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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.


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