Sensate 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 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 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.
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).
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.
- 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.
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.
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- McCarthy, B., & McCarthy, E. (2012). Sexual awareness: Your guide to healthy couple sexuality, 5th Ed. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Siegel, D. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
- Weiner, L., & Avery-Clark, C. (2017). Sensate focus in sex therapy: The illustrated manual. New York, NY: Routledge.
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