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Sexual Wellness

How The Five Senses Can Intensify Foreplay

| 02/08/2022

textures Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

Sex is inherently a sensual experience — it’s about how we physically and mentally experience pleasure and connection in a given moment. 

But even though sex is sensual, our most common encounters may not be engaging our senses as much as they could. We might jump into our tried-and-true routine quickly. Or, we might not feel super comfortable actually focusing on the sex we’re having (like if you’re experiencing dysphoria or sexual shame), so we check out mentally. 

There are many reasons why sexual experiences might not feel sensual. Shame, anxiety, medical issues, and time each might make us feel like we just have to get it done

That being said, there’s real value in intentionally engaging your senses before, during, and after your main sexual event. In fact, engaging your sense might be your sexual main event! Hear me out. 

If you’re in a long-distance relationship, you might be spending a good chunk of your time sending your partner sexy photos. Sexting is a sensual activity — you’re specifically relying on a photo or set of words to convey desire or arousal to your partner. Touch, the sensation we most often associate with sex, might not come into play at all, but the visual component can still create feelings of excitement, anticipation, and arousal in us. 

That’s just one example. Activities like using blindfolds, licking honey off a partner’s body, listening to audio erotica, and lighting candles to set the mood all are focused on enticing your senses. 

Intentionally playing to your senses during your sexual experiences can help elongate sexy time, strengthen orgasms, increase relaxation (or anticipation), and help you feel more present in your body. 

In the United States and western Europe, we tend to assume that there are just five senses — sight, taste, sound, scent, and touch. But that number isn’t a universal truth, it’s a cultural understanding linked back to Artistotle. Some indigenous groups count fewer or more senses. Some scientists believe that humans have up to 53 senses

Even within Aristotle’s five senses model, humans might experience sensations differently than we typically imagine; a Deaf person might feel sound, and someone with nerve damage might not have genital sensitivity, but may have exceptionally heightened sensation in their earlobes or fingertips, for example.

Ultimately, our senses are ways of categorizing specific physiological experiences. They can bring us pleasure (like the feeling of an ice-cold drink on a brutally hot day) or revulsion (like opening the trash can and realizing the trash should have gone out a few days ago). Intentionally playing to your senses during your sexual experiences can help elongate sexy time, strengthen orgasms, increase relaxation (or anticipation), and help you feel more present in your body.

Feeling curious? Here are ways you can engage your sense of sight, taste, hearing, smell, or touch to improve foreplay and sex overall. 

1. Sight 

Many of us have probably played with sight as a form of sensory play — even if we didn’t do so intentionally. 

Ever set mood lighting? Used a blindfold? Sent a nude? All of the above are ways you can engage your sense of sight during or before sex. While we often think that engaging a sense means that we have to amplify it, it might also mean inhibiting it (like by using a blindfold). 

Here are some ways to play with sight: 

  • Try sexting. Tease your partner ahead of time with some nude photos or videos (just make sure to ask that they’re comfortable receiving them, first — no one should ever send an unsolicited nude). No matter the format you choose, sexting can help our brains focus on what’s right in front of us, whether that’s some steamy prose, a preview of lingerie, or a video of you touching your body. That can increase anticipation for your partner and you, and curating how you’re perceived can help you feel autonomous and sexy
  • Use clothing strategically. Crotchless undies aren’t just fun because of easier genital access — they’re also fun because they draw visual attention to your body all while letting you keep your lingerie on. Even if you aren’t going crotchless, using your clothing strategically can draw your partner’s eyes to where you want them. Chest harnesses, collars, lingerie, and strap-on harnesses all work great here!
  • Adjust your lighting. Soft, golden mood lighting can help you feel relaxed, but that isn’t your only lighting option! Try turning the lights totally off and letting your body adjust to the darkness. Fumbling in the dark can help you pay attention to your partner’s body and can heighten your other senses. Or, if you typically have sex in the dark, try increasing the brightness and really looking at your partner’s body.
  • Incorporate a blindfold. Typically, blindfolds are worn by the partner who is in a receiving position, but they can be worn by any and all partners, regardless of the role they’re taking on! I recommend going for one that has an adjustable strap and cups for your eyes — they’re more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.

2. Taste

When you think of engaging your sense of taste during sex, your mind might jump to oysters, dark chocolate, and other aphrodisiacs — or to scenes of squirting whipped cream onto someone’s body. 

And yeah, when it comes to taste, aphrodisiacs and whipped cream might play a role, but they’re not the only ways you can engage your taste buds during sex, and you might just love the way your partner tastes au natural! Just as a word of caution, I recommend tasting any item you plan on consuming sexily before you put it on or near someone’s body. That way, if you don’t like the way it tastes, you’ll save everyone an awkward moment. 

  • Incorporate flavored lubricants or barrier methods. Many folks describe latex as smelling and tasting unpleasant, but there are flavored options that can actually be surprisingly delicious! Using barrier methods and lubricants together can help prevent STIs (yes, you can get STIs from oral sex, too) and turning to flavored options is one great way to keep things tasting more interesting than rubber. As a tip, I don’t recommend using flavored items for any type of penetrative play — they can sometimes trigger sensitivity or yeast infections.
  • Cook and eat a pre-play meal together. Working together on a project in the kitchen can help you feel like you’re on the same team, which creates a sense of intimacy. You can also use that time to sample small bites of food together (even feeding it to each other), which can draw your focus to each other’s mouths. Some foods (like spicy things) can actually cause your body to mimic arousal, too. If you take the spicy route, just make sure you drink plenty of water and wash your hands thoroughly before getting down to business!
  • Drink water. This one is simple — having a dry mouth can reduce your sense of taste, or even make things you love the taste “off.” Drinking water helps hydrate your body (tastebuds included!) so by staying hydrated, you’re helping yourself have a better sense of taste for other fun things. If you have chronic dry mouth, talk to your doctor about some ways to improve your saliva production.
  • Use food during play. There is actually a point to the “licking whipped cream off a partner’s body” trope. Just like flavored lubricants and barrier methods can keep your tongue enticed, so can foods! I don’t recommend putting food on your actual genitals (or on your fingers, if you’re planning on using them on someone’s genitals) because of the risk of infection or irritation. Instead, use food to pay attention to other, under-appreciated parts of the body, like the nipples, torso, buttocks, thighs, neck — whatever excites you and your partners! 

3. Sound

Sex is full of sounds — some enticing, some blush-inducing, and some are both. You don’t just have to focus in on the “macaroni in a pot” or smacking flip-flop sounds of sex, though. There are plenty of ways to engage your hearing senses separate from the funny noises our bodies make. 

  • Listen to audio erotica or read erotica aloud. This option activates your creativity, fantasy, and turns all of your focus to what you’re hearing. As a bonus perk, you can do this solo or with a partner. Reading erotica aloud can also cue you in to how your voice sounds different as arousal builds in your body, which can be a fun experience.
  • Make a sexy audio recording and share it. Just like with sexting (and any other sex act), you have to ask your partner for consent before you send them a steamy audio file. I mean, they usually play on speakerphone, and you probably don’t want it playing in the middle of their office, ya know? You can record yourself describing what you’re doing, or simply record the ambient audio of you masturbating — either way, this is one way to transport your partner to the bedroom, even if you’re not together.
  • Turn up your sex playlist. What songs help you feel keenly aware of your body? What songs help you feel performative? Sexy? Creating an audio landscape can help you tap into emotions and sensations that might feel more distant day-to-day. Plus, listening to music can help reduce sound transmission, so if you have roommates or kids, it can make you feel more comfortable getting vocal, too.
  • Be intentionally vocal. To be clear, I’m not saying that you should fake your pleasure. Instead, I’m saying to give voice to the pleasure you are feeling. If you’re typically quieter, try breathing more deeply, sighing out, or moaning. Starting with gentle sounds can help ease you in! You can also try engaging in dirty talk, which can be as simple as telling you’re partner “more, please” when you’re really feeling it. 

4. Smell

Scents are one of the things we don’t address very often when it comes to sex. But bodies are scented, and our natural scents can be intoxicating to our partners! Plus, we may have scents that we know turn us on (like vanilla, cinnamon, or musk). Using scents to improve your sexual experiences is surprisingly simple, too.

  • Avoid genital soaps, douches, cleansers, or perfumes. These are typically marketed toward folks with vaginas, but products for people with penises exist too. Here’s the thing: vaginas are self-cleaning, and they’re meant to smell slightly acidic — not like a Tahitian Sunrise. Regardless of your genital anatomy, you might notice some extra layers of musk when you’ve been sweaty. That’s because you have sweat glands on your upper, inner thighs that produce fragrant sweat. A simple rule: If you’re able to grow pubic hair on a particular area, you can use a gentle, unscented soap and your hand there. If you don’t grow pubic hair there (like on the labia minora and vaginal opening), then you should just use warm water and your hand. Remember, your natural scent can even feel intoxicating to your partner! If you feel like things are just off, go chat with a medical provider. (And please, don’t spray your genitals with perfume or cologne — they can irritate your genitals and your partner’s, plus those products typically taste pretty bad).
  • Be intentional about scents in your home. I’ll be honest, this one isn’t so much about intentionally cultivating your sense of smell as it is about not letting your sense of smell sabotage your sexy time. Not to sound like a Febreze commercial, but we can sometimes be totally unaware of the smells in our own home. The scent of a space can help someone feel relaxed and laid back — or totally on edge and unsexy. If you’re planning a special celebration or just planning on bringing a date home, put your gym clothes in the laundry, clean the litter box, and take the trash out. Fresh sheets and a lightly scented candle can also help increase someone’s comfort, which can increase desire (just make sure they aren’t allergic to ambient scents, first).
  • Try scented massage oils. This option combines touch and scent to help you feel more present in your body. Massage oils come in a wide variety of scents — you can even go shopping for options together and use your shopping time as gentle foreplay! There are also candles that turn into massage oil when lit, and that can be a fun option that also scents your home. 

5. Touch

Touch is the sensation that most of us probably associate with sex. Many of us seek sex for skin-to-skin contact or because of the pleasant touch sensations! So, you might already be feeling pretty confident here. 

  • Use strategic non-touch to increase anticipation. You know how using a blindfold can make you hyper-aware of every little movement during sex? Well, the same principle applies here. You could lump “strategic non-touch” in with teasing or orgasm denial, because ultimately it’s about touching certain areas and not touching others, in order to increase you or your partner’s anticipation and sensation. (Edging would fall into this category, too). Take the scenic route around your partner’s pleasure zones, giving them bits of satisfaction for a moment, then continue on your roundabout route.
  • Try massage. An oldie but a goodie, massage is an easy way to elongate sexual experiences and build arousal. Grab a bottle of massage oil and get to work! Remember to ask your partner what types of massage feel good to them because everyone’s pressure preferences are different (and an elbow to the trapezius might feel good, but not feel sexy).
  • Use sensory tools. There are plenty of small tools you can use to engage your skin’s sense of touch in new ways. You can use a feather tickler, a Wartenberg wheel, a wand vibrator, slightly-melted ice cubes, or even warm candle wax. The possibilities here are endless!
  • Try an arousal serum. Want to build up that tingling feeling on your erogenous zones? Try an arousal serum! Arousal serums typically combine cooling and warming ingredients (like menthol and cinnamon) to draw blood to an area and increase our perception of sensation. This is a great way to incorporate deeper sensory experiences into shorter sexual experiences, quickies included!

Engaging your senses in a more intentional way can improve your sexual communication and pleasure. So, next time you find yourself in a rut or needing to reconnect with your body, take one of these tips to the bedroom and practice really feeling yourself.

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