Sensate focusing or sensate focus is a form of treatment that involves concentrating and focusing on feelings and sensations. It involves a set of specific sexual exercises for couples or for individuals. The phrase was first introduced by Masters and Johnson. It is aimed at increasing personal and interpersonal awareness of self and their partner’s needs. Each person is advised to focus on their own varied sensual experience, rather than to see orgasm as the sole aim of sex.
The idea behind sensate focusing is to help the couple to become relaxed with each other both physically and mentally so that they are able to recognize and enjoy their sexual feelings. Sensate focusing is used as a treatment for erectile dysfunction and as the first stage in some treatment programmes for premature ejaculation. It is also used as for other sexual problems as well. See here for an article on treatment for premature ejaculation that starts with sensate focus:
In order to remove any sense of pressure or anxiety or what are known as ‘performance fears’, the couple agree to a ban on sexual intercourse for an initial period of, for example, four weeks (it may be longer or shorter depending upon circumstances). They should also agree that this is an undertaking that should always be observed and taken seriously. In addition, it is important that they try to arrange their lives so that they can occasionally be alone, without fear of interruption. They need a period of about an hour or so twice a week when they are not too tired, irritable or under time pressure.
Sensate focus begins with the couple ‘pleasuring’ each other. This means that they take it in turns to explore slowly and gently each other’s body by caressing and massaging in such a way that each in turn can totally relax and focus on the feelings that they experience as they are being touched by their partner.
Touch is an extremely important means of communication between people and one that is often neglected in our busy high-tech society. The success of sensate focus depends very much on being able to relax and concentrate on the feelings and sensations that are experienced through touch. No one need talk unless compelled to do so except on those occasions when it may be helpful to tell the other person when and where a particular caress is especially rewarding, or when it is not.
The couple have also agreed that, during the early stages of sensate focus, neither should touch the other’s genitals – in other words the penis and the vulva (comprising the clitoris, the fatty skin folds known as the labia, and the opening of the vagina). Otherwise anything goes: the touch can be gentle or firm, and the whole body can be explored in whatever way is enjoyed most. It is a good idea to use some body cream, baby oil or massage oil, but this is not essential if, for one reason or another, it does not add to the pleasure.
One way to start sensate focus is to begin to massage your partner while he or she is lying on his or her stomach. Stroking and caressing can begin on the legs, arms or neck and then move on to the back and bottom, finishing perhaps with the insides of the thighs, which are particularly sensitive and sexy for most people. Then after your partner turns over, you can begin again on his or her chest or breasts, arms legs and then the abdomen. Pleasuring can end by kissing and cuddling, but the penis and vulva must not be touched nor should sexual intercourse be attempted at this stage.
The section that follows is written in the context of using sensate focus as a treatment for psychological erectile dysfunction:
After two or three sessions in which relaxation, sensory pleasure and moderate sexual arousal is enjoyed, the penis will usually have begun to get erect from time to time. It may have happened on the first occasion or it may take a little while longer. If, by any chance, an erection does not come after two or three weeks, it may be that the couple are still not ready for sensate focus and that there still remains a need for further counselling with the sex therapist.
For the older man – say, over the age of fifty – erections may take longer to appear, and a first erection may not be possible without some direct stimulation to the penis. However, it is still important to observe the ban on touching the genitals, at least for the first three or four sessions. Then, and only then can the penis be stimulated directly.
Once a spontaneous erection begins to come naturally during sensate focus, the partners can gently stimulate each other’s penis and vulva, using hands. This does not mean vigorous mutual masturbation but, as before, taking it in turns to allow the other to focus on the feelings in the genitals. It must be remembered that each partner is giving to the other – one is relaxed and focusing on the feelings produced by the other – and that, throughout sensate focus, all the sex play is non-demanding. In other words, it requires no response from the partner, nor is there any need to achieve any particular goal.
Once an erection becomes a normal feature of sensate focus, it is a good idea for the man to allow himself to deliberately lose his erection and then regain it. In this way, he will be reassured that, if he does lose his erection when making love, he can usually get it back.
Towards the final stages of the sensate focus programme, the couple can gently begin simultaneously pleasuring each other until they are both ready for penetration. The best way to attempt this is for the man to lie on his back with his penis erect and pointing upwards. His partner will then gently lower herself on him, directing his penis into her vagina with her hand. She can then move very slowly up and down while remaining on top of him. It is a good idea to ensure that her vulva and vagina are moist when penetration is first attempted; if they are not, plenty of cream or oil or a special non-greasy lubricant such as KY jelly should be used.
It does not really matter whether the man ejaculates or not at this stage, although he should not deliberately try to stop himself. In fact in these early days of intercourse it is probably best to allow the woman to move just enough for her partner to hold his erection. Likewise, it is not going to help if she tries to stimulate herself to orgasm because orgasm-seeking will just place both partners under pressure to perform and may raise anxieties. At this point, all that is required is for the man to begin to enjoy the feeling in his penis when it is inside the woman’s vagina.
As his confidence grows, so different sexual positions can be tried. However, sex play should always remain a very important part of love-making, and there is no reason why a couple should not return to the earlier stages of sensate focus in order to recapture the unique feelings of being relaxed and able to enjoy their own bodies.
If at any stage there is a setback and the man loses the ability to achieve an erection (not an unlikely event), all that needs to be done is to go back to an earlier stage in the sensate focus programme. He should not be too worried about what has happened. Partial or total erection loss of erection during love play and intercourse is a common occurrence for every man, so no significance should be attached to it.