As much as the media, society and, yes, probably the patriarchy have tried to instil into us that anything less than the insertion of a penis or penis-like object is simply not satisfactory when it comes to sexual encounters, the real truth is that intimacy takes many different, equally important forms.
Enter: outercourse. Or rather, don’t enter, because that’s kind of what outercourse is all about.
The term is doing the rounds across social media, popping up as a “sex trend”, but of course, this type of intimacy has always been around, and has, been the go-to form of sexual encounter for many people. However, the renewed interest in the term is certainly something to celebrate, particularly as it highlights a shift away from centring sex as the only form of intimacy or pleasure.
“I actually love, love the term outercourse because normally these sorts of activities get put into the bracket term “foreplay”,” somatic sexologist Alice Childs tells Refinery29. “And what foreplay implies is that […] anything that happens is just the starter to the main course, which is sex and penetration.”
Childs explains that outercourse refers to anything that isn’t intercourse —that is, anything that isn’t penetration. “It could be anything from kissing to massage to oral — anything outside the body,” she says.
Anything that ordinarily people might lump into the category of “things you do before the main event” tends to downplay the importance that these activities can play in our sex life. It does outercourse a disservice, and can invalidate people for whom this is the main event. “Outercourse really opens up more possibilities when it comes to sex and pleasure for people of all genders, abilities, and sexualities,” Childs says. For many people, Childs points out, penetration and intercourse might not be “enjoyable, possible or pleasurable”. Giving outercourse the same importance challenges the close-minded view of intimacy that often prevails.
But if outercourse is still your lead-up to sex, then that’s no reason to spend less time engaging with it. As Childs points out, outercourse is still important when it comes to building arousal and preparing the body for penetration.
“Arousal takes time and stimulus and context to build and the body needs time before it's ready for any penetration, whether that’s penetration of the vagina or the anus," she says. "It needs time to warm up, to become lubricated and engorged if it’s a vagina, or to become more relaxed and ready for penetration if we’re talking about the anus. It takes outercourse often for the body to build that arousal and be ready.”
Childs also notes that outercourse can be an option for relationships that involve different ways of experiencing desire, as people can still find connection within each other and a way of meeting each other's needs, without the pressure of penetrative sex. “So, for example, mutual masturbation is a great form of sex that can still get people’s needs met without needing to have penetrative intercourse,” she says.
The emphasis on outercourse also means a reduction in the pressure we place on ourselves. As a society, we have complicated attitudes towards sex that often mean it’s built up to be a “big thing” (i.e. losing our virginity, sex for the first time in new relationships etc.). When something is placed on a pedestal in this way, it can lead to anxieties around the act itself.
“A lot of people might feel the pressure to have penetrative sex, but might not feel the same amount of pressure if they realised that outercourse also was sex,” Childs says.
Childs also mentions that penetrative sex often comes with a “performative element”, which makes sense given that when we see “sex” on screen, it’s nearly always penetrative, and we then absorb how these things are supposed to look and sound.
“Sex is not a performance, it’s an experience, it’s a place that we go with our partner and so anything that helps take off that performative lens is just a benefit,” she says.
Ultimately, the surge of interest in outercourse is a positive step, and incorporating more of it into our sex lives can be mutually beneficial in many ways.
“Sex can be so many different things and outercourse can be the first course, the main course, and the dessert all in one. It can be all of the things that make sex amazing,” Childs says.