You'd think a gender-neutral, secondary sex organ such as nipples would bring females and males together. After all, breastfeeding and social media censorship aside, all nipples can help achieve the same end goal: Pleasure.
Angel Phoenix, a birth and postpartum doula as well as a sexual health and well-being expert based in Brisbane, Australia, explained that regardless of gender, nipples play a role in satisfying sex.
"The nipples are an all-you-can-eat buffet of nerve endings and tissue formations, and it isn't just women. Over half of men say that their nipples are an erogenous zone," Phoenix said. "Men and women have roughly the same amount of nerve endings at the nipple area, but men have been conditioned by society to ignore the potential for arousal."
While we all know our nipples are great indicators of the literal temperature, Phoenix introduced the nipples as a figurative thermometer for gauging arousal.
"Oxytocin, also known as the 'love hormone,' is actually a hormone that is remarkably shy," Phoenix explained. "It doesn't flow freely unless it feels safe, and it is trust that inspires [it]. When a lack of oxytocin is present and/or oxytocin is inhibited, it can feel like one giant contraction. I have observed women experience repulsion post-arousal of nipples should the dynamic be accompanied by anything other than desire. In many instances, the nipples have acted like a compass or barometer of sorts, reacting honestly to the environment, relationships and stress that is present."
Phoenix explained the factors that may impact nipple sensitivity, physically and psychologically.
"In women, nipple sensitivity is something that usually fluctuates in response to hormonal fluctuations amidst their menstrual cycle, whether they are pregnant, are breastfeeding or whether they're trying to conceive," she said.
"Temperature, overstimulation, nipple genetics—such as large nipples more likely to experience chafing, external skin irritation or underlying issues such as fungal infection—will all contribute to nipple sensitivity," she continued. "From a mindset perspective, previous trauma or bodily harm, as well as any shame or guilt around arousal of the breasts, might incite the opposite effect."
For instance, weight gain might make someone less comfortable with a partner focusing on their breast tissue. "Fatphobia," especially directed toward men, can cause hang-ups. The breast area is already associated with femininity, so men with or without "man boobs" may have anxiety around their nipples. While people of all sexes possess breast tissue and nipples, the eroticization of female breasts has had a punishing effect on bigger male bodies.
Experimenting on your own
Consider pleasure as reparations for stress and trauma. Kate Delgado, a sex educator in Los Angeles, described how to delve into nipple play.
"If you're trying nipple play for the first time, consider incorporating it into your masturbation before trying during partnered sex," she said. "Pinching, twisting and flicking the nipples are all forms of nipple play you can try without purchasing clamps or toys. If you have ice, use it on your nipples by experimenting with how it feels on the skin around your nipples and directly on them."
If any of these activities sound appealing but insecurity prevents them from seeming doable, there's an easy fix. This situation could be an ideal opportunity to introduce blindfolding with a trusted partner to better concentrate on pleasure. If that leap sounds a bit intimidating, Phoenix gave advice for integrating nipple play into masturbation.
"Gentle exploration of the nipples and surrounding breast tissue, by your own hand or in the company of a trusted lover, is a brilliant way to dip your toes into nipple play," she explained. "Start by tracing the lines of your body with the tips of your fingernails, delicately arousing the skin before laying your favorite oil or lotion on your breasts. If you have any concerns about skin irritation or allergies, go with a basic but high-quality coconut oil or jojoba oil. Skin that is well lubricated under your hand will help you to better receive touch and massage."
Delgado provided more advanced advice.
"Two things to remember as you explore nipple play: First, household candles are not the best option for warm wax play and can result in burns," she warned. "Second, lube is a great addition to nipple play, especially if you're finding the sensation of your nipples being touched to be uncomfortable. Don't limit your lube to penetrative sex."
Be cautious and take baby steps
Phoenix emphasized that nipples are not a body part designed for aggressive action.
"Be mindful that the skin of the nipple and surrounding area is more sensitive to tears, bruising or injury," Phoenix said. "Permanent nerve damage is also possible. There's no rush. Be careful to slowly lean into your limits before attempting anything else beyond your pay grade.
"If you or the person you are playing with has nipple rings or, alternatively, are breastfeeding or have recently stopped breastfeeding, please be mindful to explore with more intention as the risk for infection is increased," she added.
There are as many ways to play with nipples as there are types of nipples and breasts. You may have to confront societal stigma, but getting off is a pretty terrific way to get over it.