The Power And Science Of Sexual Touch

close up of couple smiling about to kiss
Contributor
Sex

A kiss. A cuddle. A stroke of the hair. Hands held. Noses nuzzled. Want to know the state of a relationship? Watch how a couple touches each other—before, during and after sex. As you very well may know, the sexual act is more than just penetration, and can take many different forms. Here are some examples:

  • Drunken college co-eds initiate intercourse with a massage on a dorm room bed. They have sex, pass out promptly and one leaves the other early the next morning. Both are relieved.
  • Couple in a new relationship feel as if they can't live without each other. When they have sex, they devour each other. Afterward, they stare into one another's eyes, stroke one another's face and breathe one another's breath.
  • Long-time lovers prepare for bed with their nighttime ritual. He helps her unfasten her bra. She rubs that sore spot on his back. They make love and fall asleep in the usual position, back to stomach: a spoon.

"Penetration may be the culmination," says Dr. Dorree Lynn, author of Sex For Grownups, "but sex is a process with a beginning, middle and end," with touch playing an important role throughout.

Before sex, you touch someone initially to let them know they are desired. The clumsy massage. The hand across the table. The grooming of a wayward combover. From their response, you know how to proceed. Holding Hands Is Ridiculously Good For You

During the act, of course, touch creates arousal and, ultimately, brings about the orgasm.

Afterward, touch completes the act, winding you down as it wound you up. In your vulnerability, you lay in each other's arms. Fingers slowly caress as bodies regain equilibrium. As you drift asleep, toes touch toes. The connection is not broken.

"Touching lets you know that your partner is involved with you, and that you're not just two genitals that have done their thing," says Dr. Lynn. "For women, touching is validation that she is more than a receptacle."

Touch lets people know they are connected. Touch lets someone know, "I want to be with you." It says, "I want more of this."

"Healthy touching," Dr. Lynn adds, "is touching that brings two people together and makes them then want to touch more, and that's a combination of physiology and psychology."

So what happens in our bodies when we touch each other sexually? Why is touch so powerful? The unromantic answer is that our brains are affronted with a deluge of chemicals that change both us and how we relate to our partner. When A Kiss Is More Than Just A Kiss

Pheromones attract. Testosterone drives the two of you into bed. Dopamine provides the rush at climax. Phenylethylamine (PEA) gives you the euphoria of new love. Oxytocin, however, is what brings you back for more, and to that person specifically. It's what bonds you to one another, and it is what's behind the stimulation, confirmation and validation touching brings to the relationship. Or, as Yu Kun Zhang says in The Chemistry of Love and Monogamy, "Chemicals such as ... PEA 'create' love, whereas hormones such as oxytocin increase our passion for love and the likelihood that we stay it."

Also known as "the cuddle hormone," oxytocin is secreted from the pituitary glad during touch—sex, birth, breast feeding, even hand-holding—and bathes the brain and reproductive tracts of both men and women (although to a higher degree in women). Once stimulated, it helps you feel a connection and bond with your partner. As Theresa Chrenshaw, M.D., explains in her book, The Alchemy of Love and Lust:

Oxytocin is a marvelous molecule, influencing our life through touch. It is a crucial bonding agent for relationships—think of is as hormonal superglue... [It] bonds and attaches up to those we love, or perhaps causes us to love those it bonds us to—mates, family, friends, babies. It is deeply involved in parenting behaviors, causes contractions of the uterus during childbirth and orgasm, reduces stress, and, most importantly, keeps us "in touch" with each other. Curiously enough, it also make us forgetful and diminishes our capacity to think and reason.

During foreplay, touch-induced oxytocin increases trust and reduces fear. It modulates blood pressure and reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. In rats, it causes spontaneous erections in males and increased sexual receptivity in females. Research has even shown that oxytocin helps produce more intense orgasms, which makes sense since anxiety and stress are often to blame for male impotence and female sexual dysfunction.

During orgasm and beyond, it continues to be released. And while you are laying in your lover's arms, brushing lips, holding hands, it is there, creating feelings of contentment, calmness and security that seem to come from your mate.

This "cuddle hormone" flows to the rescue of what otherwise could be a short-lived relationship, says Crenshaw. It's the "hormonal superglue" that keeps us connected to one another long after the initial rush of love and lust wear out. It's what makes casual sex so difficult—oxytocin creates "feelings" for the other person. It ruins what should have been a quick getaway. The Chemistry of Love

Oxytocin's effects are not always welcome. For people who lack love or a desire for intimacy with their partner, touching may not feel good. According to Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute and author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure & Satisfaction,

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Sometimes people touch each other but one or both people don't feel "turned on" by it. The release of oxytocin does NOT guarantee feelings of arousal or closeness. It can feel good to be touched but not arousing. Similarly, even if oxytocin is released, if one doesn't feel close to or trusting of the person touching them, their emotional response (dread, fear, annoyance, etc) can make them experience the event as not-pleasurable or as a turn-off rather than a turn-on.

Really enjoying touch and the bonding power that oxytocin delivers requires the ability to tolerate or embrace intimacy. When touch doesn't feel good, something is off kilter with the relationship. WebMD Explores Falling In Love

Though science can explain what makes us feel romantic, loved, attached, it can't capture the beauty and power of those feelings. Luckily, poets have long since canonized the power of touch between two lovers.

So the bed, as though consciously, has received its two lovers. And the door is shut. Muse, you must wait outside: They don't need you, now, to prompt their whispered endearments, their hands won't be idle, fingers will learn what to do in those hidden parts where Love's unnoticed darts transfix the flesh...

Believe me, love's acme of pleasure must not be hurried, but drawn insensibly on—and when you've found those places a woman adores to have touched up, don't let any feeling of shame prevent you, go right in.

—Ovid

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