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Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy
, 34:343–352, 2008Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLCISSN: 0092-623X print / 1521-0715 onlineDOI: 10.1080/00926230802096374
Women’s Finger Sensitivity Correlates with
Partnered Sexual Behavior But Not Solitary
School of Social Sciences, University of the West Scotland, Paisley, United Kingdom
Department of Social Psychology, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Department of Psychology, University of Quebec at Montreal, Quebec, Canada
In a sample of 97 healthy Dutch female university students, womenwith greater finger tactile sensitivity (von Frey-type filaments) en-gaged more in partnered (but not solitary masturbation) sexualbehavior. Orgasmic responses in the past 30 days were not corre-lated with finger sensitivity. Results are discussed in terms of differ-ences between different sexual behaviors, as well as susceptibility toreinforcement, and psychoanalytic views of conversion hysteria.
Tactile sensitivity can be viewed along a continuum, ranging from heightenedtouch sensitivity, through average levels, diminished sensation (hypoesthe-sia), and both organic and psychogenic anesthesia (conversion disorder orconversion hysteria) at the extreme low end.
A higher sensory (tactile in the present case) threshold is indicative of
lesser sensitivity. Evidence of a more general relationship between tactilesensitivity and sexual functioning in a nonclinical sample of men aged 19–58was provided by the finding (Edwards & Husted, 1976) that vibrotactile fingerthreshold (this is a different measure than the simple pressure stimuli used
Travel costs of Professor Brody were covered in part by a grant from the Carnegie Trust
for the Universities of Scotland. Professor Hess was supported by a visiting scholar grant fromthe University of Amsterdam. The authors appreciate the assistance of Candice Lowdermilkin data collection.
Address correspondence to Stuart Brody, Division of Psychology, School of Social Sciences,
University of the West Scotland, Paisley PA1 2BE UK. E-mail: email@example.com
in the current and other referenced studies) correlated 0.40 with vibrotactileerect penis threshold, 0.49 with age, and -0.57 with 4 week sexual intercoursefrequency (attenuated to −0.26 if the “effect” of age was removed with partialcorrelation).
In this same vein, in small samples of women with depressed mood,
those taking the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor fluoxetine (but notan unmedicated group) displayed a significant inverse association of fingersensory threshold with both vaginal lubrication and sexual desire (Frohlich &Meston, 2005a). The same researchers also reported that women with sexualarousal disorder had higher finger tactile thresholds than did a control group(Frohlich & Meston, 2005b).
A comparison of clinical and normal groups of women revealed that
higher vulvar tactile threshold (less sensitivity) was associated with estrogendeficiency, sexual dysfunction, neurologic impairment, and unreplaced post-menopausal status (Romanzi, Groutz, Feroz, & Blaivas, 2001). Further, it hasbeen noted that in laboratory animals, spontaneous noncopulators tend tohave higher pain thresholds, an effect that has been conjectured to be relatedto greater serotonin activity (which would be expected to both inhibit sexualactivity as well as dampen at least pain) (King & Alexander, 2000). In women,pain thresholds were found to correlate inversely (−.45) with rated ”sexualmotivation” (King & Alexander, 2000). Although a detailed discussion of therole of pain is beyond the scope of this brief review, it might well be thatin at least some cases, those who do not allow themselves to be able to feelpain also do not allow themselves to feel pleasure.
In sum, the studies described above suggest that tactile sensitivity and
sexual functioning are positively related. One possible explanation for thisrelationship may be based on the observation that both children and animalssubjected to surgical injuries indicate an enduring increase in general tactilethreshold (not only at the site of the injury) (Schmelzle-Lubiecki, Campbell,Howard, Franck, & Fitzgerald, 2007). This suggests an adaptive process inwhich early aversive experiences lead to a functional down-regulation oftactile sensitivity. This is supported by research showing that physically abu-sive parents reported being deprived of physical affection during their ownchildhood and further that their adult sex life was extremely poor (Steele &Pollock, 1974). Other studies have also shown that in children referred for“excessive” masturbation, there had been some withdrawal of affectionateparental tactile stimulation, and the restoration of such stimulation reducedthe “excessive masturbation” (Komisaruk & Whipple, 1998; McCray, 1978).
Healthy research subjects are able to differentiate emotions from be-
ing touched on their arm by an unseen stranger (Hertenstein, Keltner, App,Bulleit, & Jaskolka, 2006). In contrast, it is not unreasonable to posit thatpersons with poor tactile sensitivity would be less able to differentiate emo-tions through at least the tactile channel, and hence might be less comfort-able with sexual contact. Difficulty differentiating and expressing emotions
(alexithymia) is associated with lower frequency of vaginal intercourse, butnot with other sexual behaviors (Brody, 2003).
Based on these observations, we hypothesize that tactile sensitivity plays
a role in sexual development and hence sexual activity in later life. However,there are substantial physical and psychological differences between differ-ent sexual behaviors (Brody, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006a, 2007a; Brody, 2007b;Brody & Kr¨
uger, 2006; Brody, Laan, & van Lunsen, 2003; Brody, Potterat,
Muth, & Woodhouse, 2005; Brody & Preut, 2003; Brody, Veit, & Rau, 2000;Costa & Brody, 2007), necessitating the examination of different sexual be-haviors separately.
The present study examines the relationship between tactile threshold
of the finger and frequency of different sexual behaviors in healthy women.
Possible confounding effects of social desirability responding and age areconsidered.
One hundred and two female students with a mean age of 21 years (SD = 4.6)were recruited from postings at the University of Amsterdam offering coursecredit to Psychology undergraduates. Inclusion criteria were age 17 to 40(to capture the age range with greatest sexual activity frequencies (Brody,1997)) and self-reported good health, with no known neurological disorders.
The study was conducted according to the University of Amsterdam ethicalprocedures. Participants provided informed consent and were made awareof their right to discontinue participation at any time.
A female experimenter applied Von Frey-type microfilaments (Stoelting;Wood Dale, IL, USA) with the filaments 1 through 7 (corresponding to eval-uator sizes 1.65, 2.36, 2.44, 2.83, 3.22, 3.61, and 3.84; these sizes are = log10[10 × force in mg]). Participants were asked to close their eyes. The filaments(analogous to those used in previously cited studies of sexual behavior andfinger tactile sensitivity; (Frohlich & Meston, 2005a)) were applied in randomorder (different for each participant) to the plantar surface of the middle pha-lanx of the index finger. For each application, the experimenter counted tothree, and following a random schedule, the filament was applied to the fin-ger on one of the counts. The participant was asked to report on which countthe filament was applied. Each filament was applied three times. Thresholdwas defined as the lowest pressure filament for which the participant couldcorrectly report the count during which the filament was applied for all threetrials.
Participants then completed a questionnaire on parameters (days in past
30 engaged in activity, days in past 30 orgasm from activity) of sexual behav-iors (penile-vaginal intercourse, vaginal masturbation, clitoral masturbation,partner-performed vaginal masturbation, partner-performed clitoral mastur-bation, receiving cunnilingus, vibrator use during masturbation), as well asthe Dutch version of a brief social desirability response bias scale (Ballard,1992; Breugelmans & Van de Vijver, 2004).
Data were analyzed with linear correlation coefficients using SPSS statisticalsoftware package (Version 12.0.1 for Windows; Chicago, IL, USA).
Of the 102 participants, four declined to complete the questionnaire on sexualbehavior, and one subject was unable to accurately identify all three trials ofthe heaviest filament, leaving a maximum of 97 analyzable. Table 1 providesdetails on tactile threshold and number of days in the past 30 that participantsengaged in the sexual behaviors, and the Ns reflect the number of subjectsresponding to the item.
Table 2 provides the correlations between tactile threshold and the num-
ber of days in the past 30 that participants engaged in the sexual behaviors.
Overall, women who were more sensitive to touch also reported higherfrequencies of partnered sexual behaviors, but not of the masturbation be-haviors (reanalysis of the data after assigning a zero value to subjects whodid not respond to a given item produced similar results).
Finger tactile threshold was not associated (r = −.01) with social desir-
ability responding, and the only sexual behavior associated (inversely) withsocial desirability responding was partner clitoral masturbation frequency (r= −.26, p <
.02). Neither finger threshold nor sexual behavior frequencies(except for vibrator use; r = .33, p <
.05) were associated with age.
Frequency of vibrator use was the only sexual behavior that showed
a positive (but nonsignificant) association with tactile threshold (hence, lesssensitivity). None of the sexual behavior orgasm frequencies were associatedwith tactile threshold.
Women with greater tactile sensitivity engaged more frequently in partneredsexual behaviors, but not in solitary masturbatory activities. In a sense, itappears that (at least younger) women who have less frequent sex with a
partner might be relatively insensitive to touch. Tactile sensitivity was nototherwise associated with any of the orgasm measures. This suggests thatorgasm involves steps beyond appreciation of partnered sexual contact—at least the integration and building of sexual arousal to the orgasmic goal(Brody, 2003). However, it might be that women with greater tactile sensi-tivity engage in more partner-related sexual activities because it producestactile pleasure, and women’s orgasmic capacity might be part of a differentdimension unrelated to tactile sensitivity.
At a behaviorist level of explanation, it might be that greater tactile sen-
sitivity allows for greater reinforcement associated with sexual stimulation(Brody, 1997). However, the reinforcement appears to be specific to part-nered sexual activities. This specificity suggests that it is only interpersonalsexual behavior that is related to greater tactile sensitivity, a finding con-sistent with aspects of the psychoanalytic view of psychogenic hypoesthesia(repression or dissociation of sexuality into conversion symptoms for the pur-pose of reducing anxiety (Jones, 1980)). The less-threatening sexual activityof childhood (masturbation) is not related to general sensitivity.
However, it is also possible—either instead of, or in addition to sensi-
tivity allowing for greater reinforcement—that more frequent partnered (butnot solitary) sexual activity leads to enhanced tactile sensitivity; that is, thatthe partnered sexual contact leads to a functional up-regulation of tactilesensitivity.
It is noteworthy that in the present study tactile threshold was related
to all forms of partnered sexual activity. This finding contrasts with stud-ies demonstrating that measures of better physiological and psychologicalfunction correlate specifically with penile-vaginal intercourse orgasm and/orfrequency and not with other sexual behavior orgasm or frequencies (Brody,2002, 2003, 2006a, 2006b, 2007a, 2007b; Brody & Kr¨
2003; Brody & Preut, 2003; Brody et al., 2000), but is in line with other studiesshowing that masturbation (but not partnered sexual behaviors) was foundto be associated with indices of less optimal psychological and/or physio-logical function. For example, masturbation was found to be associated withless slimness (Brody, 2004), greater depression (this included the findingthat depressed women had a greater desire for masturbation but not sexwith a partner) (Cyranowski et al., 2004; Frohlich & Meston, 2002), and lessperceived love in a relationship (Costa & Brody, 2007).
The study had several limitations. Sample size was moderate, but led to
significant correlations. The effect sizes were small-to-moderate, yet sexualactivity is multi-causally determined, and therefore any given factor mightnot to be expected to explain more than a moderate amount of variance.
We did not assess menstrual phase. Although menstrual phase is associatedwith changes in pain sensitivity, it not consistently associated with changes intactile threshold (Bajaj, Arendt-Nielsen, Bajaj, & Madsen, 2001; Parlee, 1983).
However, future studies might benefit from assessing menstrual phase, in case
potential variations in tactile threshold as a function of menstrual phase mightadd random noise (thereby slightly reducing the magnitude of correlationsbetween sexual behavior and tactile sensitivity).
In sum, the present study showed a relationship between partnered sex-
ual behavior frequency and tactile sensitivity, such that women who are moresensitive to tactile stimuli engage more frequently in partnered, but not insolitary, sexual behavior. This may be due to tactile or other interpersonalchildhood experiences which both reduce tactile sensitivity and lead to psy-chological constellations that are less conducive to the enjoyment of sexualcontact with other people. Further research should include frequency of non-sexual cuddling to better distinguish between preferences for intimate tactilecontact per se and partnered sexual activity, and also attempt to examineto what degree insensitivity is a cause, and to what degree it is an effect ofsexual problems.
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