Sensate Focus: Getting Out of Your Head and Into Your Body During Sex

Couple shares romantic moment in bedSensate focus, developed by Masters and Johnson in the 1960s, is a technique that has been used by sex therapists for many years to help couples and individuals overcome a range of sexual difficulties. Sensate focus exercises work best when engaged in with the guidance of a therapist. However, trying the exercises on one’s own can be a great place to start, if one feels safe and secure in doing so.

Sensate focus can be considered “mindfulness for touch.” A mindfulness practice involves meditation, or intentional focusing on something specific. Sensate focus is “mindfulness for touch” because it is an intentional focus on touch, without expectations, judgment, or pressure. Sensate focus can teach a person how to be in their body experiencing, rather than in their head “spectatoring.” Spectatoring is a normal function of an active mind; however, it inhibits arousal and orgasm, which is problematic. Let’s look at two examples of spectatoring.

Petra

Petra is generally satisfied with her body and enjoys sex with her partner. However, when receiving oral sex, despite her best intentions, her mind starts to wander: “Did I send that email? … I need to remember to call her tomorrow … oh no, I’m distracted. … My partner is trying so hard, but I don’t know if I can climax …” and on it goes. For Petra, these distracting thoughts come in many forms, depending on the day. She sometimes has thoughts related to personal insecurities; work, family, and relationship stresses; to-do lists; worry about her partner’s experience; and more. This is spectatoring. Rather than being in her body experiencing the sensations, Petra gets in her head and becomes a spectator of what’s happening in her body. As a result, she doesn’t fully enjoy the experience and struggles to orgasm from oral sex.

Petra’s mind is acting exactly as it was intended; she’s not doing anything wrong. The human mind evolved to actively juggle multiple things at once and continuously scan internally and externally to identify what needs attention. Sensate focus is designed to give the active mind something compelling on which to focus during sex so it won’t need to wander. Let’s look at another example.

Tal

Tal generally enjoys connecting sexually with his partner; however, he sometimes has distracting thoughts during intercourse, such as: “She looks tired; maybe she wants me to stop. … Should I switch positions? … But I don’t want to risk losing my erection.” Tal’s spectatoring, like that of many people, is fueled by underlying fears of inadequacy and rejection. When these fears take hold, it is understandable he has difficulty orgasming before starting to lose his erection. Let’s look at a third example in which sensate focus can help.

Cherise and An

Cherise and An are a lesbian couple whose sex has lost its luster. They’ve tried different ways to spice it up, such as watching porn before sex, wearing sexy outfits, and even role play. Some of these activities have been fun, but in the end, they still feel dissatisfied and disconnected during and after sex. Cherise and An realize they have lost touch with their own and each other’s bodies. Sensate focus will help them reconnect with each other in an intentional and intimate way.

What Is Sensate Focus?

Sensate focus is a series of intimate touch exercises that teach one how to be fully in the body during sex. The exercises can be done solo or with a partner and can last from 10 minutes to one hour. It is recommended to start with 10 minutes for solo sensate focus and 20 minutes for partnered sensate focus. Do only one phase per session, and leave at least a day to process the experience in between sessions. Aim to spend at least two weeks in each phase, or more if needed to ensure one feels comfortable. These exercises can be done one to three times per week, depending on one’s needs and capacity. Sensate focus should be done separately from usual sexual intimacy.

Sensate focus is a series of intimate touch exercises that teach one how to be fully in the body during sex. The exercises can be done solo or with a partner and can last from 10 minutes to one hour.

Non-Demand Touching

Sensate uses non-demand touching, which means you are touching with no particular outcome or expectation in mind. This is different from sexual foreplay. You are not trying to arouse the other person or even to pleasure them. You are touching for yourself, with a sense of curiosity and exploration about your partner’s (or your own) body. Allow yourself to experience and enjoy touch for the sake of touch. Pay attention to the following aspects of the touch: temperature (warm/cool), pressure (hard/soft), and texture (smooth/rough).

Preparations

Sensate focus sessions should be scheduled ahead of time to allow for mental and physical preparation. Consider what will help you get in the mood for intimate touch. It’s important to minimize distractions and engage the senses. Removing distractions can include locking the bedroom door, taking time to unwind beforehand, and ensuring chores are completed. To engage the senses, you may use sensual music (without lyrics), scented candles, satin fabric, or lotions.

Phases

  • Phase 1: Take turns touching, kissing, and stroking anywhere on your partner’s body (or your own for solo) except genitals and breasts. For partnered sensate focus: partner one touches for 10 (or more) minutes, then partner two touches for 10 (or more) minutes. Avoid touch that leads to orgasm and intercourse until phase 4.
  • Phase 2: Same as phase 1, except that genitals and breasts can be included.
  • Phase 3 (partnered sensate focus only): Engage in mutual touching, kissing, and stroking of each other’s bodies simultaneously. Start with phase 1 touching, then progress to phase 2. Avoid touching that leads to orgasm and intercourse.
  • Phase 4: Proceed through phases 1 through 3, then move into a position as if you’re going to have intercourse, or masturbate for solo sensate focus. Move and rub your bodies against each other. Avoid intercourse or touching that will lead to orgasm until having completed one or two sessions of phase 4.

Conclusion

Sensate focus has been used by sex therapists for over 50 years to help people overcome barriers to sexual satisfaction and deepen their sexual experience. Sensate focus, or “mindfulness for touch,” teaches people how to get out of their heads and into their bodies during sexual experiences, using progressive intimacy exercises with non-demand touching.

References:

  1. Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.
  2. McCarthy, B., & McCarthy, E. (2012). Sexual awareness: Your guide to healthy couple sexuality, 5th Ed. New York, NY: Routledge.
  3. Siegel, D. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
  4. Weiner, L., & Avery-Clark, C. (2017). Sensate focus in sex therapy: The illustrated manual. New York, NY: Routledge.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rachel Keller, LCSW-C, therapist in Silver Spring, Maryland

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Val

    Val

    November 7th, 2017 at 2:03 PM

    I know that sex can be a therapeutic healer, but when I have too many things on my mind then there is no point in it for me. I know that that sounds like I am being selfish, but if I can’t let the things of the past day go then I have a hard time enjoying myself or doing anything enjoyable for my partner. There are some days when I can let it all go and focus on the moment but then there are others when I know that it would be pointless to even try.

  • Rachel Keller, LCSW-C

    Rachel Keller, LCSW-C

    November 8th, 2017 at 8:15 AM

    Val – Good point. It sounds like you have a good level of awareness of your capacity for sexual intimacy from one day to the next. It can be so hard when you’re not in the mood, but your partner is, or vice versa. Which is where it can help to have some flexibility, but also know your limits – as you said, there are some days that, even when feeling stressed, you are able to let it go and focus on the moment, but other days when you know from the start that you can’t, and that’s okay.

  • Sally

    Sally

    November 8th, 2017 at 11:09 AM

    When you are having sex with your partner you need to try as much as possible to remain focused on him or her and those needs. Yes you should not forget your own needs too. But what I am saying is that you have to in order to cultivate a strong relationship know that for most of us sex is going to be a crucial part of it and this isn’t what you want to bring the two of you down. Focus on one another, listen to one another, and sometimes even when you may not be in the mood, make time for your partner in an intimate way. That doesn’t just have to mean with sex, but just a time to connect with one another and maintain the intimacy between the two of you.

  • Rachel Keller, LCSW-C

    Rachel Keller, LCSW-C

    November 8th, 2017 at 12:37 PM

    Sally – I love what you said about making time for your partner and incorporating sex as part of cultivating a strong relationship. For Sensate focus, it’s different than “normal” sex in the sense that you’re actually focusing totally on your own experience (rather than the other person’s needs) – as a mindfulness exercise. During regular sex, it’s good to have a balance between focusing on your own and the other’s needs – and oftentimes, the needs and desires align (for example – it turns her on to go down on him, or both partners mutually enjoy slow, sensual intercourse, etc.)

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