Sex Therapy With Sensate Focus

Sensate Focus: Getting Your Head and Into Your Body During Sex — Therapy Blog

Sex Therapy With Sensate Focus

Sensate focus, developed by Masters and Johnson in the 1960s, is a technique that has been used by sex therapists for many years to help couples and individuals overcome a range of sexual difficulties. Sensate focus exercises work best when engaged in with the guidance of a therapist. However, trying the exercises on one’s own can be a great place to start, if one feels safe and secure in doing so.

Sensate focus can be considered “mindfulness for touch.” A mindfulness practice involves meditation, or intentional focusing on something specific.

Sensate focus is “mindfulness for touch” because it is an intentional focus on touch, without expectations, judgment, or pressure. Sensate focus can teach a person how to be in their body experiencing, rather than in their head “spectatoring.

” Spectatoring is a normal function of an active mind; however, it inhibits arousal and orgasm, which is problematic. Let’s look at two examples of spectatoring.

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Petra is generally satisfied with her body and enjoys sex with her partner. However, when receiving oral sex, despite her best intentions, her mind starts to wander: “Did I send that email? … I need to remember to call her tomorrow … oh no, I’m distracted.

… My partner is trying so hard, but I don’t know if I can climax …” and on it goes. For Petra, these distracting thoughts come in many forms, depending on the day.

She sometimes has thoughts related to personal insecurities; work, family, and relationship stresses; to-do lists; worry about her partner’s experience; and more. This is spectatoring.

Rather than being in her body experiencing the sensations, Petra gets in her head and becomes a spectator of what’s happening in her body. As a result, she doesn’t fully enjoy the experience and struggles to orgasm from oral sex.

Petra’s mind is acting exactly as it was intended; she’s not doing anything wrong. The human mind evolved to actively juggle multiple things at once and continuously scan internally and externally to identify what needs attention. Sensate focus is designed to give the active mind something compelling on which to focus during sex so it won’t need to wander. Let’s look at another example.


Tal generally enjoys connecting sexually with his partner; however, he sometimes has distracting thoughts during intercourse, such as: “She looks tired; maybe she wants me to stop. … Should I switch positions? … But I don’t want to risk losing my erection.

” Tal’s spectatoring, that of many people, is fueled by underlying fears of inadequacy and rejection. When these fears take hold, it is understandable he has difficulty orgasming before starting to lose his erection.

Let’s look at a third example in which sensate focus can help.

Cherise and An

Cherise and An are a lesbian couple whose sex has lost its luster. They’ve tried different ways to spice it up, such as watching porn before sex, wearing sexy outfits, and even role play.

Some of these activities have been fun, but in the end, they still feel dissatisfied and disconnected during and after sex. Cherise and An realize they have lost touch with their own and each other’s bodies.

Sensate focus will help them reconnect with each other in an intentional and intimate way.

What Is Sensate Focus?

Sensate focus is a series of intimate touch exercises that teach one how to be fully in the body during sex. The exercises can be done solo or with a partner and can last from 10 minutes to one hour. It is recommended to start with 10 minutes for solo sensate focus and 20 minutes for partnered sensate focus.

Do only one phase per session, and leave at least a day to process the experience in between sessions. Aim to spend at least two weeks in each phase, or more if needed to ensure one feels comfortable. These exercises can be done one to three times per week, depending on one’s needs and capacity.

Sensate focus should be done separately from usual sexual intimacy.

Sensate focus is a series of intimate touch exercises that teach one how to be fully in the body during sex. The exercises can be done solo or with a partner and can last from 10 minutes to one hour.

Non-Demand Touching

Sensate uses non-demand touching, which means you are touching with no particular outcome or expectation in mind. This is different from sexual foreplay. You are not trying to arouse the other person or even to pleasure them.

You are touching for yourself, with a sense of curiosity and exploration about your partner’s (or your own) body. Allow yourself to experience and enjoy touch for the sake of touch.

Pay attention to the following aspects of the touch: temperature (warm/cool), pressure (hard/soft), and texture (smooth/rough).


Sensate focus sessions should be scheduled ahead of time to allow for mental and physical preparation. Consider what will help you get in the mood for intimate touch. It’s important to minimize distractions and engage the senses.

Removing distractions can include locking the bedroom door, taking time to unwind beforehand, and ensuring chores are completed.

To engage the senses, you may use sensual music (without lyrics), scented candles, satin fabric, or lotions.


  • Phase 1: Take turns touching, kissing, and stroking anywhere on your partner’s body (or your own for solo) except genitals and breasts. For partnered sensate focus: partner one touches for 10 (or more) minutes, then partner two touches for 10 (or more) minutes. Avoid touch that leads to orgasm and intercourse until phase 4.
  • Phase 2: Same as phase 1, except that genitals and breasts can be included.
  • Phase 3 (partnered sensate focus only): Engage in mutual touching, kissing, and stroking of each other’s bodies simultaneously. Start with phase 1 touching, then progress to phase 2. Avoid touching that leads to orgasm and intercourse.
  • Phase 4: Proceed through phases 1 through 3, then move into a position as if you’re going to have intercourse, or masturbate for solo sensate focus. Move and rub your bodies against each other. Avoid intercourse or touching that will lead to orgasm until having completed one or two sessions of phase 4.


Sensate focus has been used by sex therapists for over 50 years to help people overcome barriers to sexual satisfaction and deepen their sexual experience. Sensate focus, or “mindfulness for touch,” teaches people how to get their heads and into their bodies during sexual experiences, using progressive intimacy exercises with non-demand touching.


  1. Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.
  2. McCarthy, B., & McCarthy, E. (2012). Sexual awareness: Your guide to healthy couple sexuality, 5th Ed. New York, NY: Routledge.
  3. Siegel, D. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
  4. Weiner, L., & Avery-Clark, C. (2017). Sensate focus in sex therapy: The illustrated manual. New York, NY: Routledge.

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rachel Keller, LCSW-C, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.


Can Sensate Focus Help Your Sex Life?

Sex Therapy With Sensate Focus

In a study of 1,000 US relationships, 34% of relationships reported being dissatisfied with their sex lives. Sex isn’t a one size fits all scenario; it often involves deepening a mutual connection and understanding each other in an intimate way. If you would to enhance your sex life, read on to find out about sensate focus therapy.

What Is Sensate Focus?

Sensate focus was developed by William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the 1960s. Since then, sex therapists use this staple sex therapy technique to help couples overcome sexual difficulties and enhance their sexual encounters.

Sensate focus involves touching exercises to help deepen the intimate connection between partners. This also helps the individuals be less in their head and more in their bodies.

This is why sensate focus is helpful for individuals that struggle with performance anxiety. Many times, the partner will become anxious or worried about intimacy. They are unsure if they can satisfy their partner. This can leave them stuck in their head during intercourse rather than being in the present.

When partners can become more embodied, and get their head during intimacy, the focus on mindfulness and the body make room for more pleasure. As you focus on mindfulness and sensation, your sensory experience is enhanced.

This therapy does not only help with mindfulness and sensation. Sensate focus can also help with individuals who struggle with erectile dysfunction, arousal disorders, dissociation, painful sexual intercourse, orgasm disorders, and more.

How Does Sensate Focus Work?

Sensate focus takes touching exercises that can either be done alone or with a partner.

Here is the process of the Masters and Johnson sensate focus exercises. You can do these stages one after the other or spread them out over time, practicing each a few times before you move on. Your therapist can help you decide the best route to go.

Stage One

In stage one, partners take turns touching each other’s bodies and kissing, except for the breasts and genital areas.

The point of this step is not to cause arousal or sexual intercourse but to purely explore one another’s bodies and experience the sensation of touching. You are focusing on the way your partner’s hands feel on your body.

This type touch can be however you want, as long as it stays the breast and genital area. You might want to try different levels of pressure and cadence to see what feels best for you.

You and your partner can develop a signal of the body language to express if there is something that makes you uncomfortable or if they do something you do not . This could be a hand signal, or a word, whichever you prefer.

Practice doing this for about 20 minutes each, taking turns touching the other’s body and focusing on the sensation of your partner’s hands.

Repeat this stage two to three times a week before moving onto the next stage, and only move forward if you both feel ready.

Stage Two

Stage two begins with going over stage one; then, you can start exploring the breast and/or genital areas.

While you can start genital touching, it is important to remember that the goal is still the same. It is not to lead to orgasm or sexual arousal, only to focus on the sensation of touching and enhancing your intimate connection.

This will work the same as stage one, where you take turns doing it, and work toward staying embodied and attuned to yourself and your partner. Refrain from intercourse.

Repeat this stage two to three times a week before moving on to stage three, for as many weeks as needed, until you both feel ready to move to the next stage.

Stage Three

Stage three begins with stages one and two, then proceeds to engage in mutual touching. Rather than taking turns touching each other, you will explore each other’s bodies at the same time.

While you do this, you are to avoid touching that would lead to orgasm. Even in the event that you both are sexually aroused and want to move forward, your goal is to avoid that and continue focusing on just enjoying each other’s touch. Do not engage in intercourse in this stage. It is important to hold back from intercourse, so as to teach your bodies about implicit trust.

Repeat this stage two to three times before moving on, and do so only when you are both ready.

Stage Four

Stage four begins with running through stages one, two, and three. After you proceed through all previous stages, you can get into a sexual intercourse position without actually continuing on to have sexual intercourse.

In this position, move your bodies together so your genitals rub against each other without any penetration. Notice how you feel, physically and emotionally.

Once you repeat this stage two to three times a week, and you can move on to having sexual intercourse when you both are ready.

Do not take having sexual intercourse as a cue to ignore all previous stages. Instead, focus again less on the arousal and intent to orgasm and more on the senses, temperature, feelings, etc. of the intercourse. Embodiment improves pleasure.

Other Help

Sometimes, when beginning the process of sensate focus, it can be helpful to explore the use of hand riding.

Hand riding involves taking your partner’s hands and guiding them throughout your body. This lets your partner understand what parts of your body you to be touched and how to touch them.

This will increase awareness on both ends of what you both and how you should proceed.

Furthermore, as stated earlier, make a signal, so your partner understands what you don’t . Take this a step further by also discussing after each session how it went and what you d vs what you didn’t .

When you increase the communication between you, it can create a more enriching outcome.

How Does This Help?

Sensate focus therapy helps in reducing performance anxiety, restoring a safe presence, and increasing each partner’s satisfaction.

It lets you into understanding your partner and their s and diss on a whole new level.

Sensate focus helps you eliminate performative sex and deepen the connection you already have. It takes the pressure off of having sex and expectations and puts the mindset on the sensory experience of being together.

If you struggle with sexual dysfunction, sex therapy can assist in helping you overcome it and reaching sexual satisfaction.

Working with a certified sex therapist to guide you in this practice and give homework assignments will especially be helpful through the process.

Homework assignments can help you understand the therapy better and continue to deepen what you have with your partner.

Sensate focus therapy can improve your sexual life and deepen the emotional and physical intimacy between you and your partner.

How Do We Start?

If you think sensate focus therapy will help your relationship, you can start today. Deepen your connection, let go of your expectations, and increase your sensual awareness.

Contact us for a free 30-minute consultation to discuss your goals and needs today.


Why sex therapists swear by sensate focus: The mindful touching technique that enhances your sex life

Sex Therapy With Sensate Focus

Deepening a sexual connection with your partner sometimes means focusing less on sexuality and more on sensuality. Sensate focus is a sex-therapist-approved way of connecting with your partner by touching and being touched. The point of sensate focus is to relinquish the goal of orgasm and instead focus on being present. 

Sensate focus can help you and your partner to get more in sync sexually and intensify your intimate connection. Here's more background on sensate focus and how to get started with your partner. 

What is sensate focus? 

Sensate focus is a series of touching exercises aimed at deepening intimacy between partners. It was first developed by sex therapy research team Masters and Johnson in 1970 and has since become a widely-recommended practice among sex therapists. 

Practicing sensate focus allows you and your partner to be present with each other and focus on touching and relaxation, without the pressure of turning each other on. 

«When someone is relaxed, they are more able to give and receive pleasure,» says Lisa Hochberger, LSMW, a sex therapist at Wise Therapy in New York City. 

Sensate focus begins with a ban on kissing and genital touching so that both partners can focus on non-sexual sensations. From there, you can slowly introduce more elements of sexuality — and finally have sex. 

This practice of focused touching borrows many of the principles of mindfulness and encourages you to let go of judgment and focus on experience and sensation. «Eventually it becomes this meditative process,» says Hochberger.

Although sensate focus can be an excellent exercise for any couple, it is an especially helpful tool to ignite desire between people who may be experiencing a lull in their sex life. 

«Sensate focus is a good exercise for people who are just trying to get back into it» says Cheyenne Taylor, LSMW, a sex therapist at Manhattan Alternative Wellness Collective. 

How to practice sensate focus

Before you begin sensate focus exercises, make sure you are in a room with complete privacy and no distractions. If it helps you get in the mood, you can play relaxing music, turn down the lights, and create a romantic atmosphere. 

It's best to practice sensate focus naked, but if you are uncomfortable with complete nudity make sure to avoid tight or uncomfortable clothing. Also, be sure to remove any jewelry, watches, or other things that may distract from your partner's touch.

You should decide which person will assume the role of the toucher first and which person will be the recipient. Both of you should take turns with each role.

Each person should spend at least 15 minutes as the toucher before switching off, but there is no limit for how long each session should last. 

There are three phases of sensate focus. You can remain in each phase for a few sessions, or move on right away. There are no clear-cut guidelines for sensate focus, and you should do what feels right for you. 

Phase I: Sensate focus without genital touching

During this stage, the toucher should explore the other person's body while avoiding obvious erogenous zones breasts and genitals. The recipient should focus on relaxing and enjoying the sensation of being touched.

There are no hard and fast rules about what this phase should include, but here are some tips for the toucher:

  • Vary the pressure of your touches. In some places, press down more firmly. In others, gently glide your hand over your partner's body.
  • Start with the parts of your partner's body that are usually visible the hands, arms, and scalp. Then slowly make your way to the more intimate areas of their body, the buttocks and inner thighs. 
  • Alternate between using your whole hand and just the tips of your fingers.

Phase II: Sensate focus with genital touching

Though you are allowed to touch your partner's breasts and genitals during this phase, kissing and sex are still off-limits. The focus is still on sensuality — not sexuality — so you shouldn't be actively trying to turn your partner on. 

If you are the recipient, you can now place your hand on the toucher's hand to indicate subtle preferences. This allows both people to communicate non-verbally about where they to be touched. This form of intimate communication is an important pillar of sensate focus, says Taylor.

Here are some tips for the toucher:

  • Don't lose sight of the whole experience of touching by focusing on the genitals. Remember that you are supposed to engage in light genital touching, not genital stimulation. 
  • The receiver may start by lying face down so that the toucher is encouraged to first focus on areas of the body other than the genitals.
  • If someone is aroused enough to orgasm, it is okay to let the orgasm happen. 

Phase III: Sensate focus with sex

In the final phase of sensate focus, you can end the session by having sex. But you should begin by going back to the fundamentals of phase one and get reacquainted with mindful touching. 

During this phase, the recipient can take a more active role in the exercise. In addition to guiding the toucher's hand, the recipient can move more and engage in touching the toucher. 

Before sex, both partners may touch genitals first to experience closeness before intercourse. When you finally have sex, be sure to remember to emphasize being present and mindful of your closeness. 

Some tips for this phase:

  • If you practice penetrative sex, you can take 20-30 second breaks to vary the rhythm and emphasize going slow.
  • Vary your positions so that each person gets a chance to be on top.
  • You may want to use a lubricant during this phase.

Insider's takeaway

Sensate focus is a great way to focus on mutual pleasure and mindful sensuality. By emphasizing closeness and being present, it can help deepen intimacy between two people. Sensate focus is particularly helpful for couples who feel they need to reconnect. «Eventually the physical closeness bridges the emotional closeness,» says Hochberger. 

Health Reference Editor and Author


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