More Than Just A Warm Up

Rethinking Foreplay

By Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller


Foreplay is so much more than just the physical suggestion that kick-starts a sexual encounter. Foreplay is the energy that runs through an entire relationship. It begins at the end of the previous orgasm and it lives as an ever-present suggestion that a small look, touch, text, or banter might lead to a little more. Foreplay is a mood we live in, a way we look at ourselves, how we feel about ourselves in the presence of a lover—or even in the presence of just our own reflection. At its core, great foreplay is made of the same things that make play, in general, so fun—exploring, creating, bonding, and trying new things.

There’s a reason why it’s been suggested that the etymology of the word “flirt” has to do with “the tip of the sword.” It’s a double entendre that playfully illustrates the verbal poking we engage in with someone we like—as well as the physical suggestion that the tip of the sword may eventually lead to the whole shaft. The word “tease” accomplishes something similar. Teasing is what we do from the earliest age when we like someone; it’s a way of building a rapport without exposing our true feelings. We continue to tease this way as we grow up, but the word takes on a second meaning as we explore our sexuality. Physical teasing is what we do with ourselves or another to build tension for the sake of pleasure rather than climax. 

Foreplay Isn’t What You Think It Is

Yes, foreplay includes the physical acts that prime our bodies for the big event, but it’s not a  road map to an exact destination (sex) or a math equation that outputs a neat answer (orgasm). Foreplay is the art of anticipation. It’s the feeling of being simultaneously present and transported. This is why foreplay is created by a mix of planning and spontaneity. We love to meticulously get ready for a date, anticipating the events to come, and we love to be surprised by the delightfully unexpected gesture that detours from the evening’s plans. 

It’s the same for social foreplay. How many of us prepare our taste buds for dinner with friends by looking up the restaurant’s menu in advance, salivating over which delicacy we might choose in the moment? How many of us enjoy packing for a vacation, imagining how the linen outfit we’re tucking into our suitcase will feel on our skin in the balmy breeze of a faraway place? In this way, and contrary to popular assumptions, foreplay isn’t just about sex in the same way that sex isn’t just about sex. It’s about all the other feelings, associations, memories, dreams, wishes, and connections. Foreplay isn’t a thing we do; it’s a place we go. 

Great Foreplay Makes Everything Better

Maintaining an atmosphere of foreplay isn’t just about constantly being “in the mood” so that we’re ready to be sexual at any moment. It’s about creating an energetic field that vibrates with the playful energy of possibility rather than dullness or contempt. When a small disagreement takes place in a consistently playful environment, it’s easier to handle it and move on. Hurtful digs become less frequent, replaced instead with humorous jabs back and forth. Bad tension fades. Good tension builds. In a playful environment, the trust that we have each others’ backs grows deeper. When things are tough, the consistent understanding that we want to feel good and make the other feel good indicates that we’re coming from a good place—and that’s a pretty good place to come, if and when we get there. 

We’ve always thought of foreplay as mostly physical and verbal. But it’s also emotional and psychological. It’s humor. It’s holding. It’s inquisitiveness. And the way to encourage it, to sustain it, to help it grow is to return to what we’ve known since we were kids: flirting, teasing, cultivating playfulness that creates complicity. Foreplay doesn’t need to be something that diminishes as we get older, it’s an energy that deepens as we grow. Foreplay is for play.

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Rethinking Foreplay: More Than Just A Warm Up

Contrary to popular assumptions, foreplay is so much more than just the physical suggestion that kick-starts a sexual encounter. Foreplay is the energy that runs through an entire relationship. Read more on how to rethink foreplay and why it's important for your relationships.

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My monthly newsletter and workshop are meant to inspire you to reflect, act, and develop greater confidence and relational intelligence in all of your relationships. This month's theme is: Play.

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