Sensate Focus is a treatment technique utilized in sex therapy that uses a series of structured touching exercises to help reduce sexual anxiety and negativity associated to sexual intimacy, as well as improving communication between the couple. A sex therapist guides an individual or couple through assigned exercises over the course of six or more weeks, depending on the couple’s comfort level to remedy their difficulties.
What Is Sensate Focus?
Sensate Focus was developed by pioneers in sexuality research, Dr. William Masters and Dr. Virginia Johnson, in 1970. This technique promotes the elimination of performance expectations that can lead to sexual anxiety, which negatively impact sexual intimacy. Further, each person is encouraged to maintain their focus on sensory experience while using non-verbal communication to express their comfort and desired touch.
Sensate Focus helps to achieve the three elements needed for a positive sexual experience: willingness, relaxation, and sensuality.1 By refocusing the attention away from the expectations that lead to feelings of anxiety, individuals can focus on enjoying the sensations they are experiencing in their bodies. When engaging in mindful touching, the receiver of the touch is encouraged to focus on the three sensations: temperature, pressure, and texture.2 These three sensations will be reflected throughout the stages of Sensate Focus.
How Does Sensate Focus Therapy Work?
Sensate focus therapy is an approach to sex therapy that enables partners to touch one another to eliminate stress and anxiety around sexual intimacy. A sex therapist will help to facilitate these exercises by assigning them as homework for partners to try together when they are intimate. Over time, the goal is that sensate focus therapy will help to reduce any performance anxiety and sexual expectations so partners can enjoy the experience they have together and focus on the present moment.
What Can Sensate Focus Help With?
Sensate Focus has been successful in treating various difficulties that negatively impact sexual intimacy. This includes anxiety associated with body image, arousal, performance issues like premature ejaculation, orgasmic difficulties, as well as chronic illnesses. Although this technique was originally developed for use with heterosexual couples, sex therapists have modified Sensate Focus to accommodate the needs of diverse populations, including LGBTQ+ individuals, and those with disabilities.
This article is not a step by step guide, and these techniques should be used under the guidance of a trained professional. A therapist will be able to closely monitor reactions to the exercises and determine the appropriate course of treatment. Further, this technique should not be used or progressed through without the consent of all people involved, as safety and trust are at the core of building and maintaining a healthy relationship.
Sensate Focus Stages
Sensate Focus should begin with designating roughly 30 minutes to an hour of uninterrupted time, two to three times a week, to practice these steps. The room should be a comfortable temperature, with no distractions, such as electronics, pets, or stimulating sounds or music.
It is also recommended that alcohol or recreational drug use is avoided, as it will impact your ability to experience the sensations naturally. Finally, individuals are required to abstain from penetration, intercourse, or orgasm while they progress through the directed stages. This helps to alleviate the pressure and anxiety around performing so that each person can focus on experiencing the three sensations (temperature, pressure, and texture).
Stage I: Sensual Touch (Other Than Genitals)
Each partner takes turns exploring the other’s body (individuals would engage in self-exploration) while avoiding sexually stimulating areas, such as the genitals and breasts. Touch, using hands and fingers only, should focus on experimenting with sensations such as temperature, pressure, and texture. The use of oils and lotions can be used at this stage to further enhance the sensations. The receiving partner is encouraged to provide non-verbal feedback, such as placing their hand over their partner’s as a guide to location and pressure.
This exercise helps to decrease anxiety associated with intimacy by giving the receiver of the touch something reliable to focus on (sensations) as well as an activity they can directly control (where and how they are being touched), as opposed to something unreliable (emotions) with a response they cannot control (sexual arousal).3
Stage II: Sensual Touch (Including Genitals)
Continue to explore the pleasurable areas identified in stage I. At this stage, you may include the exploration of the genitals and breast, but continue to avoid intercourse or penetration. Although arousal and orgasm may occur at this stage, as it is a natural response, it is not the goal. The focus is to continue to increase personal pleasure associated with being touched and awareness of response to stimulation. Further, this stage helps to maintain the feeling of safety and trust while being touched without pressure to perform.
Stage III & Beyond: Building on the Exploration
At these stages, individuals progress to include varying stages of penetration, leading up to intercourse. It is important to continue to build on the exploration of previous stages to maintain feelings of comfort and safety. In couples, be sure to maintain communication regarding comfort and pleasure associated with the three sensations.
Sensate Focus Exercises
There are a variety of sensate focus exercises people can try, whether they are in a relationship or single, that can help to heighten their sexual satisfaction.
Sensate Focus Exercises for Individuals
- Taking time to figure out your body and where you enjoy being touched the most
- The experience of utilizing sex toys and the sensations they give you
- Playing with specific parts of your body to elicit a specific feeling or sensation
Sensate Focus Exercises for Couples
- Touching each other in non-sexual ways for a set period of time
- Taking turns touching each other in sexual ways
- Changing the location of any sexual activity
Who Is Able to Teach Sensate Focus?
Sensate Focus can be taught by individual or couple’s therapist who provides sex therapy. There is no additional license or certificate required, however it does require the therapist to have a level of comfort around implementing and discussing the process.
How to Find a Sex Therapist
The process of finding a sex therapist is similar to finding an individual or couples’ therapist. One option would be to contact your insurance company directly for a list of providers and look for one who specializes in sex therapy or sexual health related topics. Another option would be to search an online therapy directory for a sex therapist. This option would give direct access to each therapist’s profile, which would likely also list the insurance plans they accept.
Another option would be to search AASECT.org (American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists) for a list of certified sex therapist. These sex therapists have undergone specialized training around sexual health and sex therapy techniques, such as Senate Focus, all under the guidance of experienced clinical supervisors.
Key Questions to ask a Sex Therapist When Considering Using Sensate Focus
When seeking a sex therapist to use Sensate Focus, here are some key topics to discuss before beginning treatment:
- Ask the therapist about their comfort/familiarity with implementing Sensate Focus techniques
- Discuss your (and your partner’s) sexual history, including history of the presenting anxiety and any trauma
- Discuss medical history, including history of chronic disease and medical limitations
- Discuss any uncertainties that may be present, including any confusions about the process
Is Sensate Focus Effective?
Senate Focus has been used effectively with couples and individuals since the 1900s.2 Its effectiveness is greatly dependent on the compliance of the individuals to the therapist’s assignments. For those of diverse backgrounds, sensate focus therapy helps to increase sexual satisfaction.4 Sensate focus therapy has also helped women improve their overall sexual function after vaginal birth.5 Sensate focus therapy was also helpful for men who experience delayed ejaculation as well as chronic masturbation.6
The barriers to compliance should be identified and processed with your therapist to determine if Sensate Focus is the right course of treatment for you.
When Not to Use Sensate Focus
Sensate focus is a safe technique that is easy to follow. The techniques, however, should be used under the guidance of a trained professional based on treatment factors, such as sexual history and physical exam. Individuals should disclose relevant history with their therapist, such as trauma or medical conditions, as it will influence the course of treatment and its success.
Also, Sensate Focus should not be used with individuals who have highly internalized performance demands. Using these techniques with these individuals could lead to experiencing anxiety around not performing or becoming aroused, despite directions around not feeling pressure to perform.1