Sexual interactions are grounded in the capacity for giving and receiving touch, yet close physical contact is often a missing element of satisfying sexual encounters. When partners forego touching within their relationship and solely focus on intercourse, they lose the relational desire that infuses intimacy and connectedness. Touch that’s consensual, soothing and safe invites mutual pleasuring and helps gauge partners’ willingness and readiness for sexual behavior. Experimenting with different dimensions of touch adds variety to sexual interactions and breaks up narrow scripts that create sexual stalemates.

The five dimensions of touch that may be used by partners to communicate sexuality include the following:

1.     Affection: Hugging, holding, kissing and behaviors that foster emotional connectedness between partners describe affectionate touch. Such touch represents a reaching out toward a partner and expresses a need for tenderness and bonding.

2.     Sensuality:  Sensual touch is more pleasure oriented than affection and hints at sexual exploration between partners.  A shared nurturing is the essence of such touch, where partners explore and respond to the sensations of physical connection.  

3.     Playfulness: Playful touch encourages the interweaving of genital and non-genital touching. Playful touch can incorporate caressing, tickling, teasing, and enticing. Playfulness creates a non-intercourse pleasure focused experience.

4.     Eroticism: Pleasure oriented touch that involves sexual activity outside of intercourse falls into the category of erotic touch. Manual, oral and other types of sexual stimulation significantly heighten arousal and sexual satisfaction.

5.     Intercourse: Penetrative sexual contact constitutes intercourse touch. Genital sensations and bodily pleasure are the focus of this sexual connection. 

Each touch dimension can and should be practiced as a stand-alone activity, yet this is rarely the case and partners tend to move from affection to intercourse without finding value in other dimensions. Such a goal versus pleasure-centered trajectory tends to result in dissatisfaction and an ultimate decrease in all types of touch.

Problems are mitigated when time and energy is invested into a flexible sexual repertoire. Touching and being touched without the expectation of intercourse helps to maintain a couple’s sexual flow and demonstrates partner attunement. The key to vitalizing sexuality and expression is to appreciate non-demand touching as a bridge to sexual and erotic stimulation and use it for ongoing intimacy within relationships.  

Source: McCarthy, B. & McCarthy, E. (2009). Communicating Your Sexuality. In McCarthy, B. & McCarthy, E. Discovering Your Couple Sexual Style (pp.21-31). New York: Routledge.