The Ultimate Guide to Sensate Focus Therapy

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein, written by Sophie Browness
– published on August 19, 2021

Did you know that, after just two weeks of sensate focus therapy with Blueheart people felt:

  • 105% more satisfied with the amount of physical intimacy between partners
  • 72% more physically connected
  • 70% more satisfied with the amount of touch between partners

But what is sensate focus, and how does it help you regain your libido?

Illustration by Marta Pucci

Your libido can change for many reasons, including a difference in sexual peaks, factors such as lifestyle, hormones, stress, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, or concerns about body image or sexual performance.
If you’ve found that you and your partner are having issues regarding sexual intimacy, you may feel stressed and a little worried about what to do. Fortunately, sensate focus therapy can help you. With this type of therapy, you and your partner can start figuring out what works for both of you, what you enjoy and find stimulating.
So how does it work, and how can you use it? In this guide, we’ll answer all these questions and more. Finally, you and your partner can feel like you’re on the same page again. Read on to learn more.

What Is Sensate Focus therapy?

Sensate focus therapy is a sex therapy technique that utilizes touching exercises so sexual partners can reduce any negativity or anxiety that they associate with sexual intimacy. Additionally, this type of therapy improves communication between sexual partners.
It’s a series of mindful touch exercises designed to reduce sexual anxiety and provide opportunities for you to explore your own and your partner’s body. By focusing only on the sensations you feel, you learn to get out of your head and into the moment, which gives your body space to respond naturally.
Usually, a sex therapist will work with the couple or an individual over time so that the couple can complete exercises over the course of a few months. They are given the exercises to do at home sometimes alone, sometimes together. 
Sensate focus therapy was created in 1970 by Dr. Virginia Johnson and Dr. William Masters, sexuality research pioneers.
The idea behind the therapy they created is to eliminate the performance expectations that cause anxiety, a factor that can impact intimacy in the bedroom negatively. By taking the ideas of expectation or goals such as chasing an orgasm, the body and mind learn to relax to make way for pleasure to flow uninterrupted. 
Sensate focus is a combination of exposure therapy (teaching you to associate good, relaxing experiences with touch, sex and your partner) and mindfulness (focusing the mind away from distracting thoughts) and sensate touch (mindfully touching the body thinking only about the texture, temperature and pressure you feel).

Illustration by Marta Pucci

A combination of exposure therapy and mindfulness

Mindfulness has become more popular in recent years as awareness of its benefits have grown. It can take many forms but all it really means is being aware of the present moment, by noticing your thoughts, feelings and sensations available to you in that moment.
One of the foundational elements of sensate focus is a combination of exposure therapy and mindfulness. According to the American Psychological Association, exposure therapy is a type of therapy in which people learn to confront their fears or anxieties.
When it comes to sex therapy options, sensate focus therapy is effective because it uses this approach to sex. You may not describe your situation as feeling ‘afraid of sex’ but usually if you are avoiding something it is deep down due to fear. The strategy used is what’s called “in vivo exposure,” which is when the fear-inducing experience is experienced directly.
But don’t worry, the exposure is done slowly in every sensate focus exercise, so sexual partners can become more comfortable with themselves and around each other. For instance, you may be asked to start with as little as touching your own arm, there’s no jumping in at the deep end here.
Additionally, partners are asked to practice mindfulness while they do sensate focus training. Instead of focusing on achieving orgasm, each partner is supposed to focus on their own sense experiences. The idea is to focus on themselves, attending only to their sensations, and understanding with mindfulness what’s going on in themselves before they move on to pleasing their partner sexually. This is also used to reduce anxiety around sexual experiences.
As they move through different exercises, they’ll each become more comfortable with sex as they move into more intimate exercises. This approach can be incredibly effective.
According to a study published on Mindfulness, mindfulness could have beneficial effects in improving the sexual experiences of patients that had been experiencing a diversity of sexual difficulties.

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Sensate touch

Another important element of sensate focus therapy is sensate touch. To apply the exposure therapy and mindfulness discussed above, each partner needs to undergo the activity of touching, focusing on the experience of texture, temperature and pressure. This way, they’ll understand their relationship to it.
According to Cornell Health, sensate touch is not as much about sexual touching as it is about sensual touching. In other words, the focus is on getting back in touch with your sensual feelings, which will eventually lead to a reconnection with sexual feelings. Later on in this article, we’ll review the different sensate focus therapy steps, which are all related to different levels of sensate touch.

Does Sensate Focus work?

In a 2015 study of the effectiveness of Sensate Focus as a treatment for a variety of sexual difficulties, therapists found it to be 83% effective. (1) And not only that, but other recent studies have shown that online therapy interventions are equally as effective as real-life therapy, except you don’t have to talk about your deepest secrets with a stranger! (2)

Sensate focus therapy has been popular for a long time, and this is with good reason. According to a literature review released by Current Sexual Health Reports in 2019, sensate focus is effective as a sex therapy technique. Additionally, the review showed that:

  • Many medical journals have covered sensate focus therapy
  • Sensate focus therapy has worked for a great diversity of clientele

In other words, sensate focus therapy benefits are real, and whatever your sexual or health background, chances are that you could benefit, too. 

Another reason why sensate focus works so well is that it’s a slow process. As a result, participants feel more comfortable over time as they complete the exercises, not being rushed into activities they're not ready for yet.

Of course, when it comes to improving your sex life, you have to do what works for you. Not every type of therapy is effective for everyone, but considering how well sensate focus therapy can work, it might be worth a try. Interested in what else is covered in sex therapy usually? Check out our complete guide on Sex Therapy.

Who provides Sensate Focus therapy?

Sensate focus therapy is provided by sex therapists. To find a sex therapist, the best first step is to look at a list of sex therapists who are covered under your insurance plan. You should search for behavioral health practitioners with a specialization in sex therapy.
Otherwise, you can look at lists of therapists, such as those on Psychology Today or the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists websites. Then, you can see if these therapists are covered by your insurance plan.
You might find after going to a sex therapist that you need additional sex therapy or another type of therapy if other issues are found that need addressing to bring you back to your best health.

If you prefer a solution that gives you the same treatment you’d get from a sex therapist, but that you can use at home, take a look at Blueheart. 

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Sensate Focus therapy steps

There are a few steps involved in sensate focus therapy. The first of these is non-genital touching. When you engage in these exercises, you’re only doing minimal touching. It’s best to wear little to no clothing, so you can fully experience the touch.

In this step, one partner is the toucher or giver, while the other partner is the receiver. The giver does all the touching, and the receiver mindfully notices only the sensations that they feel. They don’t return the touch; instead, they focus completely on themselves. If the receiver feels uncomfortable at any moment, they can stop or pause the practice.

The next step, this is when you are ready, is to introduce areas such as the breasts or genitals. Intercourse and kissing are not included in this step. Everything else is the same as in the last step.

The idea is to keep things slow and to focus on internal reactions as before. Hand-holding can make the connection more felt between partners, but other than this, there shouldn’t be reciprocation.

Next, mutual touching is introduced, with intercourse still left off the table to ensure no expectation or pressure and to reduce anxiety. The idea is that both partners are still in touch with themselves about how they feel during the experience sensually, not sexually.

After this, is when both partners introduce what is more known as sexual intercourse. This should occur slowly so that both partners are fully in touch with the sensory experience.

Each step can be weeks or months long, depending on how comfortable each partner feels to move on to the next step. Rushing through is discouraged and can even make things worse. Slow and steady wins the race. 

Illustration by Marta Pucci

Sensate Focus exercises

Now that we’ve reviewed the different steps that make up sensate focus therapy, we’ll review some sensate focus exercises. These include exercises designed for individuals and couples. Let’s review these now. You can start alone and introduce your partner later, or be in it together from the start.

Sensate Focus exercises for individuals

Some people prefer to start off alone before introducing their partner into the sensate focus program. It is beneficial to involve your partner (if you have one) in the process early on as they can help you through the course. However, if you are more anxious or feel you need to work on yourself first, there are plenty of exercises for individuals to work on so you can get back in touch with your body.

Sensate Focus exercises for couples

Sensate focus exercises for couples usually involve the steps that we covered earlier. This said, there are a variety of exercises to which these principles are applied. 
A nice exercise you might start with is to sit together for five or ten minutes, and try out the touch exercise with only touching each other’s hands and arms. It might feel silly, or ticklish but that’s ok, it’s a skill you learn with practice. You’ll experiment with texture, pressure and temperature to get a variety of sensations to train your body to notice them, and find what you enjoy and don’t.
Here’s one example of an exercise that will come much later in your plan, that covers genital touching.
This exercise is all about texture awareness. The giver, when they are touching their partner, should notice what the texture of their partner’s skin is like in different areas of their body.How does texture vary, when touching the neck, calves, hands, or cheeks? By doing this, the giver is focusing on the sensual, not the sexual. Not thinking about whether they are doing a good job, just noticing what they feel on their fingertips.
On the other hand, the receiver should note how the feel of touch varies as their partner explores their body parts.
Another couple's exercise involves mutual touching. At this point, the couple will have practiced the other steps and are very much in tune with their sensory reactions to the touch of their partner.
To try out this exercise in a creative way, you can use other body parts than your hands. You won’t be using it to sexually please your partner; instead, both of you will be touching non-sexual parts of each other’s body.
Another exercise couples can try out is to change the environment of sensual activity.
For example, instead of doing the exercise in the bedroom, they can move to the shower or on a couch in the living room. This will allow them to change perspective, understanding their sensual feelings in a new way.

Sensate Focus techniques

There are several different sensate focus skills you can learn. These include while doing these exercises, implementing awareness about texture, temperature, and pressure. Let’s start with texture, which we touched on briefly earlier.
When you focus on texture, the giver will be thinking about whether the area you’re touching feels smooth or rough, as well as how your hand feels on the body.
The receiver, on the other hand, will focus on the resistance of their partner’s touch against their body.
The second skill to learn is noticing temperature. When the toucher is touching their partner, they’ll note whether the areas they’re touching are warm or cold, and any changes that friction, breath or a breeze might create. The receiver will also note the temperature of their partner’s hands (or other touching parts).
Finally, there’s pressure. When building this skill, the toucher will notice whether they are pressing in a soft or hard way. The receiver will note how much pressure is applied when they are being touched.
By implementing these skills, the sensate focus therapy experience becomes about sensations and mindfulness instead of sexual arousal, expectation or anxiety. Leaving room for pleasure to flow. Even though sexual arousal can eventually be addressed, the idea is to focus on these building blocks first.

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Sex therapy with Sensate Focus

Sensate Focus is a technique used in sex therapy. While you can complete these sensate focus exercises at home without the help of a sex therapist, combining other forms of sex therapy with sensate exercises can be helpful. This is for several reasons. First of all, when you meet with a sex therapist, you can explore issues together.
This is where the exposure therapy element of sensate focus therapy comes in. For example, if one of the partners has issues with sexual intimacy because they’re afraid of being impotent, you can explore this fear in the talk portion of therapy.
If, on the other hand, one of the partners has body image issues, this can also be discussed. By putting these issues out in the open, the sexual partners will already feel more intimate on a psychological level. This can help them understand each other’s fears around sex and bring them closer as a result.
Working with a sex therapist can also help you work to come up with a plan for the sensate focus exercises. They can schedule them in a way that works best to address whatever issues you and your partner are dealing with.
Additionally, a sex therapist can check in with you throughout the process. If either partner is uncomfortable after any of the exercises, the therapist can explore why, and will often advise you to go back to a session where you were comfortable and start from there.
In many cases, sensate focus is the last step of sex therapy, if you have any bigger issues you will address those first before starting on sensate focus. However, it is fine to go straight to sensate focus as long as you haven’t previously experienced trauma that needs addressing beforehand.

Illustration by Marta Pucci

How to get out of your head during sex

An issue that many people deal with when they struggle with sexual intimacy is that they can’t seem to get out of their heads. This is especially the case if they have any anxiety around sex, whether that’s fear of not being able to please their partner or some other reason. It’s really common to think about very mundane things such as to do lists, work, or groceries while you are trying to concentrate on having sex. This, of course, can get in the way of arousal and desire, and therefore pleasure. One of the best ways to get out of your head during sex is to practice mindfulness. When you’re mindful of what’s going on in your body physically, you let go of the thoughts that are weighing you down.
This is why the mindfulness aspect of sensate focus therapy is so effective. By focusing on the sensations you feel when you are touching or being touched by your partner, you’re living completely in that present moment.
It’s also a good idea to face the thoughts that distract you during sex. Notice them, and let them go. The most common intrusive thoughts people experience while having sex are performance anxiety, things they need to do before the day or week is up, and insecurities about their body.
By going to a sex therapist, you can address these issues, finding out what their root causes are, and finding ways to treat them.
Practicing mindfulness, even outside of the bedroom, is also helpful to understand these issues. By taking in your thoughts and feelings even for just 10 minutes a day, you’ll become more practiced in mindfulness.
This will help you address many of your worries and anxieties that distract you during sex.

How to stop spectatoring

When you’re spectatoring during sex, you aren’t able to enjoy the intercourse you’re having because you feel overly conscious. You might feel this way about yourself, how your partner sees your body when you’re having sex, or about your partner.
Usually, your head is full of distracting thoughts or internal dialogue that’s critical. You aren’t able to be “in the moment”; instead, you’re incessantly judging yourself or analyzing the sexual situation. By engaging in this behavior, you might end up experiencing sexual dysfunction or anxiety. People who have spectator sex have a larger number of fake orgasms, fewer real ones, and have less satisfaction in the bedroom.
Fortunately, there is a solution to spectatoring during sex. You have to practice mindfulness. To do this effectively, you can’t focus on goals, such as reaching a climax or looking sexy. Instead, you have to use a sensation-oriented process.
Start by getting in touch with your body on your own. Explore every area of your body as if it’s the first time, noticing what your body feels like, how it moves when you breathe.
While doing this, pay close attention to both your physical and emotional feelings. If you climax, continue to pay attention to how you feel.
Over time, you can start to apply this to when you’re having sex with your partner. However, keep in mind that you won’t solve the spectatoring issue overnight. You have to practice. The form of mindfulness that was created especially for this issue is called sensate focus.

Illustration by Marta Pucci

Better sex through mindfulness

In the foreword of her book, Lori Brotto goes in-depth on scientific evidence of how mindfulness can lead to better sex.
Sensate focus takes the science of mindfulness to help you feel connected to the moment, to yourself and to your partner. There are times where we are checked out; there are other times we are plugged in. Mindfulness is one technique to get both people coordinated or to make a coordinated effort to be plugged in sexually. This means you both can fully experience sensual touch with reduced anxiety, making way for pleasure.
Mindfulness is about being present, centered, and in the moment. It is not meditation, these two are different things and often confused. Mindfulness and it’s effect on sex has been scientifcally studied.

Mindful sex

Blueheart incorporates mindfulness into sex therapy by using Sensate Focus as its core treatment. It is currently the only online sex therapy app that provides Sensate Focus, backed by science, world-leading experts such as Dr. Katherine Hertlein, and our own in-house sex therapists and researchers.
If you’re looking for a sensate focus therapy solution, Blueheart can help. To learn more about the app, find out more now.

References: (1) Peter Trigwell, Rachael Waddington, Andrew Yates & Sandra Coburn (2016) The Leeds Psychosexual Medicine Service: an NHS service for sexual dysfunction – review period 2, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 31:1, 32-41, DOI: 10.1080/14681994.2015.1078459
(2) Andersson, G., Cuijpers, P., Carlbring, P., Riper, H., & Hedman, E. (2014). Guided Internet-based vs. face-to-face cognitive behavior therapy for psychiatric and somatic disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. World psychiatry: official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (W288–295. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20151

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