Sensate Focus Exercise: A Step-By-Step Guide

by Sensate Focus Exercise

The sensate focus exercise has been used in sex therapists’ offices across the world to revive dead sex drives and bring the passion back into sexless marriages. Today I’m bringing it right into your home, relationship and sex life.

Table of Contents

Most sex intervention therapies since the mid 1900’s have focused on the biological. Things like sexual arousal, wetness, erections, orgasms, etc. This is of course important, but is missing the mark slightly. A holistic approach to health is becoming more popular and widely accepted. In the form of things like functional medicine. But somehow sex therapy has been left behind in this approach.

The Sensate focus technique takes a holistic approach to sexual problems and discomfort. It integrates all levels: spiritual, psychological, relational, cultural AND biological.

In today’s article, I will outline the steps involved involved in sensate focus therapy. This way, you can use it yourself without needing to go to a sex therapist.

Sensate focus therapy: the work of sexual pioneers, Masters and Johnson?

I cannot write about this exercise without paying tribute to it’s two creators: Masters and Johnson. Both now passed away, they deserve full credit for developing this powerful exercise.

Masters and Johnson were true pioneers of sex research. In the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s they conducted the first ever, and to date the biggest, study on human sexology. Their research won multiple awards. It is now held within the well known Kinsey Institute. At this time, their work was truly groundbreaking.

In a nutshell: restoring the libido through sensual touch

In a nutshell, the sensate exercise places emphasis on physical touch between partners. This restores normal libido levels in one or both partners. Hence the word ‘sense’ate – that is, emphasizing the use of the senses.

The underlying premise of the exercise is that a lack of sexual desire or libido comes from anxiety or discomfort related to sexual intimacy.

Via mindfulness and guided touch, Masters and Johnson predicted that the mind would quieten, discomfort reduce, and libido therefore be restored.

Does the sensate focus exercise actually restore libido?

And indeed, the sensate focus exercise was a roaring success. It has been used by over 30 years since its development in the 1970’s.

In 2016, a study was published citing an 83% success rate in therapists’ offices. This is on the higher end of the average of 50-90%. So it is clearly a very effective treatment.

The high success rate is probably due to the fact that it is a holistic therapy rather than reductionist. Holistic therapies tend to cure. Reductionist tend to only mask symptoms.

The sensate focus exercise has been mentioned in a huge number of scientific journals. It has also been investigated in numerous studies. The exercise has also been shown to be highly effective for a wide variety of people. These people have also come from a wide variety of backgrounds and sexual orientations. Hence it can help anyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and lifestyle.

The senate focus exercise as a treatment for sexless marriage

Over 20% of marriages are sexless. And this is the number of married couples who are brave enough to even report as sexless. The real number may be even higher. As a sex and relationships coach, I have had countless men come to me with this problem.

Being in a sexless marriage can tear apart a person’s confidence. It cause extreme emotional damage. The partner who is frequently turned down can feel unwanted. They may even believe that they are unloved and unattractive. The partner who is doing the turning down can feel guilty, pressured and confused.

Mismatched libidos cause conflict, guilt, and upset. But the issues don’t stop there. The problem also means that both partners are missing out on the benefits of regular, joyful, loving sex. I have written countless times on the importance of regular sex for a harmonious relationship, whilst Taoism and Tantra have for centuries considered regular sex as the elixir of life. Without it, a relationship will eventually wither and die.

Of course, some relationships are meant to end. In such cases, a lack of sex is a symptom of a wider problem. It is attributable to incompatibility or pent-up resentment. Those relationships would end eventually anyway, with or without regular sex.

But for many couples, there is no pent up resentment or incompatibility. Resentment only comes from having mismatched libidos. Everything else in the relationship works well. These are the couples who would benefit the most from sensate focus therapy.

Step-by-step guide to the exercises

OK. Enough chit-chat. You will intuitively know if you need this information or not. Let’s get right into it the methods…

Step 0.1: setting the environment

Before we start the exercises themselves, it is important that we set the environment.

The physical space should be calm, quiet and private. Make sure that you will not be disturbed. Ensure that any distractions are minimized. With a calm physical environment, you will be more likely to also have a calm inner environment – that is a mindful one. If you want to go the extra mile then you can light some candles, play some soft music and burn some incense. Your love life is a delicate flower. It needs nurture, care and utmost attention. Treat it as such.

Next, tend to the inner environment. A crucial aspect of sensate focus is mindfulness. You must be able to both identify and manage distractions at all times. And this requires a great deal of presence of mind. Calm your inner chatter. Focus on the present moment. Be with the sensations you are feeling right here and now. If this means you need to deal with a few work emails or order the weekly shop beforehand, do it. Being in your body rather than in your head is vital.

Step one: non-genital touching

Non genital touching sensate
* Image from the book ‘Sensate focus in sex therapy: the illustrated manual’, Weiner and Avery-Clark

The first step is conscious touch, of areas not including the genitals or the breasts.

One or both partners can be lying down. For this step I would personally suggest that the receiver of touch lies down and the giver sits next to them. This implies a certain level of trust and surrender that is implicit to sensate focus.

The giver of touch gently touches the receiver’s body. Both partners focus intently on the physical sensations of giving or receiving the touch. Changes in temperature of the skin, texture, the feeling of hair or hair follicles. Attention is placed on the intricacies of the felt sensations.

The receiver should not touch the giver in return. They only receive. Their focus should be one hundred percent upon their embodied experience.

Take your time with this step. In fact, with all of the steps. Particularly whilst giving, don’t rush. Your partner will feel it. Remember the point of the exercise is mindfulness. No one was ever mindful when they rushed through things.

NOTE: whether giving or receiving, make a note of any anxiety or discomfort. Be present with it. Notice it. Allow it. Uncomfortable feelings should subside the more you practice the sensate focus exercise.

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Step two: breast and genital touch

After non-genital touch comes genital touch. For women this extends to touching of the breasts.

The same guidelines for this step exist as for the first. Be present in your body. Take note of any unpleasant thoughts or feelings.

In this step, as the touch is becoming far more intimate, they are much more likely to appear. Take a note of exactly how you are feeling. What thoughts are going through your mind?

Not sure what to do with your partner’s labia? Notice that uncertainty. Feeling shy to insert your fingers into the vagina? Make a note of that uncertainty too.

Again, turn your attention to the embodied experience. Things like wetness, warmth, roughness and heat.

As the receiver, if you experience anything physically uncomfortable, you can place your hand over the hand of the giver. Slowly move it away from this area. Use this sparingly.  Be aware of the difference between physical and emotional/mental discomfort. The aim of sensate focus is to be with our emotional/mental discomforts and move through them.

You can refer to the pictures in this article (taken from the book, ‘Sensate focus in therapy: the illustrated manual’ by Linda Weiner and Constance Avery Clark) for ideas. If some of the more exposed positions feel too vulnerable, you can work up to them at a later date.

Step two: breast and genital touch

After non-genital touch comes genital touch. For women this extends to touching of the breasts.

The same guidelines for this step exist as for the first. Be present in your body. Take note of any unpleasant thoughts or feelings.

In this step, as the touch is becoming far more intimate, they are much more likely to appear. Take a note of exactly how you are feeling. What thoughts are going through your mind?

Not sure what to do with your partner’s labia? Notice that uncertainty. Feeling shy to insert your fingers into the vagina? Make a note of that uncertainty too.

Again, turn your attention as giver or receiver to the embodied experience. Things like wetness, warmth, roughness and heat.

As the receiver, if you experience anything physically uncomfortable or deeply unwanted, you can place your hand over the hand of the giver to move it away from this area. Use this sparingly.  Be aware of the difference between physical and emotional/mental discomfort. The aim of sensate focus is to be with our emotional/mental discomforts and move through them.

You can refer to the pictures (borrowed from the book, ‘Sensate focus in therapy: the illustrated manual’ by Linda Weiner and Constance Avery Clark) for ideas. If some of the more exposed positions feel too vulnerable, you can work up to them at a later date.

Step three: the clinical look

The clinical look sensate focus
* Image from the book ‘Sensate focus in sex therapy: the illustrated manual’, Weiner and Avery-Clark

In between giver/receiver and mutual touch comes a more challenging step. This step is called the clinical look.

This involves both partners looking at their own, and one another’s genitals. First, the receiver should look intently at their own genitals. They can use a mirror if necessary.

Then, the giver looks with them. The partners then swap. The giver looks at their own genitals. Next, the receiver also looks.

Unfortunately, we have been conditioned by society when it comes to our genitals. We see them as dirty, unclean or ‘off limits’. This means that many of us have never even familiarized ourselves with our genitalia. This step will likely be confronting. But this is all the more reason to do it.

Step four: mutual touch

Mutual touch sensate focus
* Image from the book ‘Sensate focus in sex therapy: the illustrated manual’, Weiner and Avery-Clark

This step shifts gears slightly. Now, the receiver is invited to begin touching the receiver.

At first, the touching should exclude genitals and breasts. When the time feels right, the touching can move on to these areas.

Touching can be of any kind. Rubbing, sliding and gliding the penis against the vagina is OK. But intercourse should remain off the table during this step.

You can sit facing one another, in yab yum, lying down or even standing. Whatever feels good, comfortable and accessible to both of you.

Step five: genital touching with one partner astride

In this step, one partner positions themselves astride the other. There can be touching of the genitals but at this point, no penetration.

Usually, the female straddles the male during this step. This is the most comfortable position. It requires minimal muscle engagement. There is no hip movement at this point as this will almost always inevitably lead to intercourse.

As with all of the other steps, both partners should be mentally and physically present. If any resistance or discomfort pops up, stay with it. Notice it, don’t judge it. If we don’t fight against the rip-tide, eventually it will bring us to shore. This is how we move through uncomfortable emotions and feelings. Such a metaphor can be applied to other areas of life, too.

Step six: insertion with one partner astride

After taking the time to fully feel your way through step five of the sensate focus exercise, it is time for insertion.

NOTE: you do not necessarily need to go through all of the steps during the first time. You can spend weeks on each step if needed.

When both partners feel ready to move on from step five, you can move onto penetration.

The penis should be inserted slowly, with great attention paid to the minute details of the building sensation. Simply observe and feel without judgment.

Step seven: insertion with no movement

Woman astride man sensate focus
* Image from the book ‘Sensate focus in sex therapy: the illustrated manual’, Weiner and Avery-Clark

Once the penis is fully inserted, both partners can focus on the feeling of being full, or of being fully inside.

At this point there should be no movement. Simply focus on the feeling of full penetration.

Step eight: insertion with movement

Once you have settled in step seven, you can start moving with each other. The woman can start rocking her hips. The man can start thrusting, or moving his woman’s hips for her.

Again, pay close attention to your sensations. The whole experience should have a focus on the sensual rather than the sexual.

Practice makes perfect

Do not be upset with yourself if you or your partner find it difficult to remain mindful and fully present during the sensate focus exercise.

We are living in a world that is full of stimuli. Stimuli that are constantly fighting for our attention. It is normal for your presence to go elsewhere. When it does, it is the coming back to the felt sensations that counts.

As with anything, success comes with practice and repetition. You can take as much time to move through the sensate focus exercises as you need. Don’t judge yourself for moving too slowly or too quickly.

Healing low libido, erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation through the sensate focus exercise

I cannot stress enough the healing potential of sensate focus therapy for both men and women. It can greatly reduce performance anxiety in males. Hence it can completely eradicate erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation. In women, it can restore vaginal wetness. Thus it is a therapy with potential for sexual dysfunction in both sexes.

In both sexes it can restore comfort during sexual activity. Sensate focus also brings about unparalleled levels of intimacy and love between partners. I am deeply passionate about sensate focus. This passion comes from personal experience. Years ago, I used it myself to heal my own intimacy issues.

If you are currently dealing with mismatched libidos or a dwindling sex life, I understand the pain this can cause. It can be a very lonely, isolating experience.

I strongly encourage you to explore both the sensate focus exercise and the many other healing modalities I offer as part of my coaching programme. My techniques are all taken from the ancient systems of Taoism and Tantra. They use techniques very similar to the approach taken by Masters and Johnson in sensate focus.

You can get a taste of these proven, tried and tested techniques in my free training for men here.

FAQs

What can sensate focus help with?

Sensate focus therapy can help with any sexual health problem that has a mental root cause. These include things like erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, vaginal dryness and lack of libido.

What is sensate focus therapy?

Sensate focus therapy is a series of intimate touch-based exercises. They are carried out with an emphasis upon mindfulness.

Who is able to teach sensate focus?

A licensed sex therapist is able to teach the sensate focus exercise.

What are the benefits of sensate therapy?

The benefits of sensate therapy are increased libido and trust between partners. Sensate focus can also heal conditions such as vaginal dryness and PE.

For what kinds of problems is sensate focus therapy appropriate?

Sensate focus therapy is appropriate for any sexual problem with an emotional root cause. This covers most sexual problems. Problems that sensate focus can’t treat are those with physical causes.

How can sensate focus help your relationship?

Sensate focus can greatly increase intimacy between partners. When trust has been broken, it can help to repair it.

Steffo Shambo

Steffo Shambo

Men's Relationship Coach

Steffo is the founder of The Tantric Man Experience, the #1 masculine mentorship program in the world. There he helps men in relationships reignite the passion to restore their marriages from the brink of divorce. And single men attract their dream women naturally with success. He's on a mission to guide men towards an intimate and meaningful relationship, and end the war with their sexuality, so they can finally become integrated men, fathers, brothers, husbands, and leaders in the world.

“It meant a paradigm shift in life.” – Patrik, Sweden
“Life-changing experience.” – Antonio, Italy

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