We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions will remain anonymous. Now, onto today's topic: how to cure and cope with ticklishness in a partner.
Q: “My partner is really sensitive to touch. He doesn't like having his nipples touched or his neck kissed. In general, he is easily ticklish, no matter where or how I’m touching him. I try to respect his wishes, but to be honest, it's really hard not to be able to touch all of his body! I love playing with his nipples in particular, and I have a hard time holding myself back. Is there a way to get him to adjust to my touching him in ticklish spots, or is this just the way it is? Is there anything else I can do that might help me feel less restricted?”
A: Thanks for the question! This was such a fun one for me to tackle. After reading your question, I realized I actually don’t know much about tickling, so I decided to do a little research. I found some really surprising and helpful information about tickling (and yep, I learned how to cure ticklishness!). Let’s dive right into five strategies for dealing with ticklishness.
What Tickling Really Is
One of the many reasons I love writing this column is because it gives me the opportunity to learn new stuff too! I found a great YouTube video from SciShow (above) that explains the science behind tickling. The type of tickling you’re referring to is known as "Gargalesis." It’s one of two types of tickling (the other is Knismesis, which is the creepy, tingling, goose-bumpy sensation you sometimes feel on your skin, as if there was a bug on you). People most frequently have Gargalesis-type ticklishness in the armpits, inner thigh, neck, and ribcage area.
There's not a universally agreed upon theory for why tickling exists, but some scientists think that these particular areas provide a hint about the reason for tickling. These are all very vulnerable zones, so perhaps we developed ticklishness as an evolutionary protection mechanism to help keep those areas safe.
What It Has To Do With Sex And Body Image
Let me add one more little wrinkle to this tickle conundrum: in my experience as a sex therapist, ticklishness isn't always just ticklishness. Most of the time people are genuinely ticklish for no particular reason. Maybe it is the defensive theory I mentioned above, or maybe it's another scientific explanation we have yet to discover. But sometimes, people are ticklish on parts of their body that they feel sensitive or self-conscious about. You might have felt really ticklish if you had a partner who was kissing and licking your inner thighs, because you were feeling self-conscious or nervous about him being so up-close-and-personal between your legs. Sometimes we even use ticklishness as an excuse.
For example, you might tell your partner that you’re ticklish on your hips if you’re self-conscious about then touching your love handles. It's a good way to get him to avoid the area, and prevent yourself from having to feel that anxiety. So there's a small chance that perhaps your boyfriend feels some self-consciousness about his nipples, his neck, or even his body as a whole (I mean, who doesn't have some form of self-consciousness about their body?)
Ask Your Partner What They Want
Good news — there are ways to cure ticklishness! But the bottom line is that your boyfriend gets to decide what he wants to do — if anything — about his ticklishness. It’s his body. He’s the utmost authority on how he wants to treat his body, and how he wants others to treat it. What your boyfriend has been telling you is that he doesn’t want you to touch certain parts of his body. Even with a possible solution for his ticklishness, he might still feel the same way.
What I would suggest is that you bring the topic up during a quiet, relaxed moment. Mention that you did some research about helping people not be as ticklish. Let him know you only looked into it in the first place because you love touching his body, and you want both of you to feel as comfortable with each other as possible. Ask your partner if it bothers him that those parts are sensitive, and if he’s interested in learning how to not be ticklish. Let him know it's up to him. The most important thing to convey to him is that it's his body and he gets to decide.
How To Beat Ticklishness
Here's something really interesting — you can't tickle yourself. Try it right now! It just doesn't work. That's because when you go to touch yourself, a part of your brain called the Cerebellum is able to pretty accurately predict what the sensation is going to feel like. You don't end up surprising yourself, and you don't get ticklish.
We can use that same trick to help conquer our ticklishness. When another person goes to touch us, the Cerebellum isn't able to predict what their touch is going to feel like. Even if you know that the person touching you isn’t going to attack you, your body still responds in a defensive way.
So let’s assume your boyfriend says he’s ready to kick ticklishness to the curb. I found the awesome video above that shares an amazing technique for ending ticklishness. Here's the trick: place your hand over the other person's hand as they touch you in your ticklish areas (of course, in your case, it would be your boyfriend putting his hand over yours as you touch him). This helps give your Cerebellum more information, so it can better predict what you'll feel and help you not be ticklish! I tried this myself, and it worked wonders. Who knew it was that easy? It’s also a great technique to use in the bedroom. It’s not like the cure for tickling is to burp three times or run in circles. It involves touching each other more. It’s a wonderfully intimate solution!
Respect His Boundaries
Now the trickier part: what if your boyfriend says no, and he’s not interested in ending his ticklishness? As I mentioned up above, it’s important to let him have control over his own body. This is someone you care about, and I know it’s hard not to touch every last millimeter of him. It’s OK to be disappointed, and to gently share that disappointment with your partner. But remember that it’s still his body, and it’s not fair to make him feel guilty for his own boundaries.
Try putting yourself in his shoes, and imagining there was a part of your body that you didn’t like being touched. You may even have a part that springs to mind right away. Would you want your partner pressuring or guilt tripping you into letting him touch it? I don’t think so. Show him the same courtesy and respect. Ultimately, you get to decide whether this is a deal-breaker for you, but you don't get to pressure him into being touched in a way he doesn't want to be.
Wishing you the best of luck!
Images: Bustle; Giphy