In a 1985 interview, Madonna likened the experience of belly button stimulation or navel play to nearly achieving an orgasm. “My favourite button is my belly button. I have the most perfect belly button,” she said. “When I stick my finger in my belly button, I feel a nerve in the centre of my body shoot up my spine.”
If this sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that. The navel is an erogenous zone because it has multiple nerve endings that make it sensitive to touch and alive to various sensations. According to relationship counsellor Ruchi Ruuh, the navel also shares some of the same kinds of tissue with the genitals. In some people, this connection is strong, and the stimulation of the navel will “elicit a distinct tickle in the genitals,” Ruuh said.
Some people are excited by belly buttons to the extent of fetishizing them. The navel play fetish is also known as alvinophilia, and falls under partialism – any fetish where the focus is on a particular part of the partner’s body, like a foot fetish. People might use feathers, candles, food and sex toys on one another to act on the fetish in practice – or just especially admire their partner’s belly button during sex.
So, your belly button is obviously much more than a cute-looking scar – it holds many secrets waiting to be uncovered. So how do you explore navel play, either by yourself or with a partner? VICE spoke to experts and navel enthusiasts to understand how to make the most of your belly button during sex.
Go into navel play with safety in mind.
A lot of navel play deals with bare fingers, so make sure your hands are not only clean, but also not likely to suddenly turn into instruments of torture. “Always trim your nails, because the navel is one of the most sensitive parts of the human body, even though it might seem resilient,” said intimacy coach Pallavi Barnwal.
Don’t try to penetrate your partner’s navel. You don’t want to risk hurting your partner by poking them in the belly button. These orifices are far too small to accommodate anything more than a fingertip on the external part of the opening – it can be painful and dangerous to go any further. In a BBC documentary, a sex worker from Turkey decried the lack of sex education in the country around navels. She revealed how some men forcefully have sex with their wives’ navels: If there is no blood, they assume that she is not a virgin and may end up injuring her.
If you’re into BDSM-style consensual torture involving the navel, safety is key. Always be gentle when applying pressure, and don’t rip or twist a partner’s piercings if they have them. For heat play, as always, use candles that are specifically designed to be body-safe and made of paraffin or soy – never regular candles made of beeswax or that include artificial dyes. “There are candles meant for navel play that are low in temperature and flammability,” said Barnwal. “You can’t take just any candle from the kitchen and pour wax into the navel. Your partner might develop rashes [or suffer burns] if you use low-quality candles.”
Massage candles, in which the candle turns into a delicious scented massage oil as it burns, work well for this. If they’re made with plant-based wax; certified non-toxic fragrance; and wicks made of cotton, hemp, or wood, you’re onto a winner. Soy wax works particularly well, since it melts at a temperature that won’t burn the skin.
To use a massage candle safely, let the candle burn until there’s a good-sized puddle of wax on the top, then blow out the flame, let the liquid cool down a bit, and then pour the warm liquid wax onto the belly.
Clean the belly button before and after navel play.
According to psychologist and sex therapist Kate Balestrieri, people might have different views about whether a belly button should be perfectly clean to be a turn-on. “Some people might prefer a clean navel, others might prefer one that is natural and hasn’t been washed in a while,” she said – sort of like how, with feet, some people like them a little lived-in, while others want them fresh out of the shower. “But, if hygiene is a concern, you can create play even in cleaning [the navel]. Use gentle strokes, brushes or ice cubes, anything that creates a creative and interesting sensory, tactile experience,” said Balestrieri.
Barnwal added that, outside of washing and drying, it helps to keep the navel dry as much as possible to avoid the growth of fungus or bacteria. If you’re going to introduce some theatre in the bedroom with food or drinks in addition to your navel play, nyotaimori-style, make sure the food is hygienically made and stored, and remember to wash off soon after.
Decorate your navel.
Whether people insert sequin or put on belly chains, the art of navel decoration takes many forms across cultures. In India, a belly chain is referred to as a “kamarband” and is often worn in social settings, mostly by women. In Middle Eastern cultures, there is a special costume known as “bedlah” that is often worn by belly dancers. If your partner is into it (or vice versa), try a striptease that slowly reveals the navel, with the help of a chain or even a scarf tied around it. You can also try various navel accessories, including removable belly piercings and waist beads.
Tease your partner’s belly button.
Barnwal suggested tracing the nail to make full and half-moons around the navel. The teasing sensation of ice cubes can build tension, too. “Alternating between sucking on the ice cubes and licking your partner’s belly button with the tongue can lead to delightful sensations,” said Barnwal. “You can also lay your partner down and place the ice cube on their belly and then lick it off with your mouth.” Barnwal added that one can also tease their partner with an icy cold sensation by moving the ice cubes around their belly button but delaying the contact when one is about to reach the navel.
Ruuh recounted how one of her ex-boyfriends liked to incorporate her belly button into foreplay. “He loved to drink wine from my navel,” she said. “I gradually realised that many [people] love the idea of drinking and eating off the navel area.”
Barnwal said that people can use finger foods and chocolate for navel play but clarified that wolfing down a hearty meal before (or during) the act is not suggested. “You don’t want to feel bloated and lazy before you can even begin, so navel play or not, don’t stuff yourself with food before sex,” she said.
Apart from food, feathers can be used for gentle sensory titillation. Brush a soft, long feather down your partner’s body, especially teasing the area around the navel to heighten sensations. This area is prone to being ticklish, which means the sensations can go either way.
A feather tickler – which is a wand with feathers bound together on the top – can heighten the sensation. Take it even further by introducing blindfolds into the mix, which can make your entire body even more responsive to the sensation.
If you want to explore kinky sex, feathers are fantastic stepping stones to more advanced sensory play. You can even use the pointy end of it for more focused sensations around the navel (not inside it), alternating between gentle caresses and sharp pinpoints to excite your partner’s nerve endings. (But if you find that your partner is so ticklish that they crack up when a feather is anywhere near them, put it back in the nightstand drawer.)
Vibrators and other sex toys can be used on or near belly buttons, and if all else fails, some good ol’ tongue action never hurt anyone.
Pay attention to your partner’s responses to sensation – and ask them what they like as you go.
Scenarios you’ve seen in porn might not always translate well to real-life sexual experiences, particularly when it comes to navel play. “Instead of making assumptions about what your partner ought to enjoy based on what you might have seen in porn or other films, understand how your partner’s body is responding,” said Balestrieri – and ask them if they’re into what’s happening as you go.
Ruuh said that understanding pressure is the most important aspect of navel play. Frequently check in with your partner about whether the pressure you’re applying is OK, or if they’re uncomfortable with it. “We must understand that the navel is located in a sensitive position. If you go overboard with the pressure, it might affect your partner’s gut or make them gaseous,” Ruuh said.
But that sensitivity can work in your and your partner’s favour, as long as you’re checking in and not going overboard: “We don’t need to be apprehensive because it’s a sensitive area,” said Barnwal. “We can actually use this sensitivity to work towards orgasms. Some women have experienced orgasms through navel stimulation, because the build-up to sex becomes all the more thrilling.” Whether you’re trying navel play all on its own or as a part of foreplay, you’ll find that the belly button might be far more exciting than you ever knew.