Mainstream magazine articles about erogenous zones tend to follow the same playbook. They tell you that the penis and the vagina are definitely erogenous, and that you're sure to wow your partner with a little earlobe caressing or skin scratching.
But they skip over what should be pretty obvious: Everyone's body is different. And even basic assumptions — like someone deriving pleasure from having their vagina or penis touched — skips over a hell of a lot of people.
Here's the science: An erogenous zone is an area of your body with a higher concentration of nerve endings. When you touch those zones, the extra sensitivity from the nerve endings can contribute to sexual arousal.
There are two types of erogenous zones in the skin, according to a Mayo Clinic study. They're divided into specific zones and nonspecific zones.
The specific erogenous zones are what you'd expect. They comprise anything mucocutaneous — lips, nostrils, insides of the eyelids, urethra, vagina, foreskin and anus. In those parts of the body, the nerves are closer to the surface of your skin, making them easier to hit.
In the nonspecific zones, the nerve endings are deeper under the surface of the skin, and don't necessarily elicit that same intense sexual response. They're often the targets of tickle fights — armpits, abdomen, bottoms of the feet. You can develop a sexual association with them based on how you're being touched, and who's doing the touching — and they're worth exploring just as much as the more traditional sex-having bits.
On each person's body, there isn't just one way to orgasm.
"There was a paradigm shift in my studies when I learned that folks with spinal cord injuries have to relearn how to get off," sexologist Timaree Schmit said in a phone interview. "If someone has an injury and can't feel anything below the neck, you focus on the neck and above."
Schmit found that, in other cases of patients with spinal cord injuries, sometimes the brain doesn't react to genital stimulation the way it used to. So you find another way in — like exploiting the vagus nerve, a line of cranial nerves that goes from your head to your abdomen.
"The vagus nerve is easier to stimulate anally," Schmit said. "So if the vagus is still intact, more anal stimulation is the way to get orgasmic response."
Everyone has different preferences for which erogenous zones feel best.
On an Ask Reddit thread titled "Where is your [NON-Obvious] Erogenous Zone?" people revealed the different things that get them going. Their answers were all over the map: ears, collarbone, between the toes, bottoms of the feet, stomach (but only at the beginning of foreplay), webbing between fingers, upper arm and lower arm, bellybutton, left knee and right knee, sides of the eyebrow.
The thread bolsters Schmit's argument: Any part of your body can be an erogenous zone. People find new ones on themselves, and on other people, all the time.
"I can vouch personally than you can get someone off by licking the back of their knee," Schmit said. "Where there are lots of nerves, there are opportunities."
Schmit said one of the biggest problems with figuring out a new partner's erogenous zones is that we assume bodies are all the same — that sexuality is a one-size-fits-all scenario and, if someone doesn't get off the same as another person, that they must be broken.
"People get acclimated to what works on one person's body and assumes it works with everyone," she said. "It's about getting a new approach and being continuously open to exploration rather than assuming we've learned, exhaustively, what works for everyone."
And here's where you get to bring science into your bedroom: Map the hell out of your partner's body. Find out if they're someone who gets off from a knee-lick or if there's a boatload of sexual potential in their armpit. Bring out feathers, toys, tongues and fingers. And above all, don't assume anything from a past encounter will work for this one.
"I personally love looking at someone and trying to find where the buttons are," Schmit said. "I want to see all the things I can do with them."