By Dr. Denise Renye, Licensed Psychologist (PsyD), Sex Therapist, Life Coach
From the Sex Therapist’s Toolbox: Exploring Sensate Focus
Last week I shared with you my perspective as a sexologist on the five circles of sexuality; this week, I want to share sensate focus with you as an exercise to facilitate sensual exploration and discovery with a partner.
Sensate focus was developed by Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the 1960s. It is about giving and receiving touch. I give this partner exercise to couples to help them improve their communication and learn more about what each person likes. Sensate focus is a sensual exercise, not a sexual one, meaning no matter how turned on you or your partner becomes, avoid touching the genitals or breasts, and refrain from oral sex, intercourse, or other sexual activity until you get to that step, which takes time.
Below I’ve summarized the steps of the sensate focus exercise, but for more in-depth instructions, visit the Cornell Health website.
Try this exercise when you and your partner have about 30 to 40 minutes to spare, are relaxed, rested, and feeling care for each other. Nudity is ideal as this is a skin-to-skin practice, but it can also be practiced in loose-fitting clothing. Ideally, both partners are nude, showered, and free of jewelry and watches. As you engage, fully present, with one another, you’ll build intimacy with your partner on multiple levels.
Step 1: Touching.
One partner is the toucher and one is the receiver. For the receiving partner, focus on the sensation of being touched, notice the sensations. How do you feel? What do you notice about the differences in the way different types of touches or parts of your body feel as your partner touches you. Also, be sure to vocalize if something feels uncomfortable physically or psychologically. Remember: this is about both the sensual experience and about communication.
For the toucher, notice the different surface textures of your partner’s skin. How do their hands feel versus their stomach? Which part of the body feels silky or supple? How glorious and exciting it is to be able to touch your partner in this way!
Practice this for 15 minutes since it can take some time to get in the groove, to feel comfortable with touching your partner. Vary the firmness and tempo – try a long-drawn-out touch as well as a quicker touch. How does changing the tempo alter the sensation? What difference do you notice using two hands versus one? Or touching with your whole hand rather than just your fingertips?
Lastly, remember that at any point either partner can ask to stop! This is also true if the receiver starts to doze off. The point is not to receive a massage that leads to dreamland but rather for the toucher and receiver to notice sensations without any “shoulds” or distractions.
Step 2: Reverse roles.
Now the toucher becomes the receiver. Segue into step two without any breaks if possible and don’t compare touching styles! You are two different people with different feelings, instincts, and perceptions.
Some couples repeat steps one and two for a series of days. There’s no pressure to move on to step three, nor is there a test to “pass” before trying step three. It’s up to you and your partner. When you are working with a sexologist or sex therapist, heed their guidance and instruction and follow the plan you co-created together in session, but also rely on the relationship for furthering this exercise.
Step 3: Include genital and/or breast touching.
In this step, touching the genitals and/or breasts is included, but kissing and intercourse are not. As with step one, one person is the toucher and one is the receiver. And again, each partner should be rested, nude, and free of jewelry/watches.
Have the receiver start out lying face-down on the bed. Touching the genitals and/or breasts is included in this step, but those body parts should not be the sole focus of the sensate focus exercise. At this stage, consider them as just another part of the body. Again, the point of sensate focus is not to specifically turn each other on or force something to happen, but rather to pay attention to the sensations associated with touching your partner’s body. To maintain this objective, try briefly touching in or around the genital area before moving to another part of the body.
After falling into a nice rhythm where the toucher is registering the sensations in their fingertips, shift positions. The toucher will sit against a wall, perhaps with a few pillows behind their back and legs outstretched into a “V” shape. Have the receiver move to sit between the toucher’s legs with their back against the toucher’s chest. The toucher now has access to touch much of the receiver’s body if they reach down or around the receiver.
The toucher continues to explore the receiver’s body but now nonverbal, touch communication is added: The receiver puts a hand on top of the toucher’s as they keep exploring. This “hand-riding” technique provides a simple yet effective way to transmit additional information to the toucher. For instance, the receiver can demonstrate where they’d like a firmer touch or a slower one.
The toucher doesn’t have to comply with every nudge, but this practice allows them to combine personal feelings and needs with messages from the receiver. Also, for the toucher, note that a signal to your hand isn’t a criticism but is instead a request to try something else. There are many opportunities to see your own shadow material come into the light during this exercise. These are great instances to process in your next therapy session. Receiver, give your partner signals while they touch your genital area so they don’t guess what you prefer.
Some notes: If the receiver orgasms, that’s OK, but don’t try to make an orgasm happen. Remember, this is not a goal-oriented exercise. Also, at any time either participant can request switching roles. However, make sure each partner experiences both roles before ending the sensate focus exercise.
Later Steps of Sensate Focus
Steps four and five involve the use of lotion as well as mutual touching. Step six is sensual, not sexual intercourse. The same principles of sensate focus apply but now your genital areas can touch too. At this step, if sexual intercourse is desired, start with only partial penetration. Go slowly and take your time to feel the sensations associated with contact.
I’ve only summarized sensate focus and skimmed over the last three steps because I think it’s important to have a solid sensual foundation. We spend so much time talking about how to have better sex that we often forget about the other sexuality circles. Bringing in more sensuality will ultimately lead to better sex; it’s not something to skip over.
Green, Eli R. “The 5 Circles of Sexuality: Overview and Implications for Transgender People.” FORGE. http://forge-forward.org/wp-content/docs/HANDOUT-circles-of-sexuality-eli-r-green.pdf. Accessed September 17, 2020.
“Sensate Focus.” Cornell Health. https://health.cornell.edu/sites/health/files/pdf-library/sensate-focus.pdf. Accessed September 21, 2020.
“The Circles of Sexuality.” Minnesota Department of Public Health. https://www.health.state.mn.us/people/sexualhealth/circlesofsexuality.pdf. Accessed September 17, 2020.
Dr. Denise Renye is a licensed clinical psychologist, certified sexologist, and yoga therapist as well as psychedelic integrationist. She has a friendly, down-to-earth and professional approach that will allow space for you to be at ease when talking about sensitive subjects. She has specialized training and works with people in the areas of complex trauma, sexuality, intimacy, states of consciousness, and fringe relationships. Her practice is in Northern California and globally via virtual therapy and coaching.
Therapists, did you know we have CE courses available for homestudy about sex and sexuality? Click here to see some of the options; visit your member’s area to search the full archives. Not a member yet? Check out our membership options that include CEs here.
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