You’ve heard about Sensate Focus, right? That sex therapy technique that helps people with sexual problems? And you know that it works by having people touch each other without expecting anything sexy to happen, right? But why in the world does this actually help with sexual problems?
Sexual interest, arousal, and orgasm are what we call natural functions, like breathing, sleeping, eliminating (there we said it) and all emotions. No one has to teach you how to breathe, sleep, urinate, or experience joy or sadness. But all these natural functions can be influenced by negative thoughts, distractions, and each other. When you are emotionally upset, you may have difficulty falling asleep. If you are focused on feeling nervous, you may miss body signals that indicate hunger. When you are trying to urinate and someone is pounding on the door yelling, “Hurry up!” you know what happens! Nada! While natural functions are wired in, they can be high jacked by anxiety, anger, and other emotions.
Many sexual problems are the result of inattention to body cues. Focusing on anxiety or other negative emotions may also cause sexual problems.
Sexual concerns are also the result of trying to force desire, arousal, and orgasm, treating them as performances that one can control directly: “I think I’ll make my penis 100% hard right now!”
Something else is needed! So what are you supposed to do? Exactly what you do when you are trying to work on other natural functions: distract and refocus on something else that grabs your attention and increases the chances that the response will happen on its own. It’s just like what we were talking about before: you can’t urinate when someone is pounding on the door, pressuring and distracting you. Nada happens … until they go away and you turn on the tap water. The something else on which you focus in this case is the sensory experience of the sounds and visual cues of the running water. You will naturally stop thinking about urinating, and you will naturally urinate, if you become absorbed in the sounds and sights of the running water.
Touch is the distraction! In the case of sexual problems, the something else is touch sensations. When you do Sensate Focus touching, you distract yourself and mindfully refocusing on touch sensations. This gets your conscious attention away from trying to turn on yourself or your partner and onto something that will ultimately increase the likelihood that desire, arousal and orgasm will occur. Performance pressures (“I’ve got to get 100% hard”) are removed. Simultaneously, you and your partner are receiving and storing sexual tension in a cumulative fashion, and this is eventually combustible! When you distract yourself from unproductive thoughts by mindfully focusing on the sensory (rather than the sexual expectations about the) experience of touch, the gateway to sexual responsivity paradoxically opens up on its own! And voilà!