Introduction

Steve Baker, photographer/Flickr
Source: Steve Baker, photographer/Flickr

Academic journals examining the psychological and sexual attributes of the human navel are almost nonexistent. Fortunately, Wikipedia’s extensive, and even scholarly, coverage of the subject deftly fills this gap. In discussing the diverse aspects of the navel—biologically, erotically, historically, socially, culturally, and even spiritually, this encyclopedic Web tool includes well over 500 references.

In my attempts to verify the multifaceted contents in Wikipedia’s entries on what we’re all born with, I checked many of the sources it cites. I found its capsule summaries commendably accurate (not to mention it includes a bountiful array of images that most men would find arousing—Cowboy cheerleaders, anyone?). In any case, rather than weighing down this piece with notes for each post, article, or book Wikipedia references, I’ll simply allow the reader who’d like to delve deeper into this topic to consult this voluminous compilation directly. Readers can assume that unless I’m citing a source other than Wikipedia, the material here has been adapted from that vast “almanac” of facts.

To begin with a brief definition: The navel—recognized, clinically, as the umbilicus and, colloquially, as the belly button or tummy button—is a hollowed or, much less commonly, raised area on the abdomen at the attachment site of the umbilical cord. To employ the vernacular, the so-called “innees” (hollowed variety) represent about 90% of humans; the “outies” (raised) a mere 10%. Located at the center of the body, it can also be seen, literally and symbolically, as the center of, or central to, the biological basis of life—or the very giving of life. (And having recently published a piece on what lies at the center of our face, the present post represents a rather curious complement to my earlier one on noses.)

As seen by one initialed P. D. ("Erogenous Zone: Belly Button Is Like a Small Vagina!" intimatemedicine.com,  02/08/10)

Evolutionary psychologists believe that all men are instinctively attracted to body orifices, and even though the belly button is not exactly an orifice [despite its collecting lint!], it is still an object of desire. Because of the visual similarity between the belly button and female sexual organs, psychologist Dr. Elmar Basse explained for German Bild that the navel is a “small vagina,” which makes it hard to resist for men.

[And, entering the realm of the risqué, the author adds]: The belly button has always stirred the imagination of lovers. A little hollow hole in the middle of the body is just the right shape for the tongue and fingers, a nipple is also welcome, and even a penis can always lean against it. If the belly button is curved on the outside, it makes it even more tempting to play with.

The Navel’s Ever-Growing Popularity

Asian Belly Dancer/Wikipedia Commons
Source: Asian Belly Dancer/Wikipedia Commons

From all over the world, and from earliest recorded history, writers and artists have identified the navel as an important erogenous zone. Given the particular country and time period, at its extremes it’s been viewed as sexually taboo—something to be hidden, shunned or censored (e.g., Barbara Eden being forbidden to expose her belly button, along with her bare midriff, in TV’s long-running “I Dream of Jeannie”); or it’s seen as an object of admiration, to be celebrated (traditional Middle Eastern belly dancing). And, ironically, it’s been envisaged not simply as erotic but as mystical as well.

But regardless of how it’s perceived, it’s almost impossible to read any piece on the subject stating that it isn’t somehow an erogenous zone. And, in fact, several authors have assessed its status here as “underrated.” Still, this body part has received mixed reviews as far back as I could trace it. This quote from Wikipedia should be suggestive:

The public exposure of the male and female midriff and bare navel has been taboo at times in Western cultures, being considered immodest or indecent. It was banned in some jurisdictions; however, the community perceptions have changed and exposure of female midriff and navel is more accepted today...In some societies or contexts, it is both fashionable and common, though not without its critics.

While the West was relatively resistant to midriff-baring clothing until the 1980s, it has long been a fashion with Indian women [witness the low-rise sari exposing the navel]. The Japanese [too] have long had a special [and favorable] regard for the navel.

There’s certainly no question that the navel has become increasingly prominent in showcasing our most alluring celebrities. As reported in Wikipedia, as of January 2015, the most popular bellybuttons on BellyInc (a YouTube site where umbilicus enthusiasts share links) are those belonging to Emily Ratajkowski, Paris Hilton, and Vanessa Hudgens. And if you know anything about Madonna, you probably know that she seems almost obsessed with displaying her navel—which can be identified as her performance trademark. Her own unashamed erotic attraction to it is best revealed in a 1985 interview in Spin, in which she confessed: “My favorite button is my bellybutton. I have the most perfect bellybutton...When I stick my finger in [it], I feel a nerve in the center of my body shoot up my spine.”

Sonny & Cher Show, 1977/Wikipedia Commons
Source: Sonny & Cher Show, 1977/Wikipedia Commons

Perhaps the most notable breakthrough in America regarding woman’s navel to be featured in entertainment came with Cher, in the 70s “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.” Which may be why People magazine dubbed her “Pioneer of the Belly Beautiful.” By the late 80s, even ultra-conservative Disney movies began exposing more flesh. And in 1989, Ariel in The Little Mermaid (wearing only fins and seashells) dared to flash her navel.

Following Cher’s lead, many performers—both in music videos and live performances—have gladly bared their bellybuttons, the best known of whom probably include Shania Twain, Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera (purported to have the “most recognizable belly button in history”), Rihanna, and Britney Spears.

Rihanna/Wikipedia Commons
Source: Rihanna/Wikipedia Commons

The British actress Keira Knightley has stated that her navel piercing is what won her a role in Love Actually because Richard Curtis, the director, was obsessed with her belly button. Moreover, when her character in that film got married, her wedding dress was specifically designed to expose her bellybutton.

In contemporary literature, the distinguished Chilean-American novelist Isabel Allende, in a chapter on eggs, wrote: “I like a raw egg served on my lover’s navel, with chopped onions, salt, pepper, lemon and a drop of Tobasco.” And as weird as this “fictional dish” might seem, many a writer has noted the erotic, gastronomic—and mutual—delight of a lover’s placing various sweets on the navel (whipped cream, chocolate, syrup, strawberries, etc.), and proceeding to lick and suck them off.

Shakira--Live Paris/Flickr
Source: Shakira--Live Paris/Flickr

Gregorio Luke, a former director of the Museum of Latin American Art who gave lectures on this body part, has stated: “The bellybutton has been a sign of beauty in goddesses as different as Astarte, Venus or Aphrodite. We ask which is more beautiful, the perfectly round belly button of Jane Fonda or Raquel Welch’s grain of coffee navel? Every star from Madonna to Shakira proudly displays their bellybutton.”

And film scholar Kathi Mahesh, observing that Telugu cinema has long shown a “fondness for the navel,” remarks: “Cinematically, while cleavage is just a peek at the bosom, the navel encompasses the woman’s entire sensuality."

Fashion trends have been spotlighting the navel as well. Most notable today are cropped tops—often worn with low-rise clothing—that leave both the midriff and bellybutton exposed. Navels have also been freely “liberated” through plunging neckline dresses or tops descending below the natural waistline.

Additionally, navel piercings and tattoos have become increasingly common, not just among young women but also those in middle-age. And such embellishments clearly draw one’s eyes to the belly button, enhancing its seductive appeal. Plus, although the bikini was once more or less limited to swimwear, bikini-like tops have become increasingly prevalent—in sportswear, where they’re unabashedly donned by cheerleaders; female tennis players (e.g., Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova); and gymnasts. Not to mention everyday women working out.

What Makes Belly Buttons Erogenous?

It’s already been mentioned that with a little imagination the female navel might be seen as a miniature vagina. But what, exactly, contributes to its unusual sensuality? And why, for some men, is it such a turn-on?

In so many ways, today’s culture has accentuated women's belly buttons like never before. But evidence suggests that the midriff itself has perennially captured the male’s lascivious interests. And doubtless, our midsections literally revolve around the navel, so that it can be viewed as conspicuously highlighting the area that surrounds it.

Alex-501/Flickr
Source: Alex-501/Flickr

I’d wager that far fewer men would be aroused by the sight of a navel alone, seen close-up. But as regards sexual activity relating to the navel, that’s another story. Males who focus on the navel as a source of sexual arousal and gratification are seen as bellybutton fetishists, and it’s reported that this body part is actually one of the most common fetishisms worldwide—in 2012 it was the second most popular fetish search on Google.

From any number of vantage points, various websites attempt to explain the navel’s allure, as well as examine the neurological aspects of its attraction. Wikipedia (offering no fewer than 14 sources as corroboration) says:

The navel is an erogenous zone with a heightened sensitivity. The navel and the region below, when touched by the finger or the tip of the tongue, result in the production of erotic sensations, and some people are very ticklish to touch in that area [i.e., don’t simply assume that stimulating this area will sexually titillate your partner—they might also start giggling, distracting them and possibly undermining their carnal arousal]. Some people can be aroused by tickling, licking, blowing raspberries/zerberts (blowing air with lips), and teasing with a feather, flower or a piece of grass, especially when the person is ticklish in the navel. Fingering the navel is also a common act.

Wikipedia also depicts several forms of sadistic/masochistic “navel torture” on the part of some belly button fetishists (formally known as umbiliphiliacs). But I’ll spare the reader details of this, I’d think, displeasing perversity.

Ricardo Liberato photographer/Flickr
Source: Ricardo Liberato photographer/Flickr

Expanding on Wikipedia, let’s take a look at how other websites specifically portray the navel:

Located within teasing distance of the genitals, a woman’s belly button is a potent sexual trigger...It is an area between the bladder wall and the vagina which consists of nerves that feed down into the entire genital area. This explains why titillating her belly button and its surrounding area can often be felt in her vaginal canal and vice versa (“The Secret Sexual Powers of Your Belly Button,” in mytinysecrets.com, 08/18/15).

I guess you can say they are like a third nipple ( "Why Do Guys Like Belly Buttons So Much? girlsaskguys.com)

The navel is an odd, but powerful, erogenous zone. When someone pokes inside or around a belly button, some people may feel erotic sensations. That’s because the navel and genitals have a common tissue origin. For some, the stimulation feels like a tickle—down there. For others, it sort of feels like they have to pee. [And this reactive variability deserves emphasis, for it’s impossible to know in advance how a woman might respond to such stimulation. Unquestionably, the navel may be an erogenous zone, but it may not be as well.] (“10 Surprising Facts You Didn’t Know About Erogenous Zones,” nerve.com)

Simply viewing the bellybutton area can be a sexual trigger. From heterosexual man’s point of view, seeing the exposed navel and surrounding area can be very attractive. It accentuates a woman’s waistline, her curves and brings out the beauty and fertility of a woman’s body. The charm of the belly button has been used over the centuries to stir desire within men and women alike (AlinaB, “Belly Button Fetish and Arousal,” tryhealthier.com, 03/09/17).

[And, to explore the umbilicus as a male autosexual turn-on, consider this entry]: The navel is an erotic point, and so are the structures in the middle of the belly between the navel and the penis...The navel can be stimulated by sticking a finger into it, and by tickling with your finger deep down in the navel. Also, here you should alternate between light, gentle, slow tickling, and harder sharper tickling. This stimulation gives sensations that radiate out from the navel to the surroundings, and spread downwards to the tip of your penis. (Knut Holt, “The Sexual Body Feelings and Erogenous Zones of Men,” ezine@articles, 12/05/05).

The belly button and the clitoris grew from the same tissue at birth, so they’re neurologically connected, says WebMD. Try to lick her belly button to test this sensation. If that’s too much, try to move three inches south—you’ll hit three pressure points called the Sea of Energy, which are sexually pleasurable, too (Alexia LaFata, "Erogenous Zones: 12 Unexpected Body Parts That Can Give You Pleasure," EliteDaily.com, 07/20/15).

The abdominal part of the body responds well to different kinds of simulation. The lower part of the abdomen is especially sensitive because of the vicinity of sexual organs. Belly button, the center of the human body, should not be overlooked on our way down to the pubic region. Despite an instinct[ual] attraction to the belly button, only a few people know that is is also an erogenous zone (P. D., “Erogenous Zone: Belly Button Is Like a Small Vagina,” intimatemedicine.com, 02/08/10).

And might all this selected data on the human navel (and Wikipedia is definitely ready to supply you with more!) be ample to satisfy your possible curiosity? 

Further reading: “The Triggers of Sexual Desire: Men vs. Women.”

If you found this post at all intriguing—and think others you know might, too—please consider forwarding them its link.

To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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