De-Centering Penetration: 5 Other Ways to Play With Partners

We’re free to define “sex” as whatever we want. But too often, people think of sex as just penetration. Everything else gets swept aside as “foreplay,” a nebulous category that’s sometimes used to dismiss or devalue anything outside of putting tabs (whether they’re flesh or silicone) into slots (whether they’re front end or back end.) 

It’s no secret that the majority of people with vaginas don’t or rarely orgasm from penetration by itself. It’s also been repeatedly documented that straight cis women orgasm significantly less often in their sexual encounters than anyone else, yet straight cis men orgasm the most. This disparity alone is a good reason to consider letting other forms of sex take center stage at least as often as penetration does. 

But it’s not just PIV (penis in vagina) penetration that’s hogging the spotlight: there’s an over-emphasis on penetration in the queer community, too. Speaking to Mel Magazine about gay men who don’t enjoy anal sex, clinical therapist Joe Kort emphasized, “It’s okay if you don’t like anal intercourse […] Men have been conditioned to think that penetrating a vagina or an anus with their dicks is everything.”

“Sex can be intimate, intense and you can achieve orgasm and pleasure outside of penetration,” points out A'Kala Chaires over on Autostraddle. “The pressure on queer women in our community to want to be strapped down makes it hard for people to feel comfortable exploring, and also makes it difficult to discuss discomfort and pain with partners.” As someone with vaginismus, I concur.

Soooo… What else is there?

Oral Sex 

Oral sex is often seen as an appetizer rather than the main course – truly, a tragedy. Pleasuring a partner with your mouth is a tactile experience you both can relish.

Oral sex allows you to simultaneously enjoy a partner’s taste, scent, body warmth, moans or gasps, and shifting expressions (if you’re at an angle where you can ogle.) Some of these details get overlooked during penetrative sex because we’re distracted, or because our position or pace doesn’t leave room for leisurely appreciation.  

In my experience, it’s often easier to take your time and savor shared pleasure when utilizing your mouth. Whether you’re blowing, eating, rimming, putting your tongue to use elsewhere, or doubling up in a 69! If you’re taking turns, you can really focus on pleasing your partner – and they can coach you (more, slower, use that finger vibe too!) on what they need in the moment.

Mutual Masturbation 

From 6 Reasons You Should Try Mutual Masturbation: “Mutual masturbation is exactly what it sounds like: masturbating together with someone else! (Or several someones, if that’s your jam.) Mutual masturbation gives each participant full control over their own pleasure.

Mutual masturbation is generally less physically and emotionally demanding than other forms of partnered sex. This makes it an appealing option for folks who feel depleted from stress, family obligations, overstuffed schedules, illness, etc. Sex that requires less energy can be just as sexy, passionate, and affectionate as high energy sex – it’s just less taxing on the participants. 

Sitting side by side on the couch, wand vibrators in hand, to watch something saucy on Netflix? Very chill. Snuggling and indulging in some sleepy self-lovin’? What a hot, relaxing way to unwind and fall asleep. If one of you is too tired or sore to participate, you can always watch – or be watched – like it’s a sexy afternoon daydream.”


For those unfamiliar, humping/grinding is when you rub your junk against something – or a consenting someone – for pleasure. More specifically, “scissoring” (or tribbing) is vulva on vulva grinding, “dry fucking” is rubbing a penis against a vulva or ass, and the word “frotting” is often used to describe grinding a penis against another penis. 

Grinding requires friction, texture, movement – it’s super physical, and probably the sex act with the most in common with penetration. There are so many ways to do it, too: straddling a thigh, sharing a pillow, grinding on a piece of furniture or your partner’s face, scissoring with a Magic Wand, placing a textured dildo on a partner’s body and rubbing off on it… With a heavy drizzle of lube, any part of a partner’s body can become a fuckable surface. With a sturdy chair or sex pillow, almost any sex toy can be perched on. 

Sex is all about creativity and finding what works – and humping is a great way to utilize both skills.

Sex Toys 

Sure, there are plenty of sex toys that penetrate, like dildos and butt plugs. But there’s a whole ocean of sex toys that are for external use, and every single one can be used with a partner. 

An obvious pick are sex toys you can control with a remote or app, like the We-Vibe Wand, Satisfyer Curvy, or Hot Octopuss Jett. But you can also let a partner hold a favorite toy on your behalf (I love it when my partner holds my vibrator so I can touch them instead), or simply use one while they watch or join in by using one of their own. 

For toys you can use simultaneously, wand vibrators are often strong enough and have enough surface size to be shared if you snuggle up close. (I use them for scissoring sometimes.) Some open-ended masturbators can be shared by partners with penises when positioned head-to-head. The Fun Factory Volta can be used on a vulva or a penis – a perfect excuse to explore edging as you swap it back and forth to share.

Hand Sex 

Yes, hands can be used for penetration too. But your fingers and palms are capable of so much else too. Petting, stroking, gripping, massaging, pinching, kneading – your digits are versatile. You should use them more! 

Like oral sex, hand sex gives you the opportunity to explore the nuances of a partner’s needs. You can vary the speed, pressure, and movement of your touches, utilizing the texture of your fingertips, the width of your palm, and the weight of the butt of your hand to work them over.

If you’re not sure how to make the most of hand sex, there are plenty of sex toys you can tag in to help. “Maybe it’s because I’m over 30 and my body is falling apart as we speak, but I really appreciate having vibrations as backup,” I explained in a past post. “Toys like the Hot Octopuss DiGit, Fun Factory Be One, or the Dame Fin fit on or between your fingers, helping you stir up some extra magic wherever you’re rubbing, cupping, or massaging. If you need some extra horsepower, the Screaming O Charged Positive is an incredibly strong bullet vibrator – just don’t expect to be able to feel your fingers afterwards!”

Betty Butch (they/she) is a queer sex and relationships writer. By blogging about their experiences as a fat, trans, autistic person, they hope to help change the narrative of who has sex and what sex "should" be. Follow them on Twitter and Instagram.

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