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Digital desires: A brief look at sexual thumb sucking and thumb fetishism

In previous blogs I have examined a number of extreme behaviours involving hands (both sexual and non-sexual) including hand wear fetishism, fingernail fetishism, ‘hands on hip’ fetishism, alien hand syndrome, ‘touch the truck’ endurance television, and thumb sucking as an addiction. However, it was while I was researching a previous blog on belly inflation fetishes that I came across a man who on the Yahoo! Answers website claimed he had a belly inflation fetish and a thumb fetish along with another person who responded saying he also shared the same fetish:

  • Extract 1: “Another weird fetish I have is ‘hitchhiker’s thumb’. Hitchhikers thumb is when the top part of your thumb bends backwards when pushed on or fully extended…The hitchhiker’s thumb fetish developed when I found out that my cousins could do it. I would ALWAYS ask questions about it and I would bend her thumbs back and forth for hours. And I just get turned on by it now…is this weird?” (Male, sexual orientation unknown)
  • Extract 2: “I [also] have a fetish for bendy thumbs hence the profile pic. It’s all good I say whatever turns u on and if not hurting anyone then it’s cool” (Male, sexual orientation unknown)

Although I have read about (i) thumb bondage (mentioned in a 2007 book chapter on themes of sadomasochistic expression by Dr. Charles Moser and Dr. Peggy Kleinplatz) and (ii) thumb sucking by adult babies that are into paraphilic infantilism, I had never read anything on standalone thumb fetishes. (I would also point out that the ‘thumb sucking’ is just one of many baby-like behaviours that paraphilic infantilists enjoy but do not necessarily see as a source of arousal in and of itself). There is also those who say that they engage is ‘thumb sex’ and defined by the online Urban Dictionary as when two people hold hands and run their thumbs around the other persons thumb or twiddle the thumbs”. There are also (for want of a better word) ‘cultural’ references to thumb fetishes such as the instrumental song ‘Mayor Oscar Goodman’s Thumb Fetish’ by US deathcore band Molotov Solution.

Unknown

As far as I am aware there has never been any empirical research on thumb fetishism. There are various online websites and forums that feature individuals that claim to have very specific types of thumb fetishes. This is one of the more specific that I found:

  • Extract 3: “I’m a 34 year old men and I have thin thumbs (each ones have the same width as an American/Canadian penny, that’s 0.74 inch or 19 millimeters). I got a fetish that seems to be pretty rare. It consists of being turn on by comparing my thin thumbs with a woman that has larger ones than mine. Also, the younger the woman is with larger thumbs, the better. It’s pretty inoffensive, but rare I think” (Male heterosexual).

There are also whole webpages dedicated to the sexiness of thumb sucking. Here are some of the online accounts I found on the Thumb Sucking Adults website. They begin by noting that adult thumb sucking is “sexy. This fact shouldn’t be too surprising in that it involves the sensual oral center [and] so much of what is human has become sexualized in one way or another that thumb sucking adults is just another part of the total picture”. They then highlight some of their readers’ experiences:

  • Extract 3: “I am a bisexual woman who finds other women sucking their thumbs extremely erotic…First of all, growing up, I had a very close friend who lived down the street from me who also sucked her thumb. Experimenting with sex at a very early age…[she] and I would spend hours together exploring our bodies and touching each other. We learned how to masturbate and although I was so young, I discovered how to reach orgasm. I think perhaps Janice and I shared a certain closeness in our friendship and later in our intimacy because we both sucked our thumbs and felt accepted by each other if not by peers who seemed to ridicule us…I can summarize that my earliest, deepest feelings of sexual desire were connected to both thumb sucking and a female partner. Many years passed and I dated men here and there, but never quite felt emotionally or sexually fulfilled [as with women]…From the e-mails I’ve read on your site, I have also noticed that it is mostly the men who find thumbsucking erotic. Perhaps as a woman who is mostly gay and possesses some traits and attributes more commonly associated with men…I am more turned on by this than other women. And why does it turn me on? I’m sure it has to do with my childhood friend and the feelings associated with that particular behavior”(Bisexual female).
  • Extract 4: “The arousal that naturally occurs when I do it. Thumb in mouth…hand on penis. This goes way back. I had contributed an early ‘embarrassment’ to [another website] saying that I watched a home movie in front of all our relatives and there was this shot of me, around 3 years old, standing by the garage, thumb in mouth, hand holding crotch. I had never seen that before. There was devilish laughter. I laughed along, but was shocked. I do remember a dry climax sucking my thumb when I was about 6 or 7. And my first real emission at age 12 or 13 involved thumb sucking in my bed. So it is very ingrained in me. The physical feeling of doing it brings such erotic pleasure. When I first insert my thumb in my mouth, pressing it against my palate and rubbing it back and forth about 1/2″, the stimulus begins. I don’t suck continuously. I do it for 1-2 minutes and take my thumb out for about 20 seconds and then put it back in. Each time it gets better and better. The key thing is that my thumb gets wetter and softer and SMOOTHER against my palate. I am very curious if anyone else sucks their thumb this way. I don’t actually SUCK it. I rub it. The other important part is that as I rub it, my tongue proceeds to pulsate. It’s involuntary. There’s no stopping it as long as I connect with the right spot on my palate. This enhances the feeling greatly. This dual rubbing, pulsating action. My thumb would have to be cut off to stop me from doing it. The last part of sexuality in thumb sucking is observing others doing it. I have to be honest in saying that watching…is an immense turn-on. Fortunately, I know I can control my desires” (Heterosexual male)
  • Extract 5: “Larry finds many things attractive in a woman. One of these things, apparently, is that she sucks her thumb. It probably is not essential that she does so (if it was, we’d be talking more along the lines of a fetish) but, if she does suck her thumb, he finds that attractive, whatever the underlying psychodynamics. I propose that his preferences aren’t much different than, say, another man’s predilections for big-breasted women, though both allures aren’t necessarily exclusive…There are societal stigmas associated with the habit. Try sucking your thumb whenever you want to and you’ll see that at least an undue amount of attention will be focused your way for a while. The point is, perhaps as adult thumb sucking becomes more widely known, it is natural that some out there will find it an endearing quality in a person…For the adult thumb sucker, this site has been liberating…And, in the case of Larry, the fact that he has felt solitude in his thumb sucking, all his adult life, it’s certainly understandable to me that among all the feelings that are engendered when he sees it in another for the first time…[This website] simply proposes that adult thumb sucking is more common than otherwise assumed and should be accepted since it is, essentially, harmless and, for those that indulge, beneficial. As for thumb sucking being sexually provocative, I suppose that anything human can be sexualized by others eventually. As long as it’s legal, what’s wrong with that?” (Gender and sexual orientation unknown)
  • Extract 6: “I love adult women who still suck on their thumb. Since I was a kid, I felt an attraction for girls sucking their thumbs. My twin sister sucked her thumb till she was 16 years old! When I first started masturbating at age 12, I thought of a girl sucking her thumb. I’ve always looked for women that sucked their thumb and then ask them to suck it for me. When I was 18, I met a girl I suspected of still sucking her thumb. Strangely, I noticed she didn’t have any marks or callus on her thumb. But from time to time, I saw teeth marks and lipstick marks on her thumb…We started to have thumb sucking sex and I loved it. She liked it also. We stayed together four years. It became a habit. She’d suck her thumb for me and then I’d suck her thumb while we made love. I never sucked my thumb but now I suck my thumb while masturbating and thinking about my former girlfriend’s thumb or another girl’s thumb. I always look for women sucking their thumbs in their cars while driving. I have seen three in all the years I have looked. Those times were awesome. I never tried to make contact. I am married now, but my wife never sucks her thumb. She will do it if I ask her, but that isn’t the same. I like it when an adult woman does it naturally…I love a woman with a thumb callus and nice teeth (there are a few). I love to see a wet thumb. I like it when an adult sucks her thumb with the index finger over the nose. I find that very sexy” (Heterosexual male).
  • Extract 7: I find thumb sucking sensual, sexual, erotic, comforting, calming…It’s like catching someone at their most vulnerable. Partly because of its social taboo, it can even be slightly ‘naughty’…But it is an exciting thought to me to perhaps one day ‘catch’ someone else thumb sucking. Thumb sucking provides sensations around the mouth and nose that can be reproduced during sex or loveplay, although thumb sucking is less tiring. It feels nice, smells nice, tickles [the] pleasure centers. It provides the sensations of skin-to-skin warmth that I think everyone of us craves…It’s sensual, it’s intimate. But it’s also sensual and sexual. I find myself sucking my thumb after sex much like I might grab for a cigarette…But I think that thumb sucking is by far more satisfying and truly far less addicting [than smoking]. And definitely far less damaging…Quite honestly I didn’t find out how much I found finger and thumb sucking an exciting part of foreplay and sex until I was 23” (Heterosexual female).
  • Extract 8: I suck my thumb for the usual reasons, tension relief, to go to sleep, it feels good. But, I notice that other contributors here suck their thumb because it also feels erotic, and, I have to say, I agree…When I’m aroused, it enhances the feeling so much more. So it’s obvious that I’ve learned to associate my thumb sucking with something sexual…When I look at the photos of women at this site, sucking away, I just find them so beautiful, so sexually enthralling….First off, there’s the lips. I think most people can understand why lips can be very erotic. I don’t want to get into heavy psychology, but, let’s face it, lips are sexy, especially full lips, parted ever so slightly. They’re like an invitation to something exciting…When I see a woman’s full lips open just a bit, my tongue gets an irresistible urge to explore her sweet mouth…If her teeth were affected by thumb sucking, all the better. The thought that she can’t stop her habit, and the pleasure she derives from it, even if her teeth are affected to the point of obvious buckedness adds that much more to my sensation…She looks like something innocent, childlike but not a child. Her profile, exaggerating her now protrusive lips, wrapped around a phallus-like object that is her compulsion, her requirement, her urgency…I want her thumb to feel comfortable in my mouth as I experience, once again, her essence, her habit as mine” (Heterosexual male).

Obviously this is just a small selection of online accounts of sexual thumb sucking I have come across and I can’t know for sure that they are genuine (but they appear that way to me). Also, I have no idea whether these are typical but I can make a few tentative conclusions. Firstly, both males and females can find thumb sucking sexually stimulating. Secondly, sexual thumb suckers tend to be heterosexual (although one account was from a bisexual woman). Thirdly, most experiences of sexual thumb sucking are rooted in childhood experiences and that the acquisition and development of such behaviour is related with associative pairing (i.e., classical conditioning). Fourthly, no-one pathologizes the behaviour, and as long as the act is consensual, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the behaviour as a sexual preference. Finally, none of the accounts suggest the sexual thumb sucking is fetishistic – just that it is a non-normative sexual expression that fits alongside their other sexual experiences.

While researching this article I also came across the remarkable story of American Rafe Briggs (from Oakland, California) in a 2013 issue of the International Business Times. In 2004, Biggs fell off a roof and broke his neck leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. He obviously thought he would never experience any kind of sexual pleasure again but he was wrong:

“Turns out he can. Biggs, 43, says that his thumb is his ‘surrogate penis’, and that he gets ‘orgasmic sensations’ whenever it’s stimulated. ‘I never thought it would be possible, but massaging and sucking on my thumb, feels a lot like my penis used to feel – it’s really hot” said Biggs, whose girlfriend helped him discover this phenomenon a year after the accident. Sex therapists like Lisa Skye Carle, who works with Biggs, calls it a ‘transfer orgasm – where another place on the body gives the same sensation”. Biggs has made it his mission to helping quadriplegics lead sexually fulfilling lives, working with the group ‘Sexability’ an ‘organization committed to empowering people with disabilities to explore sexuality and creating intimate loving relationships. Since our beginning in 2006, we have been working with individuals, groups and organizations to transform sexuality and disability’. ”

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Huffington Post (2013). Rafe Biggs’ thumb has become his ‘surrogate penis’ after accident left him paralyzed, April 22, Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/22/rafe-biggs-thumb_n_3132325.html?utm_hp_ref=weird-news

Moser, C., & Kleinplatz, P. J. (2007). Themes of SM expression. In D. Langdridge & M. Barker (Eds.) Safe, sane & consensual:  Contemporary perspectives on sadomasochism.  (pp. 35-54). Hampshire, UK:  Palgrave Macmillan.

Thumb Sucking Adults (undated). Why [thumb sucking] is sexy. Located at: http://www.thumbsuckingadults.com/mytsingissexypage.htm

Tungol, J.R. (2013). Paralyzed man Rafe Biggs has ‘orgasmic sensations’ through his thumb, ‘surrogate penis’ International Business Times. April 22. Located at: http://www.ibtimes.com/paralyzed-man-rafe-biggs-has-orgasmic-sensations-through-his-thumb-surrogate-penis-1208099

 

Thumb dine with me: Can adult thumb-sucking be viewed as an addiction?

“When I got to pre-school, I discovered that thumb sucking was not the social norm. Other kids teased me: ‘Only babies suck their thumbs!’ This was terrible news. I didn’t want to be a baby, but there was no way for me to stop doing the only thing in the world that soothed me; the one thing I could do, in a violent home, to comfort myself and feel safe. So I compromised: I stopped sucking my thumb in public…But at home, or during any moment of privacy…my left thumb went automatically into my mouth. Rather than tapering off as I aged, my thumb sucking intensified, and I added a small swatch of cotton blanket to the ritual, rubbing it against my upper lip until it was soft and grey. My parents had split up, and I was moving from place to place with my mother and stepfamily, so nobody really had the energy to monitor my behavior. If anybody did notice and say something to me (‘Stop that, you’re going to ruin your teeth!’), I just popped the thumb out and waited 30 seconds before the coast was clear again” (Janice Erlbaum)

The opening quote is taken from Janice Erlbaum’s blog article “I was an adult thumbsucker” (a habit she managed to kick when she was 26 years old). From Erlbaum’s full account, I wouldn’t class the behaviour as an addiction although depending on what definition of addiction is used, an argument could perhaps be made. I have to admit that adult thumb sucking is something which I have often thought about as someone I know well has sucked her right thumb all her life. She’s now in her early forties and has two completely different shaped thumbs (one ‘normal’ and the other flat and very elongated) as a result of four decades of constant thumb sucking. She also tells me that her upper mouth palate has also changed shape and her thumb fits perfectly into the upper groove in her mouth. She also has a number of little routines she performs while sucking her thumb including the caressing of her eyelashes with her right index finger which when thumb-sucking is close to her eyes. She only ever does it when relaxing (such as when she’s watching television) and has learned not to do it in public. During her junior years and early adolescence, her parents tried to get her to stop, and at one point she was given a substance to coat her thumb in (which tasted disgusting when she put her thumb in her mouth). It didn’t work. She still sucked her thumb and put up with the horrible taste.

Most parents reading this will be aware that thumb-sucking tends to emerge in infancy (although there is some evidence that babies can suck their thumbs inside the womb. For instance, Professor Peter Hepper and his colleagues [Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland) have followed up children who were known to have sucked their thumbs as fetuses). Constant thumb-sucking is not necessarily problematic but depending on how the thumb is sucked, it can cause protruding teeth and other dental problems such as anterior open bite, malocclusion (i.e., misalignment of teeth or incorrect relation between the teeth of the two dental arches), and mucosal trauma. Other problems include deformity of the thumb (something which I have seen for myself first-hand) and speech problems. Thumb-suckers are also more prone to infections such as impetigo around the mouth (i.e., a highly contagious bacterial infection of the surface layers of the skin, which causes sores and blisters), and paronychia of the thumb (i.e., a skin infection that occurs around the nails). Basically, as children get older, the more of a problem thumb sucking is from a medical perspective. As one review of thumb sucking in the American Family Physician journal concluded:

“Major complications of thumb sucking, usually corrects spontaneously if thumb sucking ceases by six years of age. Thumb sucking in a child less than two years of age requires no treatment. In a three- to four-year-old child, thumb sucking may be secondary to changes in the child’s emotional environment, and treatment should be directed at correcting the underlying problem. Thumb sucking that persists beyond the age of six years should be treated”.

An article on thumb-sucking in Psychology Today by psychologist Dr. Susan Heitler looked at the topic of thumb-sucking. Dr. Heitler had been a thumb-sucker herself until she was nine-years old and had to endure “years of orthodonture” because of her childhood thumb-sucking. Her own daughter was also a thumb-sucker and her dentist told her that “trying to end thumbsucking will do more harm than good”, advice that she was not happy with given her own experiences. In her article, she wrote:

“Looks are hugely important to one’s success in life.  Allowing thumbsucking to damage facial appearance is wrong advice.  By the time a child is four or five, with the habit no longer socially appropriate and permanent teeth coming shortly, the risks of continuing to thumb or finger suck clearly outweigh the benefits…When does a bad habit qualify as an addiction?  Usually it’s a function of how much the habit has become physiologically essential so that people feel craving when it is missing. That definitely happens with thumbsucking”.

Dr. Heitler’s article referred to empirical research that had been carried out on thumb-sucking although none of the main findings had any detail as to who had carried out the work, where the research was published, or what methodologies were employed (apart from very general information). Here are some of the main things she reported:

“In a study with premature infants, researchers found that infants who sucked their thumbs or a pacifier had shorter hospital stays. That was because rhythmic sucking soothed them so that they spent less energy in crying. In addition, sucking re-optimized their heart beats and breathing patterns if they were beginning to get upset…In studies of children who do or do not suck a thumb, finger or pacifier, it turns out that the suckers become emotionally more independent at a younger age. Researchers put a child and mom on one end of a long room. On the far end were appealing toys. The suckers ventured further and played with the toys away from Mom longer than the non-suckers…They just had higher self-confidence in being able to handle independent play, knowing that if they felt stressed they could suck for a bit, feel better, and resume playing on their own. It’s generally not until they become toddlers that the downsides of thumbsucking begin to outweigh the gains. Kids then tend to suck when they are trying to fall asleep, when they bored, when they are idling between activities, or to self-soothe when they are upset”.

One online article on thumb-sucking reports that it is a common activity among infants (30%-40% of those yet to start school) and around 10%-20% of children aged over six years. In a more academic source, Dr. Sherry Ellington and colleagues (in a 2000 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis reported that thumb sucking is estimated to occur in 23% to 46% of children aged 1 to 4 years. As with the article by Dr. Heitler, it claims that thumb-sucking may have a psychological benefit for young children as it “allows them to consolidate emotions and handle their stresses”.

In a 1953 paper in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, the Dr. Donald Winnicot presented his theory of transitional objects and phenomena. Dr. Winnicott compared thumb sucking with the use of external objects such as children’s use of comfort blankets drawing parallels  between the two. He also a claims that childish actions like thumb sucking and objects like cuddly toys are the source of manifold adult behavior, amongst many others sexual fetishism. It is also claimed (particularly by psychodynamic psychologists) that such actions stem back to childhood trauma and that behaviours like thumb-sucking help facilitate the need to feel comforted and secure. Another early longitudinal study by Dr. Marjorie Honzik and Dr. John McKee published in the Journal of Pediatrics reported that after the first year of being born, girls more likely to suck their thumbs than boys. The main reason was speculated that girls’ greater orality may involve greater pleasure from tactile stimulation”.

There doesn’t appear to be much empirical research on adult thumb sucking. A small 1996 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry led by Dr. F. Castellanous found that in 12 intellectually normal adults with stereotypic movement disorder, eight of them displayed thumb-sucking and/or rocking behaviour (and 11 of them had an affective anxiety disorder suggesting that behaviours such as thumb-sucking may be engaged in to help reduce anxiety). A 2008 literature review by Dr Orlando Tanaka and colleagues in the American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics reported some evidence that thumb-sucking might turn into nail biting. This might explain why there is such a seemingly low prevalence of thumb-sucking in adults. All the evidence suggests that thumb sucking in adults is not an addiction but in some people may be symptomatic of other underlying disorders.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Articles 2day (2012). Tic disorder and thumb sucking. July 2012. Located at: http://www.articles2day.org/2012/07/tic-disorder-and-thumb-sucking-other.html

Batista, E. (2012). Adult thumb sucking, January 12. Located at: http://www.edbatista.com/2012/01/adult-thumb-sucking.html

Castellanous, F.X., Ritchie, G.F., Marsh, W.L. & Rapoport, J.L. (1996). DSM-IV stereotypic movement disorder: persistence of stereotypies of infancy in intellectually normal adolescents and adults. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 57, 116-122.

Ellington, S.A., Miltenberger, R.G., Stricker, J.M., Garlinghouse, M.A., Roberts, J. & Galensky, T.I. (2000). Analysis and treatment of finger sucking. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 33, 41-52.

Erlbaum, J. (2012). It happened to me: I was an adult thumb sucker. August 2. Located at: http://www.xojane.com/it-happened-to-me/it-happened-me-i-was-adult-thumbsucker

Friman, P. C. (1987). Thumb sucking in childhood. Feelings and Their Medical Significance, 29, 11-14.

Heitler, S. (2012). Lessons from thumbsucking, the earliest addiction. Psychology Today, January 26. Located at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201201/lessons-thumbsucking-the-earliest-addiction

Hepper, P., Wells, D.L. & Lynch, C. (2004). Prenatal thumbsucking is related to postnatal handedness. Neuropsychologia, 43, 313-315.

Honzik, M.P. & John P. McKee, J.P. (1960). The sex difference in thumb-sucking. Journal of Pediatrics, 61, 726-732.

Leung, A.K. & Robson, W.L. (1991). Thumb sucking. American Family Physician, 44, 1724-1728.

Luke, L. S., & Howard, L. (1983). The effects of thumb sucking on orofacial structures and speech: A review. The Compendium of Continuing Education, 4, 575–579.

Tanaka, O.M., Vitral, R.W.F., Tanaka, G.Y., Pulido A. & Guerrero, & Camargoe, E.S. (2008). Nailbiting, or onychophagia: A special habit. American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics, 134, 305-308.

Winnicott, D. (1953)  Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34, 89-97.