Non-demand touch, such as hand massage and other “sensate focus” exercises, are still recommended by many sex therapists who want to help couples struggling with sexual difficulties. Non-demand touch exercises help take the pressure off partners who are too focused or anxious about penis-vagina penetration to stay present with their own or their partner’s responses. These exercises are designed to build or restore emotional safety and sexual trust; cultivate awareness of sensual stimulation and preferences; and facilitate intimate communication through exploratory questions and answers as both partners experience giving and receiving touch.
The giver may ask questions like:
“Is this a good place to touch you?”
“Do you like this touch to be fast or slow, firm or light?”
The receiver may say things like:
“No, I don’t like my nipples touched until I am more aroused.”
“Yes, that feels good. But press just a little more firmly there.”
You may have experienced these “homeplay” exercises if you have consulted a sex therapist or clinical sexologist. If you are a sexologist or therapist yourself, you may be used to routinely including a program of sensate focus exercises in your clinical practice. However, some people experience anxiety during these exercises, or find them to be a turn-off, or otherwise counter-productive. Some people may resist doing these exercises, but are not sure why, and this resistance can add to the difficulties already experienced by the couple.
It’s time we were all more aware of sensory integration dysfunctions and their potential effects on sexual intimacy. We have to ask ourselves, “what is the impact of sensory dysfunction on sexual behavior?” A couple of years ago I coined an unofficial term for this problem, “adult sexual-sensory dysfunction” or ASSD. And though many of us are fed up with acronyms and the “alphabet soup” diagnoses, I’d like to use this term to advance a new meme and awareness. I see sensory integration dysfunction as one of the missing links in addressing and managing sexual concerns, particularly for people who also have a diagnosis of ADHD or ADD; or Asperger’s Syndrome or another autism spectrum condition; or any other pervasive developmental condition where sensory dysfunction often occurs. However, some people simply experience sensory integration problems which are not co-morbid. Children who are diagnosed with sensory disorders often receive help through “sensory diet” planned by occupational therapists. But for many adults, sensory dysfunction is seldom considered or diagnosed.
What is sensory dysfunction? Someone who has a low threshold for noise, touch, smell, taste, or sound is hypersensitive, and will avoid those things. A person who has a high threshold for various types of sensory input is hyposensitive, and will seek out these sensations. Many people combine low and high thresholds for various kinds of stimuli. For example, a person may crave super-spicy food (hyposensitive to taste) but be unable to tolerate the sound of a humming refrigerator (hypersensitive to sound). If you are hyposensitive, you will seek more of that kind of sensation. You will be a “sensory seeker.” Mosh pits and loud rock concerts are filled with hyposensitive sensation seekers. A hypersensitive person will be sensory avoidant. The person who flinches from touch is tactile avoidant. A person who cannot bear to kiss or give oral sex may have oral sensitivities. The senses of balance and body awareness are also included in sensory integration.
I have had a few clients who cannot bear to give oral sex. As children, these people hated having their face washed or their teeth brushed – any sensation around their face or mouth is unbearable. I have had a few clients who were aversive to certain types of touch. They may go through the roof with gentle stroking but enjoy a firm, non-moving grip. Even certain types of fabric – a change to flannel sheets, for example – can interrupt an otherwise promising sexual encounter.
There is growing anecdotal awareness in the BDSM and kink communities that for many people, consensual bondage, sensation play, and certain fetishes may be providing an eroticized – and much needed – adult sensory diet for people who experience some form of sensory dysfunction. As a “kink aware professional,” I feel we need much more research and understanding of the creative ways in which some adults cope with sensory dysfunction and its impact on sexual behavior and feelings.
Some sensory dysfunction websites provide checklists for sensory issues. While I do not suggest that these checklists will provide grounds for a diagnosis, they may indicate the wisdom of referring certain clients to occupational therapists for assessment. In the meantime, you can also use the results of these checklists to modify sensate focus and other homeplay strategies as needed. In the absence of abundant research on this topic, you may feel that you are “playing detective,” but please persist – this is an area which deserves diligent and careful inquiry.
© Copyright 2011 by By Amy Marsh, Sexologist & Consulting Hypnotist (EdD, DHS, CH). All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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