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.
(Sensate focus is also a key exercise in my DIY sex coaching microcourse. Read about Lipservice here.)
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
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:
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