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Have Better Sex by NOT Having Sex: Sensate Focus

Couple in sex therapy
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.

(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?