intimate touch

Intimate touch is such an important aspect of a couple’s relationship, and I don’t mean just sexual intercourse. When it comes to touch, there are five dimensions or “gears” that contribute to the connection between partners: affectionate, sensual, playful, erotic, and intercourse.

Dr. Barry McCarthy, a sex therapist and educator, paints a picture of five stages of erotic touch that he compares to gears in a car. These gears transition from mutual affectionate and playful sensuality, and while they can potentially lead to sexual intercourse, they don’t necessarily have to.

What’s interesting is that each gear comes with its own subjective pleasure and arousal scale, ranging from 1 to 10. The essence of a couple’s sexuality, according to McCarthy, lies in giving, receiving and sharing these pleasure-oriented touches.

Each touch addresses different needs, and it’s not uncommon for one partner to favor a particular touch over another. But here’s the real question: Is the partner currently getting the touch they desire? And are they effectively communicating what feels pleasurable and what doesn’t?

Gear 1: Affectionate Touch

Touch is like the first gear in this touch engine and it’s not overtly sexual. Think of it as the foundation for fostering a deep emotional connection between a couple and it happens with clothes on. You know, things like handholding, hugging or kissing. Sometimes, people mistakenly link affection with full-on intercourse, which can actually lead to less touch and less sex in the long run. It turns out that we kinda need this gentle affectionate touch to kickstart things and build up the excitement. When couples start dating, they often spend a lot of time in Gear 1, and that’s what revs up desire levels and sexual tension. Many women particularly appreciate this non-sexual affectionate touch instead of rushing right into Gear 3 or 5. On the arousal scale, it’s a gentle 1.

Gear 2: Sensual Touch

Gear 2 is all about Sensual Touch. It’s like the pleasure gear with non-genital touch, and you can totally keep your clothes on or be semi-clothed for this. Think of things like giving or receiving a relaxing head, back or foot rub. That’s a prime example of this kind of touch. Even those cozy moments when you’re cuddling on the couch, drifting off to sleep or waking up together count as sensual touch. It’s like the connector between emotional intimacy and sexual desire. On the arousal scale, it’s a comfy 1 to 3.

Gear 3: Playful Touch

Playful Touch, as the name suggests, is where things start to heat up a bit. You are venturing more into the territory of sexual pleasure and arousal, with a dash of unpredictability thrown in for good measure. Typically, you’re looking at being semi-clothed or even in the buff here, and it’s a mix of both the intimate stuff and the non-genital kind of touch.

Imagine playful moments like shower time, a steamy full-body massage, maybe even a bit of erotic dancing or getting into some games like strip poker. What makes Gear 3 really exciting is that sense of sharing pleasure and the playful element that keeps things spicy. It’s kind of like a bridge to stoking the fires of sexual desire, but here’s the catch: just because you’re revving up in this gear does not mean your partner is too. They might be hanging out in Gear 1 while you’re ready to shift gears, which can sometimes lead to a disconnect. On the arousal scale, it’s a solid 4 to 5.

Gear 4: Erotic Touch

Erotic Touch is the gear that can be the most challenging dimension for couples as it is erotic in nature but does not include intercourse touch. This is all about sexual play where there can be manual, oral, rubbing or vibrator stimulation. The challenge is not jumping straight to intercourse. Taking your time in Gear 4 can provide couples with the vitality, creativity and novelty they may need for their sexual relationship. It is all about driving arousal and can proceed to orgasm or transition to intercourse. On the arousal scale this is at a 6 to a 10.

Gear 5: Intercourse Touch

Finally, we come to intercourse at Gear 5. There are two things to really think about beforehand. First, this gear is not a performance test, but a natural continuation of pleasure. Second, you should transition to intercourse with high levels of erotic flow and continue multiple stimulations during intercourse. If the couple can change the way they look at all 5 Gears, take orgasm as a goal off the table, and mindfully focus on mutual enjoyment/pleasure, intercourse can truly be great. Arousal scale? 7-10.

The problem is that most couples tend to use only two gears: affection and intercourse. Trying to shift from Gear 1 to Gear 5 too fast and without the other gears can in return cause a sexual stall out. This is a trap many fall into due to the narrative that sex equals intercourse, but a couple’s sexuality is so much more.

Try practicing with your partner the 5 Gears of Touch, moving slowly up the gears, remembering affectionate touch provides a sturdy foundation for intimate attachment. Spend time in each gear and make sure both partners are in the same place. Build up energy by exploring the different gears keeping in mind that satisfaction does not have to be dependent on an orgasm.

This doesn’t have to be done all in the same moment. The touches can happen throughout the day, week or month with some days being more affectionate or playful but never leading to the rest. Affection and sensual touch for sure should be part of a couple’s day to day interactions.

You can start out by charting the current percentage of each touch you experience and the percentage you want to receive/achieve. Do this separately and then come together to compare and discuss.

Remember – reading this blog, discussing with your partner or even seeing a counselor is a great first step, but change comes from practicing what you have learned, performing exercises and participating openly with one another.

If you and your partner need assistance in navigating touch and communication, Oaks Counseling Associates offers a safe and supportive environment where couples can explore their sexuality, gain self-awareness, express their desires, and receive guidance from qualified therapists. For more information, visit Contact us to schedule an appointment.

This blog was written by Chelsea Koutroulis, M.Ed., LPC-Associate, CST-Candidate. Koutroulis is supervised by Megan Pollock, MS, LPC-S, CST.