A new study on the role of touch and gaze in sexual pleasure, by Bangor University and Royal Holloway, University of London, found that we instigate a mirroring-move during sexual interactions by touching our partners where we want to be touched.
This effect which has been termed as the ‘Erogenous Mirror’, reveals that we like to touch the areas of our partners’ bodies that mirror the parts of our own bodies that we ourselves enjoy having touched.
The study, published in Archives of Sexual Behaviour, shows how during sexual interactions, we treat the other person’s body like our own, and the boundaries between self and partner are blurred.
In the past, gaining pleasure from the act of touching and looking during sexual interactions has largely been ignored in academic studies. This study has now questioned how people liked to look and touch in a sexual relationship.
A large sample of individuals, representing a wide range of ages, genders and sexual orientations, completed a questionnaire asking them to rate arousal levels of different body parts in a number of different scenarios; when they touched, and were touched by, a partner; and when they looked at, or were looked at by, their partner.
Dr Lara Maister, from the School of Psychology at Bangor University, lead author of the study, said:
“We found that people show a very clear mirroring in their preferences for different body parts; they enjoyed touching areas on their partner’s bodies that matched the areas that they specifically liked to be touched on their own bodies.”
“This even applied to the ‘quirky’ places, such as the ears; if you enjoy having your ears touched, you are more likely to enjoy touching your partner’s ears too.”
The researchers discovered a strong correlation between touch and gaze ratings; the parts of the body that people liked to be touched on aligned closely to those that they like to be looked at.
Professor Manos Tsakiris, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, added: “Looking or gazing is a big part of sexual interaction, and when our partner looks at a certain part of our bodies, we may anticipate and imagine being touched there.
“It suggests that gaze and the anticipation of touch plays an important role in sexual interactions.”
There were also some striking differences between men and women. The results showed that men find overtly sexual areas, such as the genitals and nipples, more arousing on their partners’ bodies than their own; in other words, they prefer to touch and look at their partner’s body than be touched and looked at themselves.
For these areas, in contrast, women reported they generally found it more arousing for their own bodies to be touched than to touch their partner’s.
The research also found differences between men and women in the ‘mutual pleasure index’; a score which maps whether the arousal we get touching an area of our partner’s body is higher, lower, or similar to the arousal felt by the partner when we touch them on that same area.
It can tell us how, at a group level, our preference for touching our partner’s body parts aligns with where they like us to touch them.
For a subset of the sample, who were heterosexual (82% of the respondents), men on average had a higher mutual pleasure score than women; they showed higher alignment between where they liked to touch women and where women liked to be touched.
Women, on average, showed a lower alignment between where they liked to touch men and where men liked to be touched.
In other words, men tended to enjoy touching women’s bodies in places where women also enjoyed being touched. In contrast, the areas of a man’s body that women liked to touch did not necessarily match up with men’s own preferences.
For the heterosexual respondents, although men showed an overall higher alignment with women than vice versa, these intriguing gender differences in the ‘mutual pleasure index’ differed across body parts.
For example, men gained more enjoyment from touching women’s breasts and bottoms, and less enjoyment from touching sensual areas such as the nape of the neck and shoulders, than women typically did from being touched in those areas.
When women touched men, a different pattern emerged. When women touched men’s chests and upper arms, they reported more arousal than the men did during the experience; conversely, they reported less arousal than men when they touched his feet and legs.
The differences between men and women in the heterosexual subset of the sample were also found whilst looking at a partner, as well as touching them.
When men looked into a woman’s eyes, this glance increased women’s arousal levels much more strongly than it did the man.
Conversely, men were highly aroused when a woman gazed at his genitals, but women conversely did not find them so arousing to look at.
Lara explained: “These results teach us about the mutuality and reciprocity of sexual interaction; how partners align with regards to what areas of their partner’s bodies they enjoy touching and looking at, versus what areas their partner likes them to focus on.
“For heterosexuals, finding that the preferences of men, on average, were more aligned to women’s preferences than vice versa, was intriguing, but may be explained from an evolutionary perspective.”
Overall, this study reveals that, when it comes to caressing and gazing during sexual interactions, we may treat our partner’s bodies as mirrors of our own desires.
It also highlights intriguing similarities and differences between men and women when it comes to the arousal elicited by touching and looking at different parts of the body.
Through the calculation of a mutual pleasure index, the study further shows that whether partners are well-matched in terms of arousal when one touches the other depended on several things, including our gender, sexual orientations, and which body parts are being focussed on.
Touching is a powerful means for eliciting sexual arousal. Here, we establish the topographical organization of bodily regions triggering subjective sexual arousal in humans.
A total of participants were shown images of same and opposite sex bodies and asked to color the bodily regions whose touching they or members of the opposite sex would experience as sexually arousing while masturbating or having sex with a partner.
Resulting erogenous zone maps (EZMs) revealed that the whole body was sensitive to sexual touching, with erogenous hotspots consisting of genitals, breasts, and anus.
The EZM area was larger while having sex with a partner versus during masturbation, and was also dependent on sexual desire and heterosexual and homosexual interest levels.
We conclude that tactile stimulation of practically all bodily regions may trigger sexual arousal. Extension of the erogenous zones while having sex with a partner may reflect the role of touching in maintenance of reproductive pair bonds.
Touching is a powerful means for eliciting sexual arousal, and both affectionate caress from one’s partner and self-stimulation of the genitals are capable of triggering powerful sexual arousal responses. Sexual arousal promotes sexual behavior via peripheral and central physiological as well as emotional and motivational mechanisms (Janssen, 2011).
Although human sexual arousal responses may be triggered by visual and auditory cues, they are also driven by tactile stimulation of the genitals (Steers, 2000; Walen & Roth, 1987). This presumably results from initial sensory projections from the external genitalia relaying multiple sensory qualities to sensory thalamus, periaqueductal grey matter, and hypothalamic sites governing sexual functions (Dean & Lue, 2005; Hubscher & Johnson, 2003; Martin-Alguacil, Schober, Kow, & Pfaff, 2006), as well as from further interactions between these relay centres and the somatosensory cortical (S1) sites representing the genitals and the neural circuitry governing arousal and reward processing (Georgiadis et al., 2006; Georgiadis, Reinders, Paans, Renken, & Kortekaas, 2009; Komisaruk & Whipple, 2005). Consequently, genital stimulation, either by a partner or by oneself, is a common sexual behavior of humans.
Yet, paradoxically, tactile stimulation of bodily regions with no apparent connection to the genitals, such as breasts and nipples, have also been found to trigger sexual arousal (Levin & Meston, 2006; Turnbull, Lovett, Chaldecott, & Lucas, 2014) and consequently human partners also caress each other’s bodies in regions outside the genitals during sexual interaction.
Together with genitals, such regions are often called erogenous zones due to their capability of triggering sexual arousal (Turnbull, et al., 2014). Even though tactile and nociceptive sensitivity of different bodily regions is well understood (Ackerley, Carlsson, Wester, Olausson, & Backlund Wasling, 2014; Mancini et al., 2014), the quantitative topographical layout as well as functions of human erogenous zones has remained unresolved.
Furthermore, the functional role of the arousal-triggering properties of the non- genital areas is poorly understood.
If sexual touching serves only a general arousal modulating function, touching patterns could be hypothesized to be focused on the genitals and be concordant during masturbation and while having sex with a partner because touching genitals triggers the most powerful arousal responses (Turnbull, et al., 2014).
However, if touching the body during sexual interaction with a partner also serves functions unrelated to sexual arousal, it could be hypothesized that the touching patterns are
different when having sex with a partner versus masturbating. Indeed, humans (Jones & Yarbrough, 1985; Willis & Briggs, 1992) and nonhuman primates use touching for maintaining social relations (Dunbar, 2010); thus, it is possible that partners having sex could extend caresses also to each others’ non-genital regions to promote long-term pair bonding in addition to triggering and maintaining sexual arousal.
Furthermore, sex differences in human erogenous zones have remained underspecified and, in addition to trivial differences stemming from anatomy, the capability of tactile stimulation of different bodily regions in triggering sexual arousal in males and females is not well understood.
Finally, touching a partner sexually may trigger and maintain their sexual arousal, thus preparing the partner physically for copulation and promoting sexual behavior.
Sexual compatibility with the partner contributes significantly to sexual satisfaction and motivation (Hurlbert, Apt, Hurlbert, & Pierce, 2000).
Poor communication regarding sexual matters also plays a key role (Purnine & Carey, 1997) and is prevalent among couples where the female partner has orgasmic problems (Kelly, Strassberg, & Turner, 2006). It is, therefore, of interest to find out whether men’s and women’s perceptions of each other’s erogenous zones correspond.
In the present study we reveal a high-resolution spatial topography of human erogenous zones and their relation to tactile and nociceptive sensitivity using a novel computer-based self-report tool.
Participants were shown nude own-sex bodies and were asked to color the regions whose touching they experience as sexually arousing when they are masturbating or having sex with a partner, resulting in erogenous zones maps (EZMs). To tap knowledge regarding opposite sex EZMs, participants also repeated the tasks with opposite sex bodies.
Our findings reveal for the first time the sex and sexual behavior specific topographical organization of erogenous zones in humans. We show that the whole skin serves as a somatosensory sexual organ for both males and females, particularly when having sex with a partner.
Although the erogenous hotspots were located on core erogenous zones in genitals, erogenous zones extended to practically everywhere in the body forming a set of extended erogenous regions with second-highest arousal-triggering capability in the breasts and nipples, anus, buttocks, and inner thighs.
The total bodily area triggering sexual arousal was significantly smaller during masturbation versus having sex with a partner. Altogether these findings highlight the importance of tactile sensation of non-genital areas in sexual arousal modulation and suggest that the core and extended erogenous zones may serve different functions in sexual behavior and arousal modulation.
Maps of Core and Extended Erogenous Zones in Men and Women
Our main finding was that touching practically all areas covered by skin in the body may trigger sexual arousal when touched by partner, with an average of 37% of the total area body area being capable for triggering sexual arousal upon touch. Males and females also evaluated each others’ EZMs similarly (mean r = 0.79).
The total area of erogenous zones was larger in females versus males, indicative of heightened tactile sensitivity to sexual touch. This accords with prior work using vibro-tactile (Gescheider, Bolanowski, Hall, Hoffman, & Verrillo, 1994) and nociceptive stimulation (Fillingim & Maixner, 1995), which point towards higher sensitivity in females versus males.
The erogenous hotspots being most consistently associated with sexual arousal and also attended first were focused on genitals. Significant EZM peaks were also observed in chest, neck, buttocks, anusm, and mouth area (see Video S-1 for dynamically thresholded t- maps) but also in some other regions such as back, thigh, and shin that have low pain and tactile sensitivity (Ackerley, et al., 2014; Mancini, et al., 2014).
However, correlating EZMs with tactile and nociceptive sensitivity maps highlighted that a region’s capability for triggering sexual arousal upon touching was primarily – but not completely – determined by its tactile sensitivity, and that tactile sensitivity across the whole body is exploited only when having sex with a partner2.
Nevertheless, the EZMs bore little resemblance to the somatosensory organization of the body in somatosensory cortices (Penfield & Boldrey, 1937; Ruben et al., 2001), with regions whose representation is close to genitals in the S1 not being significantly more prone to trigger sexual arousal than those further apart.
Thus, it is unlikely that partial activation of the S1 representation of the genitals by stimulation to adjacent areas would be driving the arousal response (see also Turnbull, et al., 2014).
However, more complete understanding of the somatotopic organization of male and female genitals and erogenous zones in SI and SII is needed to understand the role of extragenital regions in triggering sexual arousal.
The EZMs were invariant to demographic factors such as age and education. However, sexual desire as well as homosexual and heterosexual interest emerged as consistent predictors for the total EZM area while masturbating or having sex with a partner, suggesting a direct link between sexual drive and the size of the sexually receptive field of the body.
These effects accord with the general proposal that sexual attraction towards both same and opposite sex partners is associated with sex drive (Lippa, 2006).
Sexual and Social Functions of the Extended Erogenous Zones
Although the EZMs for the masturbation condition covered practically all of the body except lower legs, touching was considered as sexually arousing in significantly larger areas while having sex with a partner rather than masturbating (Fig 4).
The only regions more consistently triggering sexual arousal by self-stimulation versus stimulation by partner were the genitals and male anus (but see Schober, Meyer-Bahlburg, & Dolezal, 2009 for opposite findings).
Masturbation occurs frequently in both human and nonhuman primates even when opportunities for copulation exist (Ford & Beach, 1951; Oliver & Hyde, 1993) and male masturbation (leading to ejaculation and wasting of sperm) across a variety of species has been proposed to increase sperm fit without increasing the number of sperm in the female tract (Baker & Bellis, 1993).
Against this background, different goals of masturbation versus having sex with the partner could explain this difference: Stimulation of the sexually most sensitive regions during masturbation would be an effective way of obtaining sexual release, as no excess energy is wasted on stimulating the sexually less sensitive regions. This however raises the question why the – seemingly less sexually sensitive – areas outside genitals are stimulated during sex with a partner.
The reason for the lack of self-produced tactile stimulation outside the genitals could be that sensation of self-produced touch is simply attenuated.
A forward model incorporating motor actions predicts their sensory consequences and leads to sensory attenuation of self-produced tactile stimulation in the somatosensory and insular cortices (see review in Blakemore, Wolpert, & Frith, 2000). Such attenuation may tone down the arousal responses triggered by self-touch, consequently lowering the incentive motivation for extragenital touching during masturbation.
While such attenuation for self-stimulation seems to occur almost everywhere in the body, it was markedly absent in the genital region and participants consistently reported higher arousal ratings for touch on genitals in the masturbation versus sex with partner condition.
Different forward-model attenuation patterns across SI regions representing the genitals versus other bodily regions could explain the heightened sensitivity for self-touching on the genitals, in order to enable self- stimulation potentially increasing reproductive fit (Baker & Bellis, 1993).
However, the forward model attenuation does not explain why humans experience sexual arousal when their partners touch less sexually sensitive bodily regions while having sex together. From the perspective of energy expenditure, it would be beneficial to restrict mutual touching to the genital regions while having sex with a partner as well.
A possible explanation is that stimulating these areas by touching promotes non-sexual aspects of partnership, such as pair bonding. Abundant evidence suggests that both humans (Jones & Yarbrough, 1985; Willis & Briggs, 1992) and nonhuman primates use social touching or grooming for reinforcing social structures (Dunbar, 2010).
Translational work shows that slow stroking of the hairy (but not glabrous) skin stimulates the slow-conducting unmyelinated c-tactile fibres (CTF), subsequently projecting insular (but not somatosensory) cortices and possibly providing the sensory pathway for emotional and affiliative touching (Loken, Wessberg, Morrison, McGlone, & Olausson, 2009; Olausson et al., 2002).
Affiliative touching and stimulation of the CTF may support maintenance and establishment of long- term relationships in humans as well (Dunbar, 2010). In line with this, intimate touching is typically restricted to the closest relationships only (Jones & Yarbrough, 1985; Willis & Briggs, 1992), and quality and quantity of social touching is positively associated with relationship satisfaction in couples (Hertenstein, Verkamp, Kerestes, & Holmes, 2006).
Because c-tactile receptors have not been found in genitalia, it is unlikely this pathway plays a role in triggering of arousal by touching of the genitals (Liu et al., 2007). We thus propose that touching on glabrous non-genital regions during sexual interaction with a partner could serve a double function: stimulating the fast-conducting myelinated afferents projecting to S1 and via interaction with thalamic arousal circuits serves to trigger sexual arousal, whereas simultaneous stimulation of the slow-conducting CTFs could promote affiliation and long-term pair bonding between the partners.
Table 1. Participant characteristics.
Males (n = 176) Females (n = 528)
|In relationship (%)||29.00||36.00||ns.|
|Not in relationship (%)||16.00||11.00||ns.|
|Exercise (hrs / week)||3.03||2.12||3.23||2.23||ns.|
|Physical attractiveness (1-10)||6.90||1.36||6.90||1.51||ns.|
|Sexual attractiveness (1-10)||6.39||1.68||6.66||1.70||ns.|
|Relationship satisfaction (1-7)||3.81||2.92||4.29||2.78||*|
|Sexual desire (1-9)||5.53||1.35||5.16||1.39||**|
|Sexual activity (1-9)||4.03||1.10||3.76||1.02||**|
|Sell Homosexuality (1-7)||0.42||0.97||0.78||0.94||**|
|Sell Heterosexuality (1-7)||3.23||1.22||2.85||1.00||***|
Note. *** = p < .001, ** = p < .01, * = p < .05 in two-sample t-test or proportions test for categorical variables between males and females.
Table 2. Pearson correlations between EZMs estimated by male and female participants.