What is ‘sensate focus’?
Don’t be afraid of the fancy name; this is a simple and classic sex therapy tool, taking your sex life ‘back to basics’ so that you and your partner can refocus on the foundational building blocks of sex. We’ve built one of our key courses around it so that you can access the benefits of this method.
To put it simply, sensate focus is a practice of taking it in turns to touch your partner, using only your fingers and your hands. It offers suggestions for how, when and where to touch your partner, and be touched, with some specific aims in mind.
What about sex, orgasm, trying to give and receive pleasure? That stuff is all off-limits. To begin with, you won’t even be touching each other’s genitals. That only comes in when everyone is ready for it. After months or maybe even years of feeling stressed about your sex life, for some people, that can be a relief to hear!
Why is sensate focus helpful?
A lot of known and unknown things might have brought you to the point of wanting help with your sex life. Even if you’re baffled as to exactly what went wrong, at some point some complicated feelings that are often referred to as ‘performance anxiety’ will likely have come into the picture. You might experience this as thoughts like:
Why don’t I feel the same way about sex with my partner as I did at the beginning?
Why don’t I get excited about sex anymore?
What does it mean if I’m not getting hard or turned on? What does it mean if something has changed?
Why can’t I orgasm when I want to?
...what’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with us?
These psychological factors (the thoughts and feelings that you have about the problem) can actually maintain the problem, by creating pressure, more anxiety and less connection with what was even GOOD about sex to begin with. Reducing these anxieties is what sensate focus is all about. So how does it work?
Focus focus focus
Sensate focus, as the name might suggest, is all about REfocusing on the most basic aspects of touch and sensation. This creates a pathway for sexual functioning to happen ‘naturally’. By naturally, we don’t mean raw foods and herbal remedies; we mean ‘what your body does automatically, outside of your control’. Pleasure, arousal and relaxation are emotional responses that are not within our control. They emerge in response to activities and environments that work for us as individuals. How does sensate focus create conditions in which these can emerge?
In sensate focus, you’re touching ‘for yourself’ (aka, not worrying about your partner’s experience, unless they let you know they want something to change). Whilst this may sound ‘selfish’, it’s not about ignoring their experience. Sensate focus reminds you that your experience of what’s happening is important and recentres this for you.
While you’re touching, or being touched, you’ll be invited to NOT focus on trying to feel pleasure or arousal, or to create these for your partner. Forcing these feelings and putting pressure on yourself in any way is a recipe for further anxiety. Instead, your focus will be on three simple things - the pressure of touch (hard/soft), the temperature (warm/cold) and the texture (rough/smooth). Getting curious about touch as a fundamental bodily experience, with no emotional meaning attached, is at the core of SF.
And while you’re focusing on these very basic sensations? You’ll be learning to NOT focus on thoughts and feelings of anxiety. If you’re focusing properly, you can’t focus on more than one thing at once.
This might seem intuitive when explained, but it can feel pretty weird in practice. A lot of the messages we get about sex are telling us to show our partner a good time and to try to get turned on and feel good through orgasm or arousal. A very ‘neutral’ approach can feel quite unnatural in comparison.
So if we’re forgetting about orgasms - what are we trying to do?
There are two key skills that SF will teach you, that are vital for a good sex life:
Focusing on the present. You may know this as ‘mindfulness’ - ignoring your worries about what’s happened before and anxieties about what’s coming next, and just noticing what you’re experiencing here and now. And to continue with the theme of neutrality, you’re not noticing the present in order to evaluate it (or yourself). There is no right or wrong here; just temperature, pressure and texture, returning to these again and again.
Radical self-responsibility. You can’t control your partner’s pleasure. This might seem like a surprising thing to hear from a tool that’s about improving your sex life, but it’s crucial to learn. You can only control yourself: your actions, thoughts and feelings. If something is happening that doesn’t work for you, it’s up to you to take steps to fix it, as far as you are able. Working through SF with your partner will not only help address performance anxiety and reconnect with your body’s in-built sexual functions, but also illuminate why the problem has emerged in the first place. Our programme will prompt you and your partner to reflect together on your experiences of touch, focus and your body’s responses. Any challenges you notice along the way will be more information for you to understand and eventually solve your problem together. Along the way, you’ll practice communicating about sex. This can be hard, but we’ll walk you through it and support you as you go.
You might be wondering with all this focus on TPT instead of pleasure, where pleasure will come in? Right now, we’re going to be focusing on getting you back to ‘ok’, without anxiety. Working towards pleasure enhancement is going to be tackled in a different programme.