• Valerie McDonnell

Have Better Sex by NOT Having Sex: Sensate Focus


Photo by: Anthony J. Davis @atl_gemini on Instagram

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt at odds with your partner, with your sexual satisfaction, or with your physical experience of sex…


Keep your hand up if you’ve tried various sexy-time methods to get over the hump (as it were) including dress-up, scheduled intimacy,


Now keep your hand up if you’ve ever tried rediscovering intimacy by NOT having sex…


Sensate focus is a method for returning to the pure electric sensory experience of loving touch—without the pressure of performance, penetration, orgasm, or any other goal.



What is sensate focus?


Before the 1960s, sex was an almost entirely taboo subject in American conversation, education, and consciousness.


After the Kinsey Reports broke the ice on sexology in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Dr. William Masters and his partner Virginia Johnson took sexuality research to the next level, applying a more strict scientific approach—both to unite the psychology and physiology of sex, and to pave the road for institutional recognition and legitimacy of the subject.


Masters and Johnson are the godparents of sex therapy. Among their contributions to the science of sex was the idea of distinguishing sensuality from sexuality. According to their research, sexual touch and sensual touch are completely distinct endeavors, even if they’ve been blurred in our culture.


They urged non-sexual sensate touching as a way for partners to rediscover intimacy by removing the pressure of performance and end-goal.



Sexuality without sensuality: an American disorder


One has only to look at the countless reams of porn featuring plastique actors, fabricated situations, and artificial experiences, to understand a major part of the problem. Fake boobs, fake screams, fake pleasure—mean fake expectations.


The pressure to look and sound like a porn star can wilt anyone’s resolve when real humans get naked together with all their insecurities and imperfections laid bare.


The quivering, shrieking orgasm—the powerful unflagging thrust—the impossible angles caught on film—these dramatic interpretations of sex as marketing content can cause people to feel even more performance anxiety than they naturally would, getting intimate with another human.


Add that to our chaotic schedules, stressful lives, and the mental-health obstacle-course that constitutes modern life—and sometimes it’s easier to just forgo intimacy.


Even the solutions designed to improve a couple’s sex life—setting up romantic conditions, practicing erotic techniques and positions, incorporating toys, taking a trip—don’t usually address the underlying issue.


The problem is, we’re conditioned to goal-oriented sexuality. From our puritanical roots to the latter-day political suppression of sexual diversity, sex is something that happens hurriedly, in the metaphorical dark—for the purpose of sexual release or mating.


For many Americans, sex is a problem & solution situation, instead of sensory exploration for its own sake. Touch itself is valuable, Masters & Johnson insisted, not just a means to an end.



Benefits of sensate focus


Sex therapists often suggest sensate focus as a way for out-of-touch partners to reconnect on a physical level without the pressure of sex and performance. It’s just touching, pure and simple. In fact, having sex is breaking the rules of sensate focus.


It seems contradictory, but the psychology of prohibition is powerful. But even if the overall hope is to improve your sex life—sensate focus itself has tremendous mental health benefits for anyone who uses it correctly.



Reconnect & rediscover physical intimacy


By their own estimation, Sara and Michael (names changed to protect the innocent) haven’t had sex in 7 years. They love each other deeply but at some point it just became easier to not have sex, after various events put them through swirling cycles of pressure and rejection. It was affecting their lives and work, so they eventually dropped it entirely.


Over time, not having sex led to not touching at all. The thought of lying naked touching each other—even knowing that the rules prohibited intercourse or even touching each other’s genitals—was laughable and daunting to both of them. But they also knew they’d become estranged in other ways, and had to fix it.


We started extra slow: for the first week they’d each spend 10 minutes touching just the other’s hands (and arms if they were comfortable). For both of them, it was powerfully sensual; more physically intimate than they’d felt in a long time.


I didn’t know she was so strong.
I didn’t know his hair was so soft.

Over time their sensate focus grew to include other parts of the body, decreasing the clothing—and by the time they got to the genital-touching evolution, they broke the rules and had sex for the first time in 7 years.



Return to intimacy after infidelity, revelations, or other trauma


Traumatic experiences can easily disrupt partners' intimacy and physicality. Sensate focus can help partners ease back into physical connection after major disruptions in their lives and relationship. It works by narrowing the scope to just touching.



Balance desire discrepancy


Desire discrepancy is one of the most common causes of sexual frustration in relationships. Everyone handles stress differently, and everyone’s sexual desire is affected by different factors.


It doesn’t mean one person loves the other more or less—but it can feel that way:


You don’t love me enough to have sex that often?
You don’t love me enough to know when to stop?

Nothing ruins sex like feeling pressured into it. Sometimes it even amounts to trauma. But rejection by a loved one is also a minor trauma that can build up over time and disrupt an otherwise positive relationship.


Sensate focus removes the pressure while still encouraging intimate physical connection. And in the long run, that can help couples bridge desire discrepancy.



Treat psychological erectile dysfunction


In otherwise healthy young men, erectile dysfunction is often caused by psychological stressors like performance anxiety. There’s this hurry up and make it happen expectation in our era of 3-minute YouTube videos and jackhammer climax scenes that has damaged our relationship with sex and intimacy.


But for sex to work—whether cis-straight-monogomous or gendermorphic-pan-poly—the stresses of everyday life must be stripped away before the mind can allow itself to fly free. Sensate focus provides the runway.


Sometimes it’s just about making the time and slowing down just enough to get there.



How to practice sensate focus


It’s simple: take turns touching.


What makes sensate focus work is that there’s no goal beyond touch itself, sensation itself. Therefore there’s no performance anxiety—because it’s not a performance. There’s no curtain, no script, no applause. There’s no destination or arrival or climax.


Just sensation. Just in-the-moment tactile experience.


The secret to sensate focus is refraining from evaluative thinking—analysis, judgement, quality appraisal, comparison—that happens while you’re experiencing something (afterward is okay).


One of the ways to avoid that is to clear your mind of preconceptions beforehand. Remind yourself that in sensate focus there’s no goal, expectation, mission, achievement—just observing sensation as it happens. You aren’t hoping for pleasure or satisfaction—just to be touched and to feel what you feel.


Set aside a dedicated block of time—long enough to relax into it, but not so long that anyone gets bored or schedule-anxious. Masters and Johnson recommend at least 15 minutes per partner, several times per week.



The 5 steps of Masters & Johnson’s sensate focus


Sensate focus works as a cycle. You don’t “graduate” but rather explore and discover each other. Partners don’t have to abstain from sex—but sensate focus sessions should be fully separate from sexual activities.


Shower, relax, respect the time. Remove watches, jewelry, and accessories. It may feel strange at first to just lie there receiving touch—but with practice you’ll get in the non-evaluative zone quicker and quicker.



Step 1: Genitals are off-limits


Ideally both partners are naked—though some people find that wearing underwear for Step 1 helps them not stray toward the genitals and into sexual autopilot.


Decide who will be “receiver” and who will be “toucher” first. The receiver lies down comfortably and focuses entirely on being touched. The toucher sits or kneels next to them, focusing entirely on touching and exploring their body.


No mutual touching—not yet.


Instead, the receiver observes and notices the sensation of being touched—without evaluating, judging, or analyzing what’s happening. They resist the urge to direct or request—but if anything is uncomfortable for any reason (e.g.: painful, ticklish, triggering, etc) they should say so calmly and directly, so the toucher can avoid it.


Set a gentle timer (or just estimate) and begin touching.


Toucher pays attention to:

  • Texture in different places

  • Lightness or firmness of touch

  • Tempo and rhythm variations

  • Temperature and moisture

  • Physical response (goosebumps, pulse, skin flush, etc)

  • Fingertips vs whole hand vs both hands


Then...switch roles.


Again, avoid evaluative thinking. Avoid comparison. Avoid considering “what they’d like.” Avoid making noises—even in pleasure. The toucher touches; and the receiver receives.


Repeat Step 1 for as many days as both partners want, without pressure to “move on.” Be open to discovery—in either role.



Step 2: Incorporate genital/breast touching


In step 2 of sensate focus the genitals and breasts are now fair game. Though the toucher should always signal their approach to sensitive areas.


And remember: the point isn’t to turn your partner on or provide pleasure. You’re still just touching and exploring and noticing the sensations. Avoid falling into sexual behavior patterns and don’t linger on the genitals—or it will turn into pressure.


Touching is still not mutual. There’s no responding—just experiencing. Even if genitals respond sexually—this is sensate focus. Sexual congress is for a different time.


In this phase, kissing and intercourse are still off-limits.


Once in the zone, you can reposition the receiver:

  • Face down

  • Face up

  • Receiver sitting up with legs relaxed apart

  • Toucher sitting up against pillows, with the receiver reclining back-to-chest between their legs


At this point you can also introduce hand-riding, where the receiver’s hand sits atop the toucher’s to provide nonverbal feedback—still not directing or controlling; not offering judgement, evaluation, or criticism—but just to say, “Let’s try this.”


Hand-riding sensate focus cues:

  • Firmer or lighter

  • Where to linger

  • Faster or slower

  • Transitioning to other parts

  • How to approach genital touching


The toucher can accept the input as they choose, but it shouldn’t get in the way of their own exploratory needs.



Step 3: Introduce body oil or lotion


Introducing lotion or oil adds a whole new texture and sensory experience. As the slickness warms and spreads and absorbs—notice how the skin feels, how the little hairs move, how your fingers glide differently.


Experiment with lubrication:

  • Add it partway through or near the end

  • Use it in some places and not others

  • On one hand and not the other

  • Try different amounts


It’s not a massage—the toucher is still just exploring their partner’s body. The receiver is still just experiencing the sensations. But lubrication introduces another dimension of sensation, another unique opportunity to experience each other through touch—still without kissing or intercourse.



Step 4: Mutual touching


This is the end of turn-taking. The touching experience becomes more organic. After some practice, you’ll be able to live through your fingertips as well as through the sensations you’re receiving. The connection between the two can become electrical and dynamic as you explore each other exploring each other.


You still aren’t kissing or having intercourse—but you can bring your lips and tongue into the touching play. Not the purposeful plunge of oral intercourse; still no reciprocation or expectation or goal—but notice how oral stimulation feels on different parts, at different pressures and speeds.


If you start getting too aroused or sexual, focus on other areas that don’t excite you in that way. Or lie back and just be the receiver for a bit. This isn’t an erotic touch exercise. It’s giving and receiving nonsexual tactile sensation.



Step 5: Sensual (not sexual) intercourse


As usual, begin the session with sensual non-genital touching until you relax into the flow and the moment. Though intercourse is now permitted, the goal isn’t to climax or “get there” or “make it happen” for your partner. Instead, as before, the idea is to explore sensations that are interesting and/or pleasurable.


As your comfort and relaxation increase; as you feel yourself focusing through fingertips and tactile sensation, incorporating genital touching and sensate exploration, hand-riding to suggest (not direct) this and that—you can move yourselves into a position to allow for intercourse.


But don’t penetrate anything with anything yet!


This is still sensate touching—though now your genitals can provide the touch, as well as fingertips, lips, and tongue. Still non-demand touching; still focusing on sensation rather than outcome.


When/if intercourse is what’s wanted, start slowly and concentrate on the sensations, the textures, the warmth of blood beneath the surface.


Sensual intercourse sensations to explore:

  • Hold perfectly still for a while

  • Withdraw completely for several seconds

  • Contract different muscles

  • Move at different speeds

  • Explore different depths and angles


Even during sensual intercourse, the goal isn’t to finish or orgasm—it’s to experience each other’s touch and sensation.


Afterward, some partners find it helpful to talk about the experience. What they noticed or discovered. Where they had difficulty.



Why sensate focus works


As with any human interaction, sensate focus works best when powered by empathy and openness. It’s a way of physically communicating connectedness without the stakes of sex and can help romantic partners at any relationship stage break out of behavior patterns and sexual habits to rediscover intimacy and excitement.


Even when it does lead to sexual intercourse, sensate focus is a physical application of mindfulness. By removing the pressure of outcome, sensual focus can breathe new life into seemingly non-responsive organs and libidos.


Try it yourself! Set aside 20-30 minutes today and take turns touching. Remember: if you wind up having sex, you’ve broken the rules—which means you have to try again the next day.




Wordwork by Quillpower

Sex Therapy at Home

Better communication for better intimacy

Exercises for mastering anxiety & facing fear

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Richmond, VA 23294

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© 2020 by Valerie McDonnell

Wordwork by Quillpower