Non-penetrative sex, a.k.a. outercourse, is sex without sexual penetration. There are a variety of reasons why a person might choose this over penetrative sex, including preference, safety, mental and physical restrictions, and personal boundaries.
Although somewhat safer than traditional sex with regard to unwanted pregnacy and STDs, there are still risks involved in intimate interactions, so some precautions must still be taken. Practicing safe sex applies to all kinds of sex.
There is some fuzziness in the definition of non-penetrative sex. It can mean sex without vaginal or anal penetration but still including penetrative aspects, such as oral sex or fingering. Or it can mean sex that excludes any and all types of penetration.
Many people think of non-penetrative sex as foreplay—kissing, erotic massage, and sharing sexual fantasies could all qualify, depending on one’s personal definition of sex.
Avoiding penetrative forms of sex doesn’t mean that what you’re engaging in isn’t ‘real sex’, nor does it make you any less likely to reach orgasm.
Non-penetrative sex includes acts such as:
Mutual masturbation—two or more people stimulating themselves or each other
Dry humping (or ‘frottage’)—the act of rubbing any part of the body against the sexual organs of another person. You can engage in dry humping while clothed or naked
Handjobs and footjobs—stimulating the penis with one’s hands and feet
Stimulation with a vibrator—using a vibrator for anything but penetration
Intercrural, intergluteal, or mammary intercourse—the act of rubbing one’s penis between another person’s things, butt cheeks, or breasts respectively.
An alternative to traditional sex
There are those who might ask why an exploration of non-penetrative sex is even necessary. This kind of thinking is stagnant, ableist, and heteronormative. A better question is—why wouldn’t you explore your options?
Non-penetrative sex is well suited for:
Someone who wants to have sex, but doesn’t wish to be penetrated, be it because penetration is painful or difficult for some reason, because of past trauma involving penetration, because of a desire to take things slow, or for any other personal or circumstantial reason;
Someone with a disability that hinders penetrative sex;
Partners who want to try something new, to explore each other's bodies in a variety of ways—exploring different aspects of likes and dislikes;
Partners of the same sex whose sexual relationship thrives with or without penetration;
A situation where protection for penetrative sex is either unavailable or unsuitable (e.g. for someone with latex allergies);
The non-penetrative sex is also an option in situation where those engaging in sex want to avoid penetrative sex in the interest of safety; or in any other situation where penetration is undesirable, inconvenient, or irrelevant.
Conditions such asvaginismus and erectile dysfunction can make penetration painful, difficult, or even impossible (without causing significant trauma to one of the partners).
Vaginismus is often related to fear of pain, which may be based on previous painful experiences or undesirable expectations. Erectile dysfunction is also often related to fears and expectations—fears of being ‘less-than’ what is perceived to be a ‘real man’, able to sustain a firm erection for a long time with ease. These false ideals are increasingly derived from porn that features exaggerated and unrealistic presentations of masculinity.
Sometimes traditional penetrative sex just isn’t worth the effort, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Psychological barriers are just as valid. Sexual relationships necessitate a level of trust between partners, and a level of comfort in exploring one’s own and one’s partner’s sexuality. Many of us form conscious or unconscious barriers to protect ourselves emotionally, which can get in the way of intimacy that ultimately requires us to be vulnerable. Taking down these barriers is possible, but it’s a process that needs time, a lack of pressure, honest self-reflection and, ideally, a safe person by your side.
It is crucial to acknowledge that a portion of the human population may never engage in penetrative sex. Their reality should not be treated as less than the kind of sexual experience we expect between two straight, able-bodied people.
If nothing else, ‘outercourse’ is a way to enrich your sexual life and discover your body: What brings me pleasure? What are my limits? There is no good reason to get stuck in a single model of foreplay, intercourse, and orgasm, in that order. Most people have desires and needs that go beyond that traditional formula and would benefit greatly from the normalisation of a diversified sexual skillset.
Can I still get pregnant?
Yes, you can. Pregnancy is the result of biological function. The sperm doesn’t care how it gets to an egg cell; it will always attempt to fertilize it.
Although avoiding penetration lessens the risk of unwanted pregnancy, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that pregnancy could occur during non-penetrative sexual contact between a man and a woman. Sperm can survive outside the body for several hours, which is more than enough time to inadvertently engage in fluid exchange.
A few examples:
Semen ejaculated on another part of a woman’s body trickles into the vagina.
A woman performs oral sex on her male partner, they kiss, and then semen is transferred to the vagina during reciprocative oral sex.
Semen on a hand is transferred to the vagina by fingering or stroking.
Semen is transferred from a towel or tissue during post-sex cleanup.
There are many possible scenarios. It is important to be aware not only of what happens to ejaculate, but to preejaculate as well as that also contains sperm. If you want to avoid pregnancy, your best bet is to prepare for non-penetrative sex just as you would for penetrative sex (within reason). If you would usually take birth control or use a spermicidal lubricant, don’t make an exception just because it doesn’t feel quite as necessary.
Similarly, don’t decide against taking a pregnancy test just because there’s less of a chance for the result to be positive. When in doubt, better safe than sorry.
How effective is it against STDs?
Non-penetrative sex offers even less protection against sexually transmitted diseases than it does against unwanted pregnancy.
Barrier methods are the only birth control methods that are effective against STDs. These include male and female condoms, and dental dams (thin, flexible pieces of latex that protect against direct mouth-to-genital or mouth-to-anus contact during oral sex). However, even if you use these correctly, and then end up getting your partner’s bodily fluids anywhere near your genitals or your mouth, you risk becoming infected.
‘STDs are spread through an exchange of infected body fluids, most often during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Infection can also happen by sharing anything that has come into contact with bodily fluids (such as syringes or razors), eating contaminated food (wash your hands, people), or kissing an infected person with mouth sores.’—from our article
‘Sexually Transmitted Diseases’
Dry humping in the nude can also spread certain STDs such as herpes and HPV, even if you don’t swap fluids. Wearing underwear makes dry humping safer, but it may not prevent all skin-to-skin genital contact or keep sexual fluids at bay. Some STDs can live on areas that undergarments don’t always cover (such as your upper thighs or butt cheeks).
No matter what kind of sex you plan to engage in, make sure neither you nor your partner/s are infected with an STD. Getting tested at a sexual health clinic is a quick and easy way to be sure. A number of STDs are asymptomatic, so it is entirely possible for an otherwise healthy person to be a disease carrier without knowing it. If test results come back positive, look into your options. Many common STDs are entirely curable, provided you catch them in the early stages—a very good reason to get tested regularly.
This may all sound anxiety-inducing, but it’s better to know how to take the precautions that will protect you from potential danger. Stay safe, and don’t be afraid to explore!
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