• Relationship goals: why penetration is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to mutual pleasure and amazing sex
• “Regardless of gender, some of the best sex I’ve had hasn’t involved that traditional penis-in-vagina act of penetration”
Want to understand exactly how restrictive our ideas about sex are? Just remember what it was like to be a teenager. For many of us, there was a real sense of ceremony around the grand and elusive act of Losing Our Virginity — of finally, finally ‘having sex’.
What we actually meant by that, of course, was penetration. All the other stuff — handjobs, blowjobs, kissing, stroking, mutual masturbation — were simply appetisers.
But this isn’t actually the full picture. For one, it’s heteronormative — some people happily go their whole lives without even looking at a penis, let alone being penetrated by one. It belies the power of foreplay, too — the connection and mutual pleasure that you can achieve without an erection in sight.
Because, when it comes down to it, amazing sex doesn’t require an erection at all.
Non-penetrative sex and the futility of heteronormative standards
Hannah, 27, is a bisexual woman from Manchester. Having slept with both men and women, she’s more than aware of the ultimate futility of heteronormative sexual standards. “The idea that an erection is essential for good sex... Well, it makes me laugh, to be honest.
“I love having sex with men,” she says. “I absolutely love it. But, regardless of gender, some of the best sex I’ve had hasn’t involved that traditional penis-in-vagina act of penetration that we think of as sex.”
Hannah’s last relationship, with a man, didn’t involve penetration at all due to discomfort he felt around penetrative sex. Now happily with a woman, she’s well versed in the glorious multiplicity of desire.
“We touch, we kiss, we massage each other,” Hannah says. “Oral sex is a big one for us, too. We take long baths together, masturbate in front of and with each other, we dirty talk...
“Every relationship is different, but my last long-term male partner’s trauma meant we focused on things other than penetration,” she continues. “After we broke up and I started dating again, I was genuinely surprised at how focused a lot of men were on the act of penetration. Having relationships with women as well made it seem slightly absurd.”
Krystal Woodbridge, a psychosexual therapist who runs her own practice, agrees. “Penetration involving a penis is often all people think about when you say the word ‘sex’,” she says. “It’s as if that’s literally it. Anything like foreplay is just a precursor to that as the main event.”
There are plenty of reasons why someone might not want penetrative sex, Woodbridge explains — sexual pain, sexual aversion, erectile dysfunction, asexuality.
“And the model is obviously heteronormative,” she says. “It assumes there are just men and women. There are actually lots and lots of different sexual orientations that don’t involve penetrative intercourse at all.”
These cultural ideas about what it means to have sex can make people feel “like they’re less than adequate. There are layers and layers of anxiety,” she says.
“I’ve had a lot of sex for someone who some people would consider a virgin”
Unlike Hannah, Frances, 28, has never slept with a man. But they do have one thing in common: Frances also finds it “ridiculous” that penetrative sex is seen as the be-all and end-all.
“As a young adult, it did cause me quite a lot of anxiety,” she says. “People would be talking about certain sexual acts and then asking ‘but did you have sex?’ as if the acts weren’t enough or weren’t actually sex. It really invalidated my experiences. I felt as if the sex I was having or wanted to have was somehow less worthy than sex that involved penetration.”
A few years on and in an open relationship with a woman, Frances feels more bemused than upset about these expectations: “I’ve had a lot of sex for someone who some people would consider a virgin,” she laughs.
“I don’t even think about sex as ‘sex but without penetration’ now,” she concludes. “Everything me and my partners do in bed — whether it’s kissing for hours or using sex toys — it’s just sex, isn’t it?”
Couples can reframe their attitudes towards sexual penetration
As for couples who are struggling to readjust, Woodbridge has a number of suggestions. “There are all sorts of ways a couple can have sex without penetration,” she says.
“Massage, roleplay, different types of foreplay you can experiment with... You can have sex through touch, through the different senses — that can be a really powerful thing. You can use fantasy, erotic talk, your imagination, S&M, experimentation with different textures... Sex toys don’t have to be penetrative either.”
And even if you do enjoy penetrative sex, Woodbridge poses changing it up a little.
“Say, ‘Let’s not do that this week, let’s try everything but’,” she suggests. “It can help you use your imagination and become more creative, which is really fun. There are huge benefits to taking it off the menu.”
Not rushing into things is key, she argues. Take the time to talk to your partner about your wants, needs and desires and frame them in a positive way.
“This can be arousing in itself,” she says. “Building up that erotic tension without actually doing anything can be wonderful. Why not take a bit of time to get it right?”
The bottom line
Neither an erect penis nor sexual penetration are essential ingredients for a healthy sexual relationship. Experiment with everything from touch to erotic talk via the latest sex toys, and you may find it benefits your sex life immeasurably.
What's more, non-penetrative sex isn’t synonymous with a “sexless relationship”. Quite the contrary. It opens up a whole new world of sexual experimentation, undiscovered pleasure, and intimacy with your partner that can ultimately help to build a healthy sexual relationship.
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