If you’ve ever used ice cubes or warming massage oil with a partner, then you’ve experienced some version of sensation play. For those who are new to the term, sensation play is defined by Kinkly.com as “a wide variety of activities, both vanilla and kinky, that use the body's senses as a way to arouse and provide stimulation to a partner.” And while playing with temperature is a popular form of sensation play, there are numerous ways to explore and cater to all of the senses during a sensual encounter.
When we stimulate our senses, we can enhance or even reimagine our pleasure—not only in sexual ways, but also in ways that help us feel more present and connected to our bodies or to our partner(s). And the great thing about sensation play, is that the different activities range in level of intensity—from rubbing an ice cube along a partner’s body to playing with hot wax or light bondage. But regardless of the activity, any kind of sensation play you engage in requires consent and communication.
In order to get more info on some of the ins and outs of sensation play, we spoke with Hunter Riley, Director of Outreach and Education and sex educator for Self Serve Toys.
Dipsea (DS): How can people who are brand new to sensation play begin to explore?
Hunter Riley (HR): The best place to start is by taking an inventory of what your interests are. I love using a yes/no/maybe checklist as a starting point, and then doing a deeper investigation and learning from there. Maybe you go to a kink skills class or do an online webinar to learn about the different types of sensation play. Some people are into soft and fuzzy sensations, some people like to experiment with sensations that might feel like pain, some people like temperature play. There are lots of options for how to start with sensation play, and talking to a partner before you try anything is key.
DS: What are some good starter toys for different types of sensations?
HR: My go-to starter kit for sensation toys are: a blindfold, a wartenberg wheel, a feather and maybe a hot wax play candle. The blindfold will make the person who is wearing it hyper-aware of the sensations happening in their body. The wartenberg wheel might look mean and scary, but can be used in a very light way that doesn't illicit too much sensation. The feather is a great way to tease and tickle, and hot wax is going to offer the most intense sensation as you drip it onto the body. You can vary how hot the wax is when it lands based on how far away from the body you pour it, just make sure you use candles intended for hot wax play because regular candles can burn your skin.
DS: For people who have experience engaging in sensation play, what are some more intermediate or advanced activities/toys to try?
HR: If you want to kick it up a notch, I might recommend nipple toys and clamps. They’re a fun and sexy way to experiment with more intense sensation, and they come in lots of different styles. Suction toys are great for people who are curious, but don't want too much sensation. The tweezer-style clamp is a great step up from there as far as sensation, and the more advanced nipple clamps are called butterfly-style clamps.
DS: What would you say are some of the most popular forms of sensation play?
HR: Based on my experience working in a sex shop for a decade, I’d say one of the most popular forms of sensation play are nipple toys. I’d also add that there are so many elements of BDSM that lend themselves to sensation play. For example, doing rope bondage with a course rope (something like coconut fiber) will enhance the sensation of being tied up, and when you untie someone, the course coconut fibers will increase the experience.
Don't forget that you can also use the sense of taste and smell to play with someone. I like to incorporate the "mindfuck" when I play with people, meaning I will have them blindfolded and I will make it sound like I've left the room, and then come up behind them with a feather, or make a noise that sounds really intense to give them a bit of a spooky feeling. But again, it's important to talk beforehand about how someone feels about being surprised because it's not everyone's cup of tea.
LET'S TALK ABOUT IT
DS: What are some important things that partners should discuss, in order to engage in this type of play safely?
HR: It's crucial to have a thorough negotiation before play, and I would also recommend checking in during and after play as well. You’ll want to discuss if there are areas of the body where your partner does or doesn't want sensation play to happen.
You want to talk about your safeword, which is a word that can be called in the middle of play and everything stops or slows down depending on what the person experiencing the sensation needs. Many people use "green," "yellow," and "red” to indicate that they’re enjoying the experience and want to keep going (green), that they’re approaching a boundary or unsure about how they feel and want to slow down (yellow), or that they want everything to stop immediately (red).
I also like to ask people on a 1-10 scale of sensation (10 being the most intense) where they like to hang out. Some people want to push their limits and hang out around an 8 or a 9, while some people prefer to be at a 4 or a 5, and don't want to explore any higher. It also helps to check in during play to see where they are on their scale.
DS: What kind of aftercare should partners engage in afterwards?
HR: Check in with your partner/s afterwards to see what kind of aftercare they might need (cuddles, a massage with body oil, rubbing arnica on the impacted area, etc.) You can also talk about what went well, what you liked, and what you want more or less of the next time. This helps build in opportunities for feedback and ensures everyone is enjoying the type of play they’re engaging in.
CONNECTING TO OUR BODIES
DS: How can sensation play help people connect with their bodies?
HR: Sensation play can help people connect with their bodies by making them think about what they want, allowing them to experience it, and then giving feedback about how it went. It encourages people to pay attention to the sensations of their bodily experiences, and how they react to those sensations. Some people like experimenting with how they react to strong sensations (some might describe it as pain), while others enjoy lighter sensations, like tickling or soft scratching. Either way, this type of play gives people a structured and controlled setting to explore.
DS: Can engaging in sensation play be beneficial to people healing from trauma? What are things to be mindful of?
HR: Lots of people engage in elements of kink or BDSM to help them work through trauma they’ve experienced. In the example of pain and sensation, it can provide an opportunity for people to experience different levels of pain and regulate their reaction to it bit-by-bit. Some people might want to practice experiencing physical pain and sitting with it, processing it and moving through it. The part of this practice that feels empowering is knowing we have the control to make it stop or start at any time, which makes it very different from non-erotic pain or trauma.
If you or a partner is wanting to use sensation play as a practice to process some of the "hard stuff" just make sure you do a thorough negotiation of what you do and don't feel comfortable with. I also recommend having a back-up plan in case something comes up that you weren't expecting. If you get activated or triggered in the middle of a scene, let your partner know a few things they can do in that moment to help ground you and reassure you that you’re in control this time. Maybe have some necessities on hand for this moment: such as some tea, water, a coloring book, and their favorite blanket.
Tiffany Lashai Curtis is a Philly-based freelance sexual wellness and culture writer, sex educator, nonprofit professional, and aspiring sex therapist. Her work focuses on advocating for sexual wellness and pleasure and providing inclusive and comprehensive sexuality education for womxn and femmes of color. She has written about sexual health, race, and culture for HelloGiggles, Unbound Babes, Mind Body Green, Refinery29, and MTV News.