Sensate Focus is a practice originally created by sexuality researchers Masters and Johnson in the 1970s. Since then, it has grown and adapted into a widely used and accepted exercise in couples and sex therapies. It is an exercise practiced over an extended period of time where partners gradually increase their physical touch with each other while integrating mindfulness and communication. With over 50 years of research and practice, Sensate Focus has been shown to reduce anxiety around sex, increase communication between partners, and provide a safe environment for couples to reintroduce sexual touch gradually into their relationships.
Two primary aspects
Sensate Focus has two primary aspects: ongoing communication, mindfulness, and processing with the support of a therapist, and gradually increasing physical touch. The process begins with a time of abstinence from sexual touch (solo or with a partner) while reflecting on one’s anxiety and comfort within different sexual experiences. Then, when ready, partners will engage in exploring one another’s bodies while avoiding particularly sexually stimulating areas.
Next, the couple participates in intimate touch, still avoiding genitals but incorporating areas that may provide arousal. Progressing on, the couple will add genital stimulation to the exercise. At this point, couples may or may not choose to engage in intercourse. Throughout each step, the couple will practice mindfulness and communication skills during the Sensate Focus exercise and process the experience with their therapist.
What’s the goal?
The ultimate goal of Sensate Focus is not to “achieve” sexual intercourse or orgasm. Rather, this practice helps strengthen the foundation of a healthy sexual relationship by building trust, familiarity (with one another and with touch), and relaxation. Gradually increasing the touch alleviates pressure regarding sexual expectations, performance, or satisfaction since there are clear boundaries around what is expected and open communication about the thoughts and feelings of each person. If you move on to the next step and feel anxiety or discomfort, return to the previous step for a while.
There are no fixed rules and no timeline for this exercise. It can all be tailored to the couple’s needs and goals. Sometimes, the best way to become more comfortable or able to engage sexually is to take the barrier off the table. Taking the pressure off of the “goal” of achieving an erection, orgasm, vaginal penetration, etc., and making the goal of staying present with one another during intimate touch of any kind, allows the mind and body to feel safe enough to experience the very thing that had been a source of frustration.
Your well-being is the top priority of any therapeutic practice, and Senate Focus is no different. With this in mind, you can work with your partner and tailor the technique to your needs. During the first step of Sensate Focus, there is no physical touch, only self-reflection and verbal communication.
This is a great time to reflect on your needs and triggers and communicate those to your partner. Then, during aspects of Sensate Focus that integrate touch, using communication skills before establishing boundaries and expectations and during the exercise to let your partner know if you are feeling triggered will allow them to support you best.
Additionally, engaging in mindfulness exercises during Sensate Focus activities to stay in the moment can help your mind and body be present rather than retreating into a trauma response. Make a habit of processing with your partner after the exercise to discuss anything distressing that came up.
Take some time to reflect on the feelings that come up when you consider various sexual experiences. What thoughts pop into your head with each? Do you feel excited? Anxious? Nervous? Loved? Categorize each touch, sexual behavior, type of sexual act, etc., into groups (I like to make five tiers, but everyone can use whatever system makes the most sense for them), ranging from most comfortable/lowest anxiety to least comfortable/most anxiety.
Share all this with your partner and listen carefully when they share with you. This step aims to increase your self-awareness around sexual touch and communicate this with your partner.
In this step, take turns exploring one another’s bodies with the experiences/touch you have communicated as no or very low anxiety/high comfort. The goal of this step is to increase physical touch gradually, practice communication, and lower anxiety around sensory experiences. It’s best to create a distraction-free environment where you can spend at least 10 minutes per person, ideally 2-3 times per week. During this stage of sensate focus, avoid sexually stimulating areas since the goal is not sexual arousal but increasing trust, communication, and comfort.
Whether acting as the giving or receiving partner, use mindfulness skills like redirection to keep your thoughts on the sensory experiences you feel. If you begin worrying about your day, wondering what your partner is feeling, or anything else, bring your attention back to what you are experiencing in the moment. Communication before, during, and after are essential. This can be verbal communication, but it can also incorporate non-verbal communication, like gently guiding your partner’s hand to or away from certain parts of your body.
Once you and your partner both feel comfortable giving and receiving exploratory touch, you can move on to more intimate touch. Use your partner and your groups from Step 1 as a guide to slowly move from lower anxiety/higher comfort to higher anxiety/lower comfort tiers. During this step, avoid sexually sensitive areas like the genitals and any other area your partner has indicated.
During this step, the goal is not necessarily to arouse your partner, although that may happen, but to feel more comfortable engaging with each others’ bodies intimately. This can happen with or without clothes, taking turns or not, in bed or another place- each person and couple can determine what feels safe for them. Like Step 2, continue to use mindfulness and communication skills during this phase.
Once both partners are comfortable with the touch within Step 3, discuss incorporating genital touch or stimulation into your practice. This may or may not include penetration or other forms of intercourse, but it should always center on constant communication and checking in with your emotions. In many ways, this step is no different than the others, merely including more sensitive and vulnerable areas of the body.
The goal, then, is also largely the same: slowly increase vulnerable touch while remaining present with yourself and your partner by checking in verbally and emotionally. Like before, there is no rush. It may be best to revisit certain areas of touch many times or in different ways to determine what feels safe. Communicating with one another beforehand, in the moment, and afterward is essential for Sensate Focus to achieve its goals.
Sensate Focus can be a powerful exercise for encouraging closeness and intimacy, but it also can bring up strong emotions people may not be prepared to address. Talk to your individual or couple’s therapist if you want guidance through navigating and processing this practice. You deserve a pleasurable and safe sexual experience and to prioritize your sexual health. Sensate Focus can help you and your partner connect, relax, and have fun!
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