Not all sex has to involve penis-in-vagina (PIV) penetration. If you're interested in abstaining from or decentering this type of sex from your life, then outercourse might be for you. Here's what you need to know about what outercourse is, how it relates (and doesn't relate) to abstinence, and how to practice it safely.
What is outercourse?
Outercourse is a term that generally encompasses any type of non-penetrative sexual play, says sex educator Cassandra Corrado. "So it might include handjobs, nipple stimulation, perineal massage, cunnilingus—anything that stimulates the outside of the body for sexual pleasure."
Notably, outercourse has a broad definition and can mean different things depending on who you ask. For some people, outercourse is any sexual activity that isn't penis-in-vagina sex, while others define it more strictly as only sexual acts that don't involve any penetration whatsoever.
Often, someone's definition of what counts as outercourse is influenced by their reasons for wanting to practice it. A person who believes in waiting for marriage to have sex, for example, might see getting fingered vaginally as belonging to the realm of outercourse, whereas another person might not necessarily agree.
Some people see outercourse as a form of abstinence (i.e., voluntarily choosing to not have sex), while others see outercourse as just one of many types of sex. Outercourse can also be seen as encompassing any sexual activity that comes with a lowered STI risk or lowered chance of pregnancy, though notably, many forms of outercourse may still include skin-to-skin contact or an exchange of fluids, meaning there may still be some of these risks involved.
What behavior "counts" as outercourse.
Dry humping involves rubbing your genitals against your partner's genitals or body, often with clothes still on. It can feel amazing and has a much lower risk of STI transmission and pregnancy than PIV sex. Dry humping might also entail someone rubbing their penis or clitoris between their partner's butt cheeks or thighs in a simulation of intercourse. This involves more risk in terms of both STIs and pregnancy since ejaculate or vaginal lubrication is more likely to touch your partner's genital mucous membranes or accidentally enter their vagina, and there's skin-on-skin contact. (Here are some other ways to have a hands-free orgasm though, if you're curious.)
Good old making out can be considered a part of outercourse. Getting hot and heavy with your mouths is a simple yet fun erotic activity. (Read up on all the different types of kisses here, if you're curious!)
Mutual masturbation can describe two different things. Firstly, it can mean partners touching each other at the same time, or it can mean partners touching themselves at the same time, usually while looking at one another. The latter option carries the lowest risk of STI transmission, in addition to being extremely hot. Try lying on opposite ends of the bed and forbidding yourselves from touching each other while you go to town on yourself. You can even do it over the phone!
Colloquially known as scissoring, this form of outercourse involves grinding two vulvas together in order to stimulate each person's clitoris. Finding the right angle is key for scissoring success, so don't be afraid to experiment with different positions to find what works for you.
Is there anything sexier than a massage? Rubbing, kneading, and stroking your partner's body with your hands is a safe and extremely pleasant form of outercourse. The erotic pleasure that can be gained from feeling your partner's body underneath your hands is unmatched.
An external vibrator is a great way to enjoy outercourse. Just apply to your clitoris, penis, perineum, or nipples, and buzz away. A vibrator is a great way to reach orgasm without needing someone else to touch you, which is useful if you're interested in outercourse as a form of abstinence from partnered sex. Just make sure to clean your sex toys well, especially if you use them during partnered sex.
Fingering and handjobs
Using your hands on your partner's genitals can be seen as a form of outercourse. However, if one person's vagina or anus is being penetrated, then some people may view it as intercourse as opposed to outercourse. However, as noted, people's definitions do vary.
Going down on your partner or giving them a blowjob can be considered as another form of outercourse, as it doesn't involve vaginal penetration. Not everyone would agree on categorizing oral sex as outercourse, though, as it all depends on your parameters for what outercourse is or isn't. Even though oral sex cannot get you pregnant, it can still spread STIs, so if you're engaging in oral sex, you'll need to use a barrier method such as a condom or dental dam to reduce the risk of transmission.
Does outercourse count as abstinence?
"Depending upon one's personal, spiritual, or ethical background, abstinence has different meanings for different people," explains sex educator and therapist Tameca Harris-Jackson, Ph.D., LCSW, CSE, CIMHP.
For some, abstinence means refraining from any and all sexual behaviors, including, but not limited to, intercourse. This definition is usually more common among people for whom living "a chaste life may be an important exercise of faith," says Harris-Jackson.
Abstinence can also be understood as simply avoiding penetrative, penis-in-vagina sex, in which case outercourse could technically be understood as a form of abstinence. If you are practicing abstinence, Corrado recommends that you "talk with your partners about what that means to each of you. It's best to be on the same page—and to also understand why some things are off the table and why others aren't."
Benefits of outercourse.
Sexuality educator Shemeka Thorpe, Ph.D., notes that outercourse is a good way to "take the pressure off viewing penetrative sex as the main source of pleasure." By engaging in outercourse, you can learn ways to have orgasms that don't have anything to do with PIV or penetrative sex, she says.
Lowers pregnancy risk
Outercourse comes with a lower chance of getting pregnant because the penis does not enter the vagina. However, it may not always eliminate the risk of pregnancy completely: "People can still get pregnant with outercourse because semen can exist in pre-cum; and there is a chance that pre-cum can make contact with the vulva [and then the vagina] and result in pregnancy," warns Lori Lawrenz, PsyD, of the Hawaii Center for Sexual and Relationship Health.
Gives you room to learn what you like
When assumptions that PIV=sex are off the table, people are left with more room to explore what gives them pleasure. Questions that can be asked might include "What kind of touch feels good to you? Where are the places that you especially enjoy being touched? How do you want to be touched, caressed, kissed, and/or held?" says Fred Wyand of the American Sexual Health Association.
Can soothe stressors
Due to outercourse's less risky nature than PIV, it can contribute to a lowering of stress that might otherwise be present, says Harris-Jackson. Being able to enjoy sexual intimacy (especially if it's a risk-free option such as a massage with no genital contact) without fear, or with less fear, can free oneself up to pleasure and mindfulness in the moment.
Risks of outercourse:
The risks can be misunderstood.
Rachel Lotus, a sex educator who focuses on sex education for young people, explains that one of the downsides of outercourse is that people might engage in it assuming that it's risk-free. This is a myth that needs to be countered. Outercourse is less risky than PIV sex, but it is not risk free. Scissoring while nude, sharing sex toys, and oral sex are all examples of outercourse that can absolutely lead to the transmission of STIs.
It can inadvertently lead to intercourse.
This con is often touted as a reason not to have outercourse, the fear being that "engaging in outercourse may lead to the need, desire, or pressure to have [PIV] sex," says Harris-Jackson. "It is worth noting, however, that this is not a risk inherent to outercourse. Instead, this concern is related to communication and consent. Having open and clear lines of communication with partners is essential. Be willing to be open and honest about expectations and boundaries. Discuss areas of 'go' and 'no go' on one another's bodies as well as outercourse activities that are OK and not OK."
She also advocates for the importance of being able to change one's mind and remove or change the terms of consent. "Have such discussions in advance and continue the communication throughout," she advises.
Is outercourse really "safe sex"?
No, outercourse isn't necessarily "safe sex."
"Any type of sex act comes with some level of risk, whether that's risk of STI transmission, emotional vulnerability, physical harm, or social risk. There's no one form of sex that's inherently safe or unsafe," Corrado explains. "If someone is including cunnilingus in their definition of outercourse, that's oral sex—and it comes with the risk of STI transmission. But there is also how vulnerable someone feels during a sex act, if a particular sex act could trigger gender dysphoria, and if their partner can be trusted to keep what happens in the bedroom between them."
Safer sex is achieved through a combination of communication, birth control (if relevant), and barrier methods. To make outercourse safer, you need to fit the protection to the act. For example, a condom will be effective (although not fail-proof) in preventing pregnancy if used while thrusting between your partner's butt cheeks or thighs. However, a condom will not protect against herpes, for instance, as this STI is spread by skin-to-skin contact.
Likewise, to reduce the risk of STI transmission, a condom or dental dam needs to be used at any time during outercourse where there's a risk that vaginal fluid or semen can touch your partner's genitals or mouth.
The bottom line.
Whether you're interested in avoiding penetration because of health reasons, simply aren't interested in it, or want to protect yourself against pregnancy and STIs, outercourse can be a good choice for you. It's even great for those who do engage in intercourse but who just want to mix it up a little. Just remember to stay safe and don't assume that you're protected just because no PIV is happening.
Kesiena Boom, M.S., is a sociologist, writer, and poet. She has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Manchester and a master’s degree in Gender Studies from Lund University. Her work has been featured at Slate, Buzzfeed, Vice, Autostraddle, and elsewhere. Her writing focuses on sex, pleasure, queer experience and community, feminist theory and practice, and race and anti-racism.