If you have a low sex drive, a lack of focus when you are getting it on, or feel dull or bored when it’s time to do the deed, you might want to consider using a something called “sensate focus”—a technique recommended by couples and sex therapists to reconnect with your body and your partner.
What is sensate focus?
Couples and sex therapist Dr. Lee Phillips once worked with a couple that had recently had a child. The mother had lost her sex drive, which was leading to conflict with her partner. Phillips introduced the couple to sensate focus, telling them to touch each other mindfully and just notice the sensations, without any goal.
Phillips advised the couple “to focus on the temperature, pressure, and texture” as they touched each other, prompting them specifically to notice little things like this: “Are your partner’s hands cold or hot? What do you prefer? What does the pressure feel like? Is it firm or soft? What do you like? With texture, are your partner’s hands smooth or rough?” After doing this exercise and similar ones and discussing them in therapy, the couple had gone from not having sex to having sex about once a week. “Sensate focus allowed for a decrease in pressure” and helped the couple “explore parts of their bodies that brought them pleasure,” Phillips says.
The technique was first developed by sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the 1960s with the aim of helping couples struggling in the bedroom to connect intimately without the pressure to get aroused, orgasm, or have intercourse. Many studies support its efficacy, and a multitude of sex therapists prescribe sensate focus to treat varied sexual problems, from low desire to premature and delayed ejaculation, according to sex and couples therapist Marissa Nelson.
The technique involves a series of assignments that couples complete at home and then discuss with a therapist. “The goal is to tune into your body and to really understand what your needs are so that you can better communicate that with a partner,” Nelson says. The goal is also to reduce performance anxiety by shifting the focus to pleasure, she adds, as “you can’t pay attention to your pleasure and anxiety at the same time.”
Sensate focus exercises, explained
The sensate focus technique consists of a series of at-home exercises. For the first exercise, both partners are clothed and focus on non-genital touch, according to Rhiannon John, a sexologist at BedBible. Each person takes turns touching their partner for their own pleasure, without trying to arouse the partner. “This step is crucial for building trust, comfort, and reconnecting with the body,” John says. “The focus here is entirely on the sensations experienced and providing feedback to your partner about what feels pleasurable and comfortable.”
Once a couple has mastered this first exercise, they might move on to genital touch for the next one. But even then, it’s important not to aim for sexual arousal or intercourse. “The primary aim here is to familiarize yourself with your partner’s body and, importantly, to communicate your preferences and boundaries openly,” John says. “This stage encourages a deeper understanding of your partner’s body and can foster a sense of vulnerability and intimacy.”
There are five stages in total, the next ones being mutual touching (where both people touch each other simultaneously, rather than taking turns), genital-to-genital touch, and penetration. For all these stages, “the focus remains on mindful connection, open communication, and pleasure, rather than achieving a specific sexual goal or orgasm,” John says.
How to try sensate focus yourself
Nelson recommends exploring sensate focus under the guidance of a therapist, since it may bring up conflicts or difficult emotions that require processing. Relationship and sex therapist Dr. Viviana Coles agrees that couples “need to have guidance to make sure that the emotional connection is growing alongside the physical one.” However, if you want to try sensate focus by yourselves, below is a simplified version that Phillips outlined.
Before engaging in sensate focus, Phillips recommends setting the mood. “You may want to set the tone by dimming the light, lighting candles, [playing] relaxing music, making sure the room is not too cold or hot, and turning off all phones,” he says. During the exercise itself, you’ll decide who will first be the giver and who will be the receiver. The receiver will let the giver know how much skin they’re comfortable exposing and if there are any areas where they don’t want to be touched.
“The receiver proceeds to lay on a comfortable surface, and the giver begins touching the receiver’s body and exploring every nook and cranny,” Phillips says. “Remember, skin is a large sex organ; it’s everywhere. Experiment with light touches, gentle touches, more firm touches, scratches, using forearms, hair, cheeks, lips, and other body parts you choose to touch your partner with.”
The giver should focus on what feels good to them, and the receiver should focus on feeling pleasure while letting the giver know if anything is less than enjoyable. “You may moan and groan when something feels good. You may even say something feels good out loud; everyone loves positive feedback,” he says. “The only goal is to enjoy the sensations in this activity for both partners, the receiver and the giver. Use all five senses. Pay attention to your partner’s scent, how their touch feels, the sounds they make, and how their skin tastes—and if there is enough light, open your eyes now and then.” Afterward, Phillips recommends discussing how the experience was for each of you.
For her own spin on sensate focus, Coles instructs clients to take turns giving each other 15-minute massages with clothes on. “This is not a physically therapeutic massage, so keep your strokes light and soft,” she says. “Don’t forget to massage the scalp, hands, and feet.”
After people complete sensate focus exercises, Nelson often advises them to journal about what feelings came up. “I like to ask: What happened to you? What made it difficult for you? What were some of those automatic negative thoughts that were coming up? What were the thoughts that kept you from being as present as you’d like to be? It’s important to hear what these distractions are in their heads so they can start addressing them. Many times, there are long-held belief systems that come up that are important to address.”
Sensate focus is about mindful, communicative sex
The sensate focus technique is geared toward helping people become more mindful and present in the bedroom. The slow pace and goalless structure are aimed at helping people notice their sensations and quiet their minds. People can approach sex this way whether or not they’re engaged in sensate focus by keeping their attention on the touch they’re giving and receiving. “Refocus on the sensations whenever you realize you are thinking of something else,” Phillips advises.
Another skill people practice in sensate focus that anyone can apply to sex is communicating about what feels good and what doesn’t. “Too often, we’ve been socialized to believe that our partners are responsible for our pleasure—that our partners should innately know what our needs are, what our wants are, what we like and don’t like,” Nelson says. “Some people feel very uncomfortable talking about sex, uncomfortable talking about their needs, but they desire for people to know what they like.”
Regardless of what your bedroom repertoire looks like, we could all benefit from sharing our preferences with our partners. “You can touch and ask questions,” Nelson says. “What does this sensation feel like? Do you like a firmer pressure? Do you like a softer touch? Where do you like to be touched? What about your neck?” While this may sound daunting, it can open up a world of possibilities for connecting with a partner and building a mutually rewarding sex life.
Image Credit: Zain bin Awais/In-House Art
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