Heather Corinna replies:
I hear people talking about foreplay and pretended like I knew but I have never really understood what it was. Can you help?
"Foreplay" is a term often used primarily by heterosexual people to describe sexual activities done before penis-in-vagina intercourse or activities which are anything besides any kind of genital intercourse.
Often, when people talk about foreplay, they're talking about petting, dry sex, mutual masturbation, manual sex ("fingering" or "handjobs") or oral sex; things that can also be called "outercourse" -- or sex. More times than not, they're talking about activities to be done primarily for the benefit of people with a vagina in order to make vaginal intercourse more pleasurable for them alone, since if they aren't very aroused first, or haven't engaged in activities which stimulate the more sensory parts of the vulva first (like the clitoris), vaginal intercourse can be difficult or painful. However, it's not only women or people with vaginas who enjoy those activities, nor are those activities always done only to or for female bodies.
Calling other sexual activities foreplay tends to come out of the idea that the only "real" sex is vaginal intercourse. Trouble with that idea is that that just isn't true, and it's a particularly troublesome idea for a whole lot of reasons.
For starters, not everyone -- gay, bisexual or straight -- has vaginal intercourse as part of their sex lives, yet still has "real" sex via other sexual activities. Too, for a majority of women, vaginal intercourse alone doesn't result in orgasm, and for plenty of women (as well as some men), it doesn't even feel all that super-duper-amazing. So, defining "real" sex as an activity which a majority of men will get off on, but a majority of their female partners will not is obviously a bit odd and imbalanced. But more to the point, those other sexual activities have all the same factors as intercourse does: people choosing to do them are looking to explore their sexuality and experience sex together, they're seeking and often experiencing orgasm and sexual satisfaction through them, they carry physical and emotional risks (wanted as well as unwanted), they involve genitals (though defining sex as only genital is also flawed), they nurture sexual intimacy, the whole enchilada. On top of all of that, for those couples who can and do choose to engage in vaginal intercourse, those activities can and do happen not only before, but during or after intercourse, so even by that token, that "fore" (meaning before) seriously misses the mark.
I'd encourage you, now that you know what this means, not to get too attached to this pretty archaic view of sexual activities.
What's real is what feels good, feels real and what any given person and couple enjoys doing together sexually: if you're both exploring each other's bodies for the purpose of feeling good sexually and are seeking sexual gratification, it's all real sex. Thinking about all sexual activities besides intercourse as nothing but a lead-up to vaginal intercourse can set a person up for a sex life that is pretty limited and limiting, and also privilege one sexual activity which, in your own unique experiences, body and sexuality, may not be the one you'd choose to privilege.
Younger people, too, will often figure that if intercourse is the "real" sex, then everything else must be risk-free, which isn't the case. We're still emotionally vulnerable with those activities, and we're also still physically vulnerable. While most activities classed as foreplay don't carry pregnancy risks, some can (anal sex, for instance, can, as can rubbing naked genitals together), and most do carry risks of sexually transmitted infections. So, we've still got to protect ourselves in some ways with some of those activities.
Last thing? You get to ask questions when you don't know what a term someone is using means. If it helps, know that if and when you ask, you probably are not the only person in the room who doesn't know what something means. I know it can feel embarrassing to do that sometimes, but it can actually spark some cool conversations and it can also go a long way in helping you and your peers to really be sexually educated and informed. No one is born somehow magically knowing what all this stuff means, so anyone talking about it probably asked someone some questions themselves at some point. You get to ask those questions, too.
Here are a few extra links to round this out for you: