Other than bemoaning wrinkles and slathering on moisturizers at night, who among us pays attention to our skin? Yet, that tough, resilient, and underappreciated mantle that covers our entire body performs a variety of complex and vital functions, not the least of which is to make sex the delicious experience that it is.
Our skin protects us from outside invaders, regulates our body temperature, and acts as the brain’s window to the world. Its outer layer (the epidermis) is stain-resistant and waterproof, yet it is thinner than plastic wrap. The middle layer (dermis) is a web of hair follicles, tiny blood vessels, glands that excrete sweat, oil, and hormones, and nerve endings—lots of them.
“Indeed, the skin is a powerful interface between the mind, the body, and the external world,” writes Dr. Bernardine Healy in US News and World Report. “The emerging concept of a neuro-immuno-cutaneous-endocrine network recognizes the skin as an almost independent, untamable intelligence.”
Not only is our skin the body’s largest organ, but all those nerve endings also make it incredibly sensitive to touch, and we humans need touch in order to thrive physically and emotionally. Touch releases oxytocin, called the “bonding” or “cuddle” hormone. Some researchers suggest that men may need loving touch more than women, who tend to have greater opportunity for cuddling in the normal course of events.
Due to this exquisite sensitivity, our skin, then, is often considered the body’s largest sex organ. “At the very heart of sex is our need for touch,” writes Sandra Blanton in her doctoral dissertation. And touch is at the heart of our skin’s function. This concept gives us an expansive new erogenous zone—a giant sexual playground—to explore in bold and subtle ways. Here are suggestions for beginning the discovery:
- Soft touch. Lightly run your fingers over your partner’s arms and legs or the nape of the neck. This kind of light touch “activates the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing a relaxed state,” according to Barbara Keesling, PhD. It also feels good.
- Close your eyes. Losing one sense (your eyesight, in this case) makes the others more acute. As you caress your partner (or vice versa), experiment with intensifying skin sensations by shutting down one or more senses. Enhancing the experience is the element of surprise—the inability to anticipate what’s going to happen next.
- Tease. The skin on the inner thigh, the belly below the navel, the breast around the nipple, the small of the back—the “almost” zones—is particularly thin and sensitive. Explore with hand or mouth these areas around the target without actually going in for the kill. The anticipatory buildup is incredibly erotic.
- Be a little painful. As sexual excitement mounts, endorphins are released. These chemicals make us feel good, and they act as natural pain-relievers. At this point, a little spank, a light scratch, a pinch create both an element of surprise as well as increasing blood flow to the skin. As Kinsey Insititute researcher Debby Herbenick writes, “It hurts so good.”
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.