One of the simplest pleasures in the world is touching and being touched. Babies thrive on being held and petted -- in fact, infants who are neglected don’t develop at a normal pace. Adults are no less susceptible to the nurturing qualities of touch or the unhealthy consequences of deprivation. And yet in this high-tech era, we spend lots more time touching our computer keyboards than our friends and loved ones. We tend to consider massage an expensive luxury associated with spas or medical emergencies. As more and more people increase their health-consciousness, it’s slowly beginning to be accepted that massage is right up there with exercise and a good diet among the ingredients for good health and well-being.

It’s true that massage has proven medical benefits. It can enhance standard treatments for back pain, tension headaches, sleep problems, and depression by increasing blood circulation, draining toxins, and boosting the immune system. Beyond all that, loving touch between friends and partners can inject into busy lives a much-needed dose of tenderness and gentle attention.

Not to mention spice. Massage is not synonymous with sex, as the American Massage Therapy Association has spent a couple of decades training people to understand. But anyone with two hands knows that massage can be a tool to enhance sexual pleasure. Loving and sensual touch can heighten erotic sensation and extend orgasmic response by relaxing stressed-out muscles and awakening the body's sense receptors. Not only that, by stretching your usual range of physical communication, erotic massage can create a more powerful intimacy between you and your partner.

There’s now a whole subset of the video industry devoted to making how-to cassettes on “The Art of Sensual Massage,” aimed at non-professionals who want to improve skills at touching one another. For those who learn better from a live person than instructional videos, the Body Electric School in Oakland, Calif., is one of the few massage schools that doesn’t erect a barbed-wire fence around erotic touch. The school offers workshops for men and women who want to combine the principles of tantra (sex as meditation) with touch. As Collin Brown, director of the school, “Body Electric is committed to exploring the healing potential of erotic energy.”

From these various sources, a few essentials about erotic massage can be gleaned. Don't worry about trying to give your lover a "professional" massage. The most important part of touching someone is not technique but intention. Say what's on your mind, be aware of where you're touching, let your heart speak through your hands, and you can't go wrong. That said, here are a few secrets to sharing erotic massage.

*Create a setting* that's conducive to relaxation and sensuality. Soft music and candlelight never hurt. Have some lotion or warm coconut oil at hand.

*Give up the idea of having to get somewhere.* Massage can be a delicious appetizer before lovemaking. Then again, at those times when intercourse-with-penetration isn't possible or desired but touching and closeness is, an erotic massage can be a full meal in itself.

*Focus on non-genital areas first.* Getting intimate with someone who's still carrying around the emotional baggage of the day is like taking a bubble bath fully clothed. Everybody can use a neck-and-shoulder massage, thumb circles up and down either side of the spine, and don't forget hands and feet. Light, feathery strokes can feel sensual, but sometimes they can also feel timid or absent-minded. Experiment with a mixture of light and firm touches.

*Watch what happens.* As you make your way toward familiar erogenous zones, you may be surprised to discover some new ones. How about the ears? For a woman, try slow circles on her belly right over her womb (a stroke that sacred-sex goddess Annie Sprinkle calls “warming up the ovaries”). For a man, having his inner thighs stroked while he's lying face-down can be electrifying. Goosebumps, heat, moaning, and of course the appearance of Mr. Boner are all good signs of arousal.

*Give when you give; receive when you receive.* Sometimes the hardest part of building intimacy is letting someone take care of you.

*Don't rush.* Be playful. Chester Mainard, who teaches erotic massage workshops for the Body Electric School, advises men, "Take your time and tease a lot. For many women, it is a welcome change to want it so bad and have to wait a while instead of holding you off until they are ready."

*Breathe.* Shallow breathing locks tension in the body. Taking some deep, full breaths while you're getting massaged is the equivalent of going through the house and turning on the lights so you can see where you're going. According to Margo Anand, whose book The Art of Sexual Ecstasy has taught the principles of tantra to many Westerners, "Breathing can serve you as a vehicle for pleasure, eventually turning your whole body into an instrument -- even a symphony -- of pleasure."

*Circulate the energy.* Once erotic energy is aroused, don't keep it locked in the pelvic area. Move it around the body with breath and touch. After some direct genital stimulation, go back to the neck or the belly or the extremities. For many women, having their nipples pinched or pulled can be phenomenally stimulating; but check with your partner to see if it works for her. If your man gets close to squirting too fast, slap the soles of his feet, tug his hair, or have him vigorously shake his hands and feet. Getting to a high erotic state is like climbing a mountain -- rather than turn around and leave immediately, why not hang out and enjoy the view?

First published in Notorious magazine, June/July 1998

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