Why We Describe Sex in Terms of Bases (And Why We Should Stop)
Even if you’ve never played a single minute of baseball in your life, there’s a decent chance you’ve used its terminology before.
Phrases like “you’re in the big leagues now,” “that came out of left field” and “you knocked it out of the park” have made their way into North American lingo via the sport. While baseball terms often find themselves being used in our work lives, perhaps no baseball terminology has been more impactful than the notion of bases as metaphors for sexual intimacy.
“Have you been to first base yet?“
“I finally got to second base with her last night.“
“I think I’m going to get to third base any day now.“
“Last week, I finally hit a homerun!“
But inserting a sports-related element when it comes to sex might imbue it with a little playfulness for some, if you dig a little deeper, it’s actually a deeply inaccurate (and potentially harmful) way of thinking about sex.
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In order to understand the relationship between sex and bases, and why we should probably stop using the bases model, AskMen spoke with three experts in sex, dating and relationships … and none about baseball. Here’s what they had to say:
What First, Second, Third and Home Base Represent
So what do the bases represent, exactly? As it turns out, in part because the bases system seems to have become a metaphor for sex in a somewhat impromptu way, it can vary significantly from person to person.
However, at least two of the bases tend to be pretty well-defined.
“First base and home base are pretty clear,” says Connell Barrett, a dating coach for The League. “Second and third bases are harder to define.” Let’s break them all down, shall we?
In baseball, getting to first base is a big deal — it’s far from guaranteed, and it can be the start of an eventual scoring play. However, first base alone is relatively meaningless if you don’t end up advancing along the base path.
When translated into sexual intimacy terms, first base is simply just kissing, something many guys consider to be an unimpressive, nearly disappointing form of intimacy compared to sexual intercourse.
“Getting to first means you’re kissing, from a peck on the lips to French kissing,” notes Barrett.
Getting to second base, whether by hitting a double or by advancing from first, is decidedly a big deal in baseball. Since there are only four bases, you’re already halfway home, and the possibility of getting to home from second (on a teammate’s hit) is much higher than it is from first.
Consequently, for many people, second base is a big step up from kissing into steamy, sensual territory with a lot more touching.
For some, that means above the waist. As SKYN Condoms’ sex and intimacy expert Gigi Engle points out, the notion that second base is “fondling breasts” was likely decided by straight men, since their counterparts don’t exactly have much to work with above the waist. For others, it could mean anywhere on the body, so long as it’s outside the clothes — “groping each other, touching chests and butts,” as Barrett puts it.
In baseball, getting to third base is a relative rarity. That’s in part because triples are less common than full-on home runs, and in part because, well, they’re also less common than the comparatively easier singles and doubles.
As in the sporting sense, in sexual terms, the understanding tends to be that getting to third is actually pretty close to reaching home. As a result, third base leaves behind chaste kissing and the relatively tame over-the-clothes groping of second base to feature direct touching of the genitals.
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For some people, that’s primarily manual stimulation — “fingering or stroking,” according to Barrett — while for others, such as Engle, it can include oral sex, too.
Unsurprisingly, since getting to home base is the object of the game in baseball, home base in a sexual sense is the sex act that, culturally speaking, we tend to consider the ultimate form of sexual intimacy: engaging in penetrative intercourse.
“Getting to home base is full sex — intercourse. You scored!” says Barrett.
In this conception, once people have “rounded the bases” — kissing, groping, genital touching and penetration — the sense seems to be that they’ve done it all, and have successfully reached the highest level of sex.
Of course, as we just saw in the meanings of second and third base, not everyone agrees on what the bases are.
For some, a kiss without tongue might not even count as first base, while for others, oral sex might be included as part of home base rather than third. As well, the question of where to place certain acts that don’t fall under these narrow definitions — say, naked dry-humping, something with elements of second, third and home — remains up to the individual.
“There’s plenty of room for interpretation, especially with oral sex, which can fall anywhere from second base to home,” explains Barrett, noting that some see oral sex as relatively meaningless, while others see it as “more intimate than full intercourse.”
Why Americans See Sex in Terms of Bases
Even if you’re a lifelong baseball fan, you might be wondering the point in using bases when it comes to sex.
According to Barrett, “Meat Loaf’s 1977 hit song ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ helped cement the baseball-as-sex metaphor.”
“The narrator is trying to ‘go all the way’ in a car with his girlfriend while baseball announcer and ex-New York Yankee Phil Rizzuto calls the play-by-play,” he says.
Other sources suggest the comparison goes back as far as the end of the Second World War, though given the way slang and regional dialects function, oral usage of the concept could predate the earliest recorded use by several years. Still, the question remains: What is it about baseball and sex, two seemingly unrelated activities, that has stuck so well in the cultural mindset as to last through all these decades?
“Comparing stages of romantic escalation to running the bases makes for a simple, clear metaphor,” explains Barrett. “Everybody gets it — baseball is the national pastime.”
And the comparison doesn’t end at the base path, either. “In dating, we still say someone ‘struck out,’ meaning got rejected, or is a ‘switch-hitter,’ referring to bisexuality,” he adds.
Additionally, the terms “pitcher” and “catcher” are sometimes used to denote the penetrating and penetrated partner in anal sex between gay men, with the phrase “playing the field” referring to someone who’s casually dating several people at once over a short period of time.
It’s still worth asking why metaphors are required at all. To that point, there’s an even more compelling reason, but one that’s beginning to have less and less cultural currency.
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“Its significance has roots in our puritan ancestry, wherein sex is considered a bad or taboo thing,” says Engle. “Because sex is such a taboo subject and no one knows how to talk about it, referring to it in these rudimentary terms makes it easier for people to cope and talk openly about it.”
Why Base-Based Sex Thinking Is Problematic
Along with the weirdness of using extremely old slang to describe and understand sex comes the reality that, by now, like a set of baseball bases themselves, the metaphor might be getting a little old, covered with dust and worn out from overuse.
“Bases are really ridiculous and we should do away with them,” says Engle. “They put a hierarchy on different ‘sexual’ touching, which is an oversimplification of extremely nuanced human sexual behavior. There is no one thing that counts as sex, and there is no one form of sexual touching that is more valid or goes further than any other. Sex is natural, and all of it should be understood and done with care.”
Categorizing something as complex as sex into “linear terms” like that, according to Engle, “leads to slut-shaming, toxic masculinity and a demonization of sexuality, when it is one of the most normal human functions we have.”
Does that mean we need to throw the entire set of bases out? According to Jor-El Caraballo, a relationship therapist and co-creator of Viva Wellness, it’s complicated … but we probably should.
“I would like to think that [using baseball terms] came out of a desire to codify and better understand the stages of sexual intimacy,” says Caraballo. “Whether or not its origins were generally more wholesome, the idealogy does create a problematic dynamic between sex and play. While play in sex can be both healthy and exciting, when the ‘game’ hinges on men’s desire to always get to home base, it creates a problematic dynamic that’s hinged on proving problematic norms of masculinity.”
The upshot of that, in his mind, is a sort of tunnel vision, one that encourages guys to “forego developing a compassionate interaction with their partner at best, and [be] coercive or assaultive at worst.”
He also notes that it “robs men of the experience of potentially creating real fulfilling intimacy rather than just reaching a sexual goal.”
That might sound dramatic, but there’s something to it — guys often belittle and mock other guys for not having “gone far enough” sexually. Even if it’s not strictly tied to the notion of bases, the conception of sex as being a game that you need to win to prove your own masculinity can become deeply entrenched pretty quickly in the minds of young men.
“Rather than seeing sex as a game to ‘win’ in secret, we know that when people talk openly about sex and what they desire, it improves their sexual lives, particularly for men,” explains Caraballo, citing a 2010 study on the subject. “Instead of looking at sex as a few bases to cross, focus more on talking openly about what you desire and listening intentionally to what your partner wants.”
For what it’s worth, many young people today, whether it’s due to caring less about baseball or because they have a healthier understanding of intimacy and sex, seem to be rethinking the bases model.
First base: drinks
Second base: hooking up
Third base: consistently hanging out for over 3 months and refusing to call it a relationship because both of you are terrified of commitment and communication
— 1984’s George Whorewell (@EwdatsGROSS) October 21, 2019
first base: texting
second base: telling all ur friends
third base: getting ghosted
— justin (@farringt0n) November 30, 2019
First base: raw sex
Second base: saying I love you
Third base: posting them on Instagram
— rob (@skinnysoymilk) September 29, 2019
Agreeing to switch from a dating app to texting is the new first base. Second base is agreeing to meetup. Third base is probably like fisting idk i dont understand my generation anymore.
— kHz (@killahertz_) August 14, 2018
Search “first base” and “second base” on Twitter, and you’ll likely be able to find viral tweets like the ones above, mocking the absurdity of sexual bases … by replacing them with another, more contemporary absurdity: the ins and outs of modern dating in the hookup-culture era.
Talk about a brand-new ballgame!
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