Of the many psychosexual skill exercises described in Sexual Awareness: Your Guide to Healthy Couple Sexuality (5th edition, 2012), the core exercise is designed to increase each partner’s awareness of the other’s preference for “gears” (types) of touching. A majority of couples only use two gears of connection: affection or intercourse. Couples often correlate affection with intercourse, which results in lower levels of both touch and sex. 

The following exercises focuses on five gears of touch to allow couples to enrich their relationship:

First gear: Affectionate touch. This usually involves clothes-on touching such as holding hands, hugging, or kissing. We do not consider affectionate touch sexual, but it provides the crucial base for intimate connection.

Second-gear: Sensual touch. This involves non-genital touch (also called non-genital pleasuring) which can be clothed, semi-clothed, or nude. Sensual touch can include a head, back, or foot rub; cuddling on the couch while watching a DVD, a trust position where you feel safe and connected, cradling each other as you go to sleep or wake in the morning. Sensual touch is an integral part of couple sexuality. It has inherent value and serves as a bridge to sexual desire. 

Third gear: Playful touch. This intermixes genital with non-genital touch (also called genital pleasuring), which can be semi-clothed or nude. Playful touch can include touching in the shower or bath, full body massage, seductive or erotic dancing, playing games such as strip poker or twister. What makes playful touch inviting is the enhanced sense of sharing pleasure and playful unpredictability. Playful touch is valuable in itself and/or can serve as a bridge to sexual desire. 

Fourth gear: Erotic touch. This is the most challenging gear. Erotic, non-intercourse touch can include manual, oral, rubbing, or vibrator stimulation. Erotic scenarios and techniques are an integral part of couple sexuality providing a sense of vitality, creativity, and unpredictability. Erotic touch can be mutual and proceed to orgasm or it can be one-way. 

Fifth gear: Intercourse. There are two crucial concepts in integrating intercourse into our approach to gears of connection. First, intercourse is a natural continuation of the pleasuring/eroticism process, not a pass-fail sex performance test. Second, transition to intercourse at high levels of erotic flow and continue multiple stimulations during intercourse.

Separately from your partner, chart out the current percentage of each type of touch you experience and the percentage you'd like to achieve. Once you both have done so, compare and discuss your results together.

The purpose of this exercise is to facilitate your sexual dialogue with a focus on enhancing sexual desire and pleasure. The essence of couple sexuality is sharing pleasure–oriented touch. You can develop a common language to facilitate connection and embrace a variable, flexible approach to intimacy, touching, and sexuality.

About the Author

Barry McCarthy, Ph.D.

Barry W. McCarthy, Ph.D., is a tenured professor of psychology at American University and a best-selling author.

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