Sensate focus is a diagnostic and therapeutic technique for identifying psychological and relationship factors that contribute to sexual difficulties. It can be used to teach new skills to overcome these problems and to foster more meaningful sexual intimacy1. Developed in the 1960’s by Virginia Johnson and William Masters, sensate focus has found a new resurgence thanks to Showtime’s hit Masters of Sex, chronicling the lives of the two cofounders.
Widely used by sexologists worldwide 2, sensate focus can be a great adjunct to treatment by pelvic floor physical therapists to treat pelvic floor dysfunction. With complex cases, it may be necessary to see a sex therapist in conjunction with pelvic floor physical therapy.
Sensate focus involves couples touching each other in a mindful way, focusing on temperature, texture and pressure, not with the purpose to create or receive pleasure. It’s like rubbing your hand against a silk scarf because you like the way it feels. Maybe it’s cool to the touch on a hot summer day. In this same way, you would touch your partner’s skin. If you happen to be aroused, you try to redirect your attention back to the touch.
Why focus on sensations rather than arousal when the goal is arousal? The short answer is, to get out of your own way! Trying to consciously control our pleasure or our partner’s pleasure is a major source of sexual difficulties. Sex is a natural function of the autonomic nervous system3. It’s automatic, like eating or breathing. When we focus on sensation, we become more primal and bypass higher cortical brain pathways responsible for thoughts of anxiety, expectations, past inadequacies. We stay present and reignite our body’s natural sexual response.
So, how exactly does it work? There are two phases, mindful touch and genital sensate focus.
Phase 1 - Mindful Touch
1. Touch for one’s own involvement as opposed to partner’s
2. Touch focuses on sensations, especially tactile sensations, rather than on trying to make oneself or their partner aroused
3. Redirect attention back to the sensation when your mind is distracted
1. Sessions take place every 48-72 hours, x number of weeks based on comfort of couple
2. Set aside an hour during which partners are least likely to be disturbed
3. No distractions i.e cell phones
4. Comfortable room temperature
5. Some light on, don’t “set the mood”
6. Remove all clothing or as much as you feel comfortable with
7. Open or close eyes depending on which helps you focus
8. Avoid talking or music
9. Do not use lotions or oils for touching
• Assume any physically comfortable position together
• Prior to session decide who goes first (touches first)
• Touch your partner from head to toe, front to back avoiding the breasts, chest, genitals
• Only touch with hands and fingers
• Toucher focuses on tactile sensations (temperature, pressure, texture) and managing
distractions (including pleasure, emotions, the evaluations of emotions as either good
or bad, partner’s responses)
• The touchee focuses on the tactile sensations listed above and non-verbally communicating by moving toucher’s hand away if some area is experienced as physically uncomfortable or ticklish
• Toucher touches so long as to become adept at refocusing on sensations but not so long as to get bored or tired
• Initially, no specific time is suggested
• Do not watch the clock, but afterwards reflect on time, slowing down if < 15 minutes
and speeding up if > 15 minutes each
• Once toucher finishes, he or she says “switch”
• Partners exchange positions, after his/her turn says “stop”
• Get up and get dressed and write down what you have experienced in terms of the
sensations and whether you were able to return and focus attention to these sensations and nature of distractions
*no kissing during Phase 1, masturbation is allowed but not during session, touchee must speak up or redirect hand if something is bothersome
Progress phase 1 from breasts and genitals off limits to breasts and genitals on limits, mutual touching, lying together, partner astride and insertion as appropriate. Once genitals are touched, orgasm can happen, however, do not force it and the touchee should take an active part in moving the partners hand, adding firmer pressure, etc. Keep in mind, the purpose in phase 1 is still strictly about personal sensation.
Phase 2 - Genital Sensate Focus
Phase 2 is similar to phase 1, except during phase 2, the attitude shifts to emphasize partner, pleasure
and communication. Partners exchange verbal and non-verbal information about emotional desires and respond to feedback from the partner. One can begin phase 2 with just touching progression eventually insertion as in phase 1, but the focus is now about pleasure for yourself and your partner.
Sensate focus allows couples to begin their intimacy in a non-demanding way. There is an increased likelihood of experiencing an intimate connection in a spontaneous and meaningful way, eliciting that erotic closeness they so desire.
1. Linda Weiner & Constance Avery-Clark (2014): Sensate Focus: clarifying the Masters and Johnson’s model, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 14 Mar 2014.
2. Weiner, L., & Stiritz, S.E. (2014). Sensate Focus today. Unpublished manuscript.
3. Masters, W., & Johnson, V.E. (1970). Human sexual inadequacy. New York, NY: Little, Brown