As a kink term, “sensation play” often seems so vague that it’s almost meaningless. Isn’t all sexual activity “sensation play,” in the sense that it involves sensations and is (usually) done for fun?
Well, kind of, but “sensation play” refers to a specific subset of proclivities within the kink world. It’s a way of exploring different sensations that wouldn’t necessarily arise in your life normally, like having a piece of faux fur lovingly dragged against your skin, being tickled with a feather or letting someone press an ice cube against your most sensitive spots.
Usually, these sensations aren’t straightforwardly pleasurable — like receiving oral sex or a massage — but they’re also not straightforwardly painful, either (more intense feelings like whipping or slapping are also kinky, but in a different way). Instead, sensation play occupies a zone in the middle somewhere, encompassing sensations that can be challenging, uncomfortable, surprising and just plain weird.
Sensation play is especially good for newbies who want to dip their toes into the wild waters of kink. Handily, it doesn’t require any special equipment, since you can use stuff you already have around the house. I’ve had a partner drag the dull edge of a pre-chilled butter knife along my skin while I was blindfolded, for instance, which feels scary and exciting even though it only involves a mundane tool I normally use to make toast.
It’s also beginner-friendly because it doesn’t involve any particular goal — it’s different from the way you might have sex in pursuit of orgasm or spank someone in the hopes of leaving marks. And while all sex and kink can be approached with a non-goal-oriented attitude, sensation play is explicitly about exploration and experimentation — so if kink makes you nervous because you worry you’ll be “bad at it” or won’t know what to do, maybe you’d enjoy starting with sensation play because it’s all about the journey, not the destination, baby.
One of my favorite sensation-play implements to recommend for beginners is a Wartenberg wheel like the Unbound Spike. Named for German neurologist Robert Wartenberg, who didn’t invent it but often used it in his practice, a Wartenberg wheel is a spiky metal pinwheel attached to a handle and was originally developed as a device doctors could use to test patients’ nerve reactions as the wheel was rolled along their skin.
It doesn’t really hurt, so long as you’re using a light-to-medium amount of pressure, but it does produce a sharp, tickly sensation unlike anything else I’ve felt. Especially in combination with a blindfold, a Wartenberg wheel can make you hyper-aware of your skin and every little motion you feel against it. It’s like your body goes “WTF is that?!” and turns up the sensitivity of your nerve endings a bit. For this reason, I find that this implement makes a fantastic opening act for more intense sensations, whether they be pleasurable, painful or both.
Its medical associations also make the Wartenberg wheel a great pick if you want to do some kind of doctor/patient roleplay. Throw in a stethoscope and a speculum and you’ve got yourself one hell of a scene.
The Unbound Spike has a playful pink handle, infusing this normally clinical-looking tool with whimsy. And unlike some Wartenberg wheels, it has three rows of spikes as opposed to just one, resulting in a sensation that feels more diffuse but still hovers on the razor’s edge between pain and tickliness. Its long handle gives you lots of control over how much pressure you apply, whether you’re using the toy on a partner or on yourself.
Indeed, several reviewers on the Unbound website have raved about its utility during masturbation. “I love using it on myself, especially all over my thighs before a solo session. It’s also amazing with a partner, but I’ve mostly used it solo,” one wrote. “I love the sensation, the little lick of pain. It’s so sexy and really sets the tone for me.”
Since the scratchy sharpness of the Wartenberg wheel is unlike any sensation you can give yourself with your hands or other sex toys, it can make solo sex feel more like partnered sex. “I haven’t had intimate relations with anyone other than myself since the pandemic began, so Spike has made me feel less touch-deprived,” another user wrote. A different reviewer also enjoyed how the Spike eased their quarantine blues. “Anyone else who has touch as their primary love language and feels like they’re seriously missing it… get Spike!!” they exhorted.
A few reviewers said that the feeling of using a Wartenberg wheel can trigger the euphoric, tingly feeling known to ASMR fans as a “brain orgasm,” especially when used on the back and neck or behind the ears. It’s fun to be reminded that sex isn’t all about your genitals and other well-known hotspots — many other parts of your body can bring you pleasure when touched, whether it’s an overtly sexual sort of pleasure or just an overall sensation of “Ohhh, yes.”
Given that the sex-toy industry is flooded with high-tech, modern marvels that do everything from thrust to rotate to suck, it might seem surprising that a neurological testing device invented over a hundred years ago could be such a game-changer in bed. But if you’re looking to flirt with sadomasochism and add an exciting edge to your sex life, the Unbound Spike might be just what the doctor ordered.