Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Debby Herbenick Ph.D., M.P.H.

The Pleasures of Sex

Why Touch and Cuddling Are Important to Sexual Satisfaction

How to increase sexual satisfaction through touch and affection.

Posted Aug 25, 2009

Recent research about sex and love has found that touching and cuddling, though important to both women and men, may be particularly important for men's sexual satisfaction, relationship happiness and marital commitment.

In some ways, this is not terribly surprising to people who study love and sex. Although women are sometimes stereotypically described as the gender that most loves to touch and cuddle, the fact is that women often have more opportunities for human touch than men do in many cultures. It is common in many Western cultures for women to greet each other with hugs and/or kisses on the cheeks. They may stroll arm in arm or sit close on the touch, or even brush or braid each other's hair.

Then there's raising children. Although more men have greater involvement in raising children now than they did in years past, women often have more physical contact with their children than men do. Women may more often be the parent to change diapers, bathe their children, cuddle with them on the sofa or tuck them into bed with a story and a kiss. This isn't true in all households, of course, but it is true in a striking number of homes. And what it amounts to is this: men, more so than women, may have an unmet need for touch.

As such, it may be particularly important and satisfying for men to receive touch through holding hands, cuddling, sharing massages, bathing together or having sex. Not only can touch promote the release of oxytocin (the sometimes-called "bonding hormone" or "feel good hormone") but psychologically touch can be a way to help someone feel love, cared for, reassured or desired.

Regardless of your sexual orientation, gender or relationship status, consider how touch works in your romantic or sexual life. Or even your friendships or romantic relationships. We all need to touch and be touched.

For some, pets provide a nice form of touch and closeness. If your parents or grandparents are not partnered or don't have a lot of access to touch, try to take an extra step toward hugging them, touching them on the arm or kissing them as you come and go. If your friends are not partnered (or are partnered in unhappy ways in which touch is absent), try to do the same. It only takes a moment to give someone a hug that lingers just long enough to feel heartfelt (and not so long that it feels awkward).

If you are in a romantic or sexual partnership, I wonder how focusing on touch or cuddling this week might change things for you. Why not use hugs and/or kisses to bid goodbye or hello? Or caress each other on the back or hip as you fall asleep? Why not tousle your partner's messy morning hair from a place of love or affection? What might you gain if you reached for your partner's hand while you watch television or a movie, even if (perhaps especially if) you don't normally hold hands?

There is something special, I think, about the feel of flesh on flesh or hands in one's hair. It is so intimate, I think, that there is no substitute and I understand why people want to take their clothes off and lay naked together, even when they are not having sex. Or why people want to run their hands along their partner's curves or enjoy a foot massage (as a giver or receiver, there is so much pleasure to be had in either role).

To be with someone who doesn't just allow themselves to be vulnerable to you in this way, but who desperately wants it, is a gift. If you have this quality in your relationship already, perhaps you can foster it so you can hold onto it. And if you want it with someone, I wonder how you might go about it and what courage and optimism will help you to move in that direction.

Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH is a research scientist at Indiana University, a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, and the author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction. Her personal blog can be found at MySexProfessor.com

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