My partner and I have been together for almost four years. Things aren’t quite as hot and heavy as they used to be in the bedroom. After all, we now share a bathroom and aren’t screenshotting every adorable text exchange to our friends. He knows I have to tweeze the dark hairs on my chin and I know he rips his toenails instead of clipping them off. (Yes, I know—I’m in a long-term relationship with a ripper).
This isn’t to say we don’t love each other and have a healthy sex life. But sex can sometimes feel routine. We’re familiar with each other’s bodies and know what works. However, when things get routine, it’s easy to check out mentally and emotionally.
When I shared this with clinical sexologist Dr. Kelly Johnson, she mentioned a technique called sensate focus, which she uses in her own practice. “I suggest clients get reacquainted with their bodies through a process called sensate focus, which was created by Masters and Johnson in the 1960s,” she says. “This process involves remapping the body for pleasure. Instead of being so genital-focused, the couple explores what it feels like when you rub or kiss their partner’s head, ears, or neck, for example. You do this for the entire body from head to toe.”
“Remapping” and “reacquainting” sounded exactly like what my partner and I needed. Plus, I’m a fan of the TV show Masters of Sex, which is based on the lives and work of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who are considered pioneers in the field of human sexuality. Eager to learn about Sensate Focus and how to do it, I devoured this excerpt from Masters and Johnson’s book “Heterosexuality.” But this eagerness was met with a healthy amount of skepticism. Could a technique created almost 60 years ago help my 21st century relationship?
What is sensate focus?
Sensate focus is about the acts of touching and being touched. This helps couples, “reawaken their own sensual (and sexual) feelings and establish a ‘new’ way of intercourse,” according to the book. During their studies, Masters and Johnson learned that certain barriers interfere with creating this type of sensuality, like the “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” approach (they actually use this phrase in the book) and leaving sex for the last thing at night when you and your partner are exhausted (truth), to name a few.
But touching, it turns out, isn’t as simple or straightforward as it sounds. The book devotes pages to describing the five steps of sensate focus. Here’s a summarized version:
Step 1: Non-Genital Touching
First, Masters and Johnson suggest getting undressed. One partner lies down to receive the touching, while the other is responsible for touching. For the person lying down, their responsibility is to simply take in the sensations they are feeling. There’s no reciprocating, commenting, or trying to turn touching into a sexual encounter. The partner responsible for touching is free to explore their partner’s body. However, the genitals are off limits. Masters and Johnson offer this advice: “Because starting can be awkward, some prefer to begin at one spot on the body—say, the neck or feet—and work their way up or down from there. Others don’t need a definite plan of action and simply explore the various textures and temperatures and contours of their partners’ body without any preconceived idea of how they will proceed.”
The point for both partners is to solely focus on the sensations they are individually experiencing. It’s not about trying to turn your partner on or offer a massage. As Masters and Johnson add, “The point is to try to live through your fingertips.”
Step 2: Genital Touching
Just like step 1, this step begins with a period of non-genital touching. But it can move into sexual touching, which includes the breasts and genitals. This step involves a technique call “hand-riding.” The partner being touched places their hand on top of the partner administering the touching. This allows the partner receiving touch to give silent cues to their preferences. If they desire a stronger touch, perhaps they press down on their partner’s hand, for example. Both take turns being touched and receiving touch while using the hand-riding technique.
Step 3: Adding Lotion
This step is the same as step 2 but incorporates lotion or oil. Masters and Johnson say, “One of the ways of enhancing sensory awareness is to alter the medium of touch a bit. Since we don’t have volume control knobs on our fingertips, the next best thing is to try the same sensate focus exercise described in step 2 with the addition of a lotion or oil to add a slicker, silkier dimension to your touching.”
Step 4: Mutual Touching
During this step, touching becomes mutual—there’s no more taking turns. You can use your hands, lips and tongue. Here’s what Masters and Johnson say about this step: “We suggest that the first time or two you try this version of sensate focus, you still refrain from kissing and from attempting intercourse. These simple steps help to prevent you from just reverting to your old, tried and true sexual behavior patterns. Remember, what you are trying to achieve here is a way of adding a new sensual dimension to your lives.” They add that it’s still not about making something “happen” for you or your partner, but rather about sensually exploring each other’s bodies. Big difference.
Step 5: Sensual Intercourse
This last step is titled “sensual” intercouse and not “sexual” intercourse for a reason. Here’s how Masters and Johnson differentiate between the two: “Sexual intercourse if often a very mechanical act, with an emphasis on thrusting and pushing toward orgasm. In this version of sensate focus, you extend the gains you have already made in emphasizing your awareness of physical sensations into the realm of penile-vaginal contact to find a stylistically different type of intercourse. Here again, there is no right way or wrong way of doing things; instead, the goal is to find out what feels interesting and pleasurable.”
This could be brushing the genitalia against each other. If insertion occurs, they recommend avoiding thrusting right away. Instead, remain still to feel the sensations of warmth and contact. Try breathing deeply or contracting certain muscles to see if this changes the sensation. Masters and Johnson suggest repeatedly removing and inserting any fingers or genitalia before moving into instinctive thrusting patterns. “However you proceed, try to keep your focus on your sensations as much as possible, and give yourself the opportunity to enjoy your ‘new’ way of having intercourse,” advise Masters and Johnson.
Our experience with sensate focus
When I first mentioned sensate focus to my partner, I was met with a raised eyebrow. This isn’t unusual, especially since the purpose of Sensate Focus is not romance—it’s purely about sensation. I understood his confusion. After all, weren’t we trying to reignite our passion?
Heather Raznik, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and master of social work (MSW), was the last assistant to William Masters before his retirement. She says that many patients confuse sensate focus for an erotic touch exercise, which it’s not. "When they're coming to you for sexual dysfunction—or looking for ways to promote intimacy and connection—and the assignment is not romantic, they look at you like you're crazy,” says Raznik. She reminds her clients that sensate focus is about non-demand touching—there are no expectations.
Before sensate focus, I couldn’t recall the last time I touched or experienced touch for the sole purpose of sensation. Instead, I tend to want or expect something—to make my partner feel good or for their touch to feel good. I also get in my head about “performing.” I enjoyed sensate focus because there are zero expectations around pleasure or climax. I felt freer.
Sensate focus was amazing but difficult for us at times. Because we devoted so much time to touching, we both discovered new “hot spots.” Who knew that touching the back of the tricep could feel so good? This, I learned, is exactly what Dr. Johnson initially meant when she used the phrase “remapping the body for pleasure.”
The most challenging aspect was remaining present to sensation. It was hard for me to not label the experience in the moment as “good,” “bad,” or “awkward,” which Masters and Johnson discourage. “Evaluative thinking—which we define as a form of judgmental thinking that occurs as something is happening, not after it’s over—is even more self-defeating in erotic moments,” they say. “Just as being a restaurant critic changes the experience of dining out, being evaluative as sex is happening invariably puts you in the position of being an observer as a participant. The part of your mind that is observing is blocked from experiencing, with the all-too-common result that you think too much and feel too little.” Um...OK—this statement applies to basically my entire life. I evaluate and label everything, from my relationships to my day at work. Needless to say, it’s hard for me not to do this in the bedroom, too.
‘Sensuality’ versus ‘sex’
Since experimenting with Sensate Focus, my partner and I have been spending more time on foreplay and taking sex much, much more slowly. As a result, we tune into our own bodies and feel more connected to each other. We’ve also shifted our focus away from words like “sex” and “intercourse” and more towards terms like “sensuality” and “intimacy.” The other night, we took a shower together and simply enjoyed washing each other. Even though we didn’t have sex, we now consider behaviors like this a part of our sex...ahem, I mean…sensuality life.