Outercourse: Everything You Need to Know About Intimacy Without Penetration

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Outercourse: Everything You Need to Know About Intimacy Without Penetration

From heavy petting to mutual masturbation to oral sex, outercourse opens up infinite avenues for pleasure.

Between the sorry state of sex education in the United States and a comparative lack of widely accessible LGBTQ+ sexual health resources, it takes a while for most queer and trans folks to learn — and name — the type of sex they want to have. This can be especially true for those who prefer non-normative types of sex or simply feel a bit boxed in by depictions of queer sexuality in the media or online. Often overlooked in popular representation of queer sex, outercourse, in particular, is a great way for folks across the gender, sexuality, and ability spectrum to explore pleasure.


As a catch-all term, “outercourse” describes the many sex acts and erotic activities that lie outside of internal (often called penetrative) sex. There are so many reasons queer and trans folks are drawn to outercourse, according to sexologist Marla Renee Stewart, outercourse may feel more affirming and pleasurable “particularly if you are undergoing bottom surgery recovery or getting used to your new growth because of HRT,” says Stewart.

Outercourse is often confused with foreplay — and for some people it is — but it can also be its own thing. Whereas foreplay is more like an appetizer, outercourse is about the holistic experience of sex, more of a potluck of pleasure than any single entrée.


Below, queer sex educators share everything you need to know about outercourse including what it is, how to have it, and why you might love it.



What is outercourse?

Outercourse describes sexual or erotic activity that does not involve internal vaginal and/or anal sex, or in other words non-penetrative sex. Often, outercourse is used as an umbrella term for external-only sex or hookups, but it encompasses a variety of sexual or erotic acts like mutual masturbation, oral sex, or grinding. But more on that later!


“Some people may view outercourse as foreplay and others may view outercourse as the main course,” says Lena Peak, a queer sexuality educator. “There’s no definitive answer here, you and your partner(s) get to define these terms for yourselves, or even reject them altogether!”


“One of the main reasons people might enjoy, prefer, or prioritize outercourse in their sex lives is because it de-centers penetration as the pinnacle of sex,” adds Peak. Traditional heteronormative sex — or intercourse if we want to get specific — is often defined by the presence of cis men and centers their pleasure. Outercourse, on the other hand, upends this narrow, more hegemonic understanding of sex and what “counts.” It allows people of all genders and bodies to imagine, speak back, and co-create the kind of connection they crave — regardless of the specific sex acts involved.


As a result, outercourse is a mainstay for many queer and trans people, particularly for those who may experience gender dysphoria, have a history of trauma, certain medical conditions, or disabilities, in addition to folks who simply prefer this type of pleasure.



Is it the same as abstinence?

No, outercourse isn’t the same thing as abstinence, but there is some nuance here.


Generally speaking, abstinence is the decision to refrain from sex or sexual activity, particularly P-in-V sex. Some people choose abstinence for moral, cultural, or religious reasons, while others opt to take a purposeful break for personal or medical reasons. Abstinence is also used for pregnancy and STI prevention.


But what exactly qualifies as sexual activity, or being abstinent more generally, depends on the person. For some, anything “beyond” kissing is off the table, while others consider everything except internal sex to be chaste. With such varied definitions, it’s possible that one person’s sex is another person’s abstinence. So while there can be overlap between the physical acts of outercourse and some types of abstinence, the main difference is intention.


Whereas abstinence is about limiting or distancing oneself from sex or gratification, Stewart says outercourse is inherently about receiving and giving pleasure. Make sure to have a conversation with any potential partner about how you define sex, outercourse, and abstinence.



How do I have outercourse?

The good news is there’s absolutely no “wrong” way to have outercourse. The only limit is your imagination.


To get you started, there are the usual suspects: heavy petting (or touching someone, often their genitals, indirectly through their clothing), oral sex, mutual masturbation, and hand jobs. Fingering may also come into play here, which means using your fingers and hands to arouse yourself or your partner. Typically, fingering refers to touching a vulva, clitoris, or anus. Though fingering often includes internal vaginal or anal touch, it doesn’t have to. Grab some lube and use your fingers to touch your partner’s vulva with long, gentle movements to “warm up,” before playing with their clit. Unless your partner is into it, you should avoid sharp, prodding motions. Instead use the pads of your fingers and focus on stroking motions.


You might also opt for grinding, which is sometimes referred to as “dry humping” or “tribbing.” Usually, this involves rubbing your genitals against someone’s body (like when straddling someone’s waist or thigh, for example.) The infamous act of scissoring is in this general family of touch as well, though it involves direct genital contact.


There are also sex acts that don’t focus on genitals, instead opting for a more integrated or erotic approach, like sensual massage or deep kissing. Some kink activities like impact play, bondage, or sensory play also fall under this category. If you’re not sure where to start, Peak recommends setting time aside to explore pleasure mapping, which involves using different types of external touch and sensations on different parts of the body. This can help you not only identify how you like to be touched, but also discover and potentially “map” new erogenous zones on your body.


Though these are all great jumping-off points, it’s important not to get too bogged down with what is or isn’t considered outercourse. Just focus on what turns you on. “Rather than narrow your scope to certain specific behaviors, try making a list of all of the areas on the outside of your body that you enjoy stimulating or that you're curious about stimulating,” sex educator Cassandra Corrado tells us. “How do you like for them to be touched? What types of touch do you want to try? What about your partner, how do they like to be touched, and where? Create your menu from there.”


As with any type of sexual or erotic contact, you should always discuss boundaries, consent, and safe sex practices. Remember, if the outercourse activities you’re engaging with involve genital touching or any contact with sexual fluids, you can still spread STIs.



Why is outercourse important for queer folks?

Though anyone can enjoy outercourse, it can be especially powerful for queer and trans people. First and foremost, the term is a way to name the type of sex that feels best to you and start a conversation about what feels right (and hot) for you and your partner(s).


Those on the ace spectrum, for example, may find satisfaction and belonging in certain kinds of erotic touch, like kissing or impact play. Meanwhile, a stone butch or top may opt for non-genital focused touch, like massage, or indirect stimulation via grinding.


Second, outercourse can be a framework to help you take a big step back, think about what you’ve been consciously and unconsciously taught about sex, what’s “normal,” and create your own road map for meaningful shared pleasure.


“By prioritizing, or at least normalizing, outercourse, it makes space for us to reconfigure the sexual scripts that many of us are handed early on. It allows us to prioritize experiences that bring us pleasure and fulfillment, rather than following the sexual behavior escalator to its ‘final destination,’” says Corrado. “And it allows us to take a much wider approach to our sexual decision-making, encouraging us to think about our and our partners' bodies, boundaries, desires, and pleasures in a more expansive way than society may have initially taught us.”



Written by: Sara Youngblood Gregory on Them