Sensate focus and its use in relationship counseling

Sensate Focus

The vicious cycle of sexual dysfunction: the more you try to get your body or mind to work during intimacy, the less successful your results. In order to combat this, sex and relationship therapists use a series of exercises called sensate focus. These exercises consist of four stages which build trust, communication, and mindfulness in intimacy. With a therapist, partners customize these exercises for their needs and intimacy style. The partners go home, try the exercises, process the experience as partners, and again with a therapist. Sensate focus exercises were originally developed in the 1960s by sex researchers Masters and Johnson. The exercises were created with cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous couples in mind, but can be modified to fit many different sexuality, intimacy, and relationship styles.


Stage one: Partners take turns touching each other, avoiding genital areas or the areas typically stimulated during your relationship’s intimacy. In this stage, focus on what feels good to touch and practice open communication with your partner, both verbally and non-verbally. Examples: Moan if it feels good to have your neck stroked, state “I like it when you touch my stomach”, ask “How touch it feel when I touch your hands like this?. The purpose of this stage is to practice being in the present during intimacy and also take the pressure off any party to become aroused or engage in intercourse. After sessions in this stage, partners can process what the experience was like, what worked for them, and what emotions were felt during the process. With a therapist, they can decide if moving onto the next stage is appropriate or if the partners need to spend more time in stage one.


Stage two: Partners again take turns touching each other and may include all body all body areas. The concepts of communication and mindful touching are the same as in stage one. It is important before this stage to have a conversation about what sexual behavior is permitted if one or more parties become aroused.  Will more involved intimacy be in the cards or will it be avoided regardless? One of the benefits of sensate focus is it can take pressure off any partner to perform. Just like the first stage, the partners and the therapist process the experience together and make needed adjustments.


Stage three: Partners touch each other at the same time. The same concepts from the previous two stages roll into stage three. This stage can be more complicated as partners are focusing on touching the others as well as how they are being touched. Again, try the best to keep yourself in the moment and continually communicate about what is working and what can be changed. This stage can spark some productive conversation between partners and the therapist.


Stage Four: Intercourse (or whatever the “main” sexual activity is between partners) is allowed to happen. Depending on the reasons for engaging in sensate focus exercises, it may be wise to ease slowly into intercourse. The specifics of this stage need to be discussed between partners and the therapist.


The goal of sensate focus is to reconnect partners. Often, especially in cisgender, heterosexual relationships, the principle of “penis in vagina” sex can become king. This mindset can perpetuate sexual dysfunction. Sensate focus allows each partner to explore their sexuality beyond their standard and develop new and more varied sexual connections. With the assistance of a therapist, sensate focus exercises can bring a new spark to relationships.

MyTherapist New York offers counseling and sex therapy to individuals and relationships.

Sex Therapy: A Look into Female Sexuality

After a plethora of failed attempts (and millions of dollars later) at making a female Viagra, one can only wonder what it is that such medication is addressing in men that it isn’t in females. Where erection-enhancing drugs assist in matching a male’s physiological response to their psychological arousal, for females, the medication would need to be the opposite.  A woman can be physically aroused, even have an orgasm, but not have an interest (desire) in sex. 

Being that frequency of sexual intercourse and arousal has little to do with sexual desire in females, let us further define what exactly is sexual arousal and desire: 

  • Sexual desire (also coined ‘sex drive’ or ‘libido’), is controlled by the brain and is the innate force that makes us think about sex and act sexually.

  • Sexual arousal (also coined being 'turned on), is referring to physical response such as vaginal lubrication, increased blow flow to the vagina and rapid heart rate.

In the past women’s sexuality was misunderstood and unexplored until the women’s liberation encouraged a curious stance and growing awareness in the ways in which women’s sexuality differed from men’s. Still, there still are many unanswered questions to the multifaceted complexities of female arousal.

It is still neurologically unclear how desire works or what triggers it (as this varies per individual). What is easier to examine is the reason behind desire's loss or absence. As described by Esther Perel in her informative book “Mating in Captivity”, the very things that boost sexual desire, such as risk, excitement, and newness, are contradictory to what we gain in committed long term relationships, such as safety, stability, and comfort. This confirms why desire is more likely to diminish in long-term relationships, however, it has been found that for women the loss is more severe.

A sense of mystery and thrill of the unknown that is often experienced at the beginning of relationships can get lost in domestic life. With this in mind, although there may not be an exact solution, consider how a little distance can go a long way in terms of promoting desire. Spending all your time with someone is great and all but does not leave much room for lust. Sex gets easily put on the back-burner because, well, ‘you’re both tired and it’s no biggie to do it tomorrow, next week, or next month’-Get the point?

Communication is sexy and will help you and your partner better meet your sexual needs. What does desire look like to you? Is there something you want from your partner or for yourself that you are shying away discussing due to fears/anxiety regarding your partner (or societies) response? Well, you don’t know what you don’t know and until you ask, you won't know! 

The infamous sex educator Betty Dodson discusses how negative consequences, such as high levels of anxiety, result in low levels of sexual desire. She writes, “When we are anxious, and concerned about our well being, sexual arousal is quiet. Anxiety turns libido off. The interesting idea here is that from the brain's perspective, individual survival is primary, and sexual survival secondary.” This is a prime example of how mental health and wellness are correlated with sexual health. 

Working with a sex therapist will provide the support and encouragement to develop the tools necessary to make changes in your life, to reframe sexual dysfunction, and to improve experienced desire. A sex therapist and relationship counselor will help you to reframe the way you look at sex and desire by disputing any irrational beliefs (“I should always feel desire when I am with my partner and if I do not then I must be in the wrong relationship or something must be wrong with me”) that are hindering you from having the sex life and sexual connections you want.

MyTherapist New York provides relationship counseling and sex therapy for individuals and couples. Are you ready for insight and change?