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The Importance of Touch

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

couple embracing

Touch is key in sexual relationships. Unfortunately, many couples limit touch to either being non-sexually affectionate or to focusing on intercourse. By approaching their sexuality in this way, they impair their sex life and reduce the satisfaction they feel in their relationship as a whole. As psychologist Barry McCarthy explains, couples can enhance their relationship by recognizing that there are five gears – or dimensions – of touch.

First Gear: Affectionate Touch

While this gear is not sexual, it can warm your heart and is an important foundation for connecting on an intimate level.

Examples: holding hands, hugging, kissing

Second Gear: Sensual Touch

This gear involves non-genital touch, with or without clothing. It is integral to sexuality by itself, as well as in the service of stoking sexual desire.

Examples: foot rub, cuddling on the couch while watching TV, “spooning” each other in bed

Third Gear: Playful Touch

By intermixing genital and non-genital touch, couples can enjoy shared pleasure and playful unpredictability. This is valuable by itself, as well as in the service of stoking sexual desire that can eventually lead to orgasm or intercourse.

Examples: full body massage, seductive dancing, strip poker

Fourth Gear: Erotic Touch

This gear includes erotic, non-intercourse touch that is either mutual or one-way. It can lead to orgasm or intercourse. Erotic scenarios and techniques are integral to a couple’s sexuality and provide a sense of vitality, creativity, and unpredictability.

Examples: manual, oral, rubbing, or vibrator stimulation

Fifth Gear: Intercourse

Intercourse is a natural continuation of the other gears of touch, not a separate experience. Just as you would not drive a car only in fifth gear or advance to fifth gear every time you drive, a healthy sexual relationship includes all the gears leading up to intercourse and does not always end in intercourse.

Dr. McCarthy explains that couples can use the concept of these gears to enhance their sexual relationship. He suggests that they complete the following chart:

Touch Type Current Percentage of All Touch Percentage of Touch You Want 












By learning to think and talk about your sexuality in this way, you can develop a common language to enhance your connection and improve this vital part of your intimate relationship. Also, as a result of opening your communication in this way, you will feel emotionally closer as a couple.



The Art of Relationship s blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.


The opinions expressed in WebMD Second Opinion are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Second Opinion are... Expand


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