Back in 2019, I came across Sad Nipple Syndrome, an oddly named but surprisingly common phenomenon whereby people report feeling a variety of strange emotions when their nipples are touched. These emotions range from I don't think I like that to I'm a child again being shouted at by my parents and am ashamed. It was a strange article to write.
While learning about this under-researched and difficult-to-place sensation, a guy contacted me on Twitter to explain that he gets a similar feeling when his belly button is touched. This knocked me sideways because I realised that I, too, feel this. On the rare occasion that I find a bit of fluff in my belly button, I have to hold my breath while poking around in there, my entire body cringing like I’ve been caught in the act of doing something deeply embarrassing. Wanking while wearing a clown nose, for instance. Oddly (especially considering that example), the feeling I get when touching my belly button doesn’t feel like a sex thing per se but it does feel nebulously shameful. Maybe not wanking, then. Weeing? I’m wetting myself while wearing a clown nose I stole from someone who catches me in the act and yells: "WHAT ARE YOU DOING??? THAT’S MY NOSE!"
Two and a bit years after this complex belly button revelation, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and so to find out more I decided to contact the man who initially messaged me, which meant scrolling through the absolute state of my DMs (mostly weird guys saying "hello dear"). I was astonished to find multiple belly button-based messages I’d missed.
"I get a rage in me so deep I can’t explain it," one woman had written. "I felt like I’m crazy because of how mad I get if anyone tries to touch me there. It happens with my butthole too."
"That belly button thing is 100% real. My mum and I both get it, my boyfriend doesn’t. It’s a disgusting feeling, like nails down a chalkboard," wrote another.
A third said: "I cannot touch my belly button because the feeling is just too profound. It’s a bit… sexual? But like not. Oh god don’t tell anyone that." I asked if I could include it in this article. "Okay, but call me Hilda or something," Hilda added.
It’s not just strangers in my DMs who have expressed disdain at the odd feeling that comes from their belly button being touched. Noted famous person Khloe Kardashian has been open about her belly button freak-outs, tweeting back in 2015: "I have such a phobia of belly buttons! I’m so grossed out to touch my own."
So what’s going on with Khloe, me and everyone in my inbox? Why do some feel shame, some feel grossed out and others feel "a bit… sexual? But like not"? Thankfully, there’s a little bit more known science behind Mixed Belly Button Emotions (as I’m terming this) than there is behind Sad Nipple Syndrome, and it’s all to do with where your belly button is. The navel placement, if you will.
As Dr Christopher Hollingsworth from NYC Surgical Associates said in an interview: "The internal lining of the abdominal cavity at your umbilicus (belly button) is called your parietal peritoneum. This structure is exquisitely sensitive and its sensory nerve fibres relay input back to the spinal cord at the same level as the nerves that relay sensation from your bladder and urethra."
After getting rejected for a quote from every single medical body you care to name, I took things into my own hands and conducted the highly scientific experiment of sticking my finger in my belly button while running around screaming. I can confirm that Dr Hollingsworth’s statement checks out. Because it’s so unexpected, your brain can’t compute that the feeling is deep within your loins, which provokes my body to go into meltdown, others to enjoy it, and others still to not know what the hell is going on. It's like when you take a sip of tea and find you've accidentally drunk your colleague's coffee instead; the shock makes the experience disgusting – even if you love coffee – because of the confusion your brain felt in that instant.
When I speak to Kathryn, 29, the plot thickens. As a child, she used to twiddle her belly button (no judgement, no shame, but good lord) and I asked her where she felt it: "I would get a tickly feeling in my mouth, so I’d have to chew my lip."
Science fails me once more, with three PRs from various medical associations telling me that they don’t have anyone on their books who can give me a quote on why some people feel their belly button in their bum and others in their mouth. On top of this, while there are multiple nerves in the spinal cord connected to your legs, your arms, your chest and many more places, none is linked to your face.
"I didn’t press my belly button," Kathryn adds when I inform her that she is a marvel of modern science. "I would sort of pinch the skin. I had an outy. Maybe that’s why?"
Touching the belly button gently isn’t going to activate any nerves within the spine – you’ve got to get right in there to experience The Feeling, so those with outies may not trigger the correct nerve fibres as easily. Who knows why Kathryn felt it in her mouth? Possibly it was psychological, possibly we will never get to the bottom of it because researchers are too focused on discovering the cure for cancer to fanny around with my requests to talk about belly buttons.
It’s no surprise, though, that the sensations have been harnessed and incorporated into a sex fetish. Back in 2012, belly buttons were the second most popular fetish search on Google. Sadly they’ve slipped out of the charts, ousted by smoking, pantyhose and farts (among other things), but that doesn’t mean it’s not still very much A Thing.
"I’ve experimented with touching my belly button during sex," says the man who originally contacted me those many moons ago (and who wished to remain anonymous). "It can weirdly make me come quicker, but I’ve only done it a few times when I was younger because I felt odd and like I shouldn’t be doing it."
Another woman in my DMs agreed: "It’s not like you see it in films or read about it in books – so I didn’t really understand what was going on, but it’s quite heartening to know I’m not alone! Maybe I’ll join these belly button fetishists!"
It’s quite hard to join a belly button fetishist community as such. The Great Navel Forum, for example, is described as "a diamond in the rough". Not only is it a belly button forum – which are themselves hard to come by – it’s also fairly active. However the most recent posts are from 2016. Even Reddit fails to provide up-to-date content: the last post in r/bellybuttonfetish was a year ago.
Thankfully Instagram hashtags like #bellybuttonfetish (which has over 42,000 posts) or the more nebulous #bellybutton (630,000) can provide where message boards cannot, the posts tending towards accounts of women posting belly button selfies to appreciative comments such as "whoa sexy belly button". It’s a shame there’s no centralised place for the modern belly button appreciator (perhaps on the dark web?) but that is one of the benefits of social media: you’re never alone in your proclivities. Whether it’s shoe fetishes or belly buttons, there’s always a hashtag for you.
Not for me, though. I will continue a life of belly button avoidance with pride. And a tiny hint of clown-based shame.