your brain can help get you in a sensual mood. Anticipation of physical touch can be erotic. You could start with sexting each other earlier in the day by sharing a photo or telling them what you'd like to do with them.
  • Foreplay should occur for a set amount of time depending on your assigned gender. It's commonly assumed that people assigned male at birth prefer foreplay to be shorter, but one study indicated that most people have the same ideal length of foreplay, around 20 minutes. Still, there's no need to watch the clock if you're having a good time with your partner.
  • Foreplay only occurs in the bedroom. You can build sexual tension while out for dinner or drinks. Dancing, roleplaying, or kissing as you make your way to a private location are all ways to get you and your partner excited for sex.

Bringing foreplay into your relationship can help you and your partner(s) grow closer by triggering hormones that reduce stress and deepen your connections.

Whether you're in a new relationship or have been married for decades, foreplay can make a difference by helping achieve a satisfying sex life. Your gender and age can affect your style of foreplay, but there's no “right” way to do it.

Foreplay means different things for different people. Some people may enjoy it so much that they never get around to intercourse. One of the best ways to enjoy foreplay is to talk with your partner or partners beforehand about what works for you and what doesn’t. Given that everyone consents to the activities, the most important thing is that you’re enjoying yourself.

Examples of foreplay

Foreplay can start long before you’re in the same room with your partner. Leaving a romantic note, sending a sexy text, or preparing a romantic dinner can all be considered forms of foreplay. These can be great ways to begin adding more arousal into your life. Also, try these foreplay techniques:

  • Invite your partner to dance
  • Give your partner a sensual massage
  • Use more eye contact
  • Give compliments to your partner about how good they look, flatter them
  • Talk to your partner about the sexual activities you want to engage in
  • Take a bath or shower together, including essential oils to get in the mood
  • Watch a sexy movie together
  • Explore kinky toys and activities with your partner
  • Manually stimulate your partner's genitals, or use a vibrator
  • Squeeze your partner's breasts or engage in consensual nipple play with licking and nibbling
  • Have fun with food/feed each other
  • Talk dirty to each other
  • Stroke your partner's hair
  • Make out/French kiss
  • Set the mood with scents from candles or lotion
  • Perform a striptease for your partner
  • Read erotic fiction to each other

Foreplay tips

Try these ideas to encourage your partner to engage in foreplay with you:

  • Get the conversation started by asking them what they want. Tell them you enjoy turning them on, and ask them to share what they'd like you to do to them. Take time to discuss boundaries and what you're comfortable doing.
  • Be open and honest about why you need and want foreplay. You can explain that it helps with lubrication and arousal, leads to better and stronger orgasms, and helps you feel closer to them.
  • Don’t place blame or make them feel inadequate. Tell your partner what they do that feels good, and encourage them to keep doing it.
  • Physically show them where and how you want to be touched. Gently guide their hands along your body while telling them how good it feels.
  • Get naked together more often. Some people have body insecurity, so try spending more time together in the nude to help normalize your bodies and create a more confident atmosphere when using them sexually.
  • Slow things down. If you or your partner aren't feeling ready for penetration yet, it’s important to communicate it.
  • Don't let disabilities stop you. If you or your partner have a physical disability, do your best to make each other comfortable, and continue to focus on listening to each other's needs.

The more open and honest you can be with your partner about the sexual activities that excite you, the more likely you are to enjoy sex.

If foreplay isn't something that comes easy to you or your partner, there's a variety of reasons why. You may be dealing with insecurity, fear of rejection, or health issues. Or you might just not like how certain foreplay activities feel. Here are some foreplay challenges and ways to address them:

Past negative experiences or trauma. If you or your partner have suffered sexual trauma or emotional abuse, reach out to a counselor or therapist for support.

Erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation. People with penises who have trouble getting or keeping an erection, or who ejaculate sooner than desired during sex, may feel frustrated during foreplay. Talk to your doctor about medications and counseling that can help.

Vaginal dryness. When your vagina is dry, it can cause pain during sex. The symptom can occur at any age, but it's most common in women or people assigned female at birth during or after menopause as estrogen levels decline. You can use lubricants during foreplay to prepare for sexual intercourse. Talk to your doctor about what might be causing vaginal dryness and ways to treat it with medication.

Overall aging. Over time, our bodies change, and a number of issues can make foreplay and sex challenging. Still, there are ways to adjust your techniques and adapt. For example, one study of straight, older couples found that oral sex improved their sex life and made them happier. You can stay intimate with your partner and even use oral sex as an alternate way to maintain an active sexual life.

Sexual compatibility is always important in a relationship, and communication is key. You may want to think about seeking help from a sex therapist if you're struggling with foreplay or other issues. A sex therapist can help address the mental or emotional aspects of sex-related issues with individuals and couples alike.