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Sensate focus is a series of graduated steps used in sex therapy to develop greater intimacy between two partners and to address dysfunction of sexual relationships. The idea for this practice comes from Virginia Johnson and William Masters, whose collaborative work in the second half of the 20th century is viewed as some of the most important in the understanding of human sexual behavior. It’s also fair to state Masters and Johnson were involved in fairly controversial projects like a homosexual conversion program. In contrast, sensate focus remains one of their more lasting contributions, and many couples who try this practice when they seek sex therapy, or because it’s included in many sex self-help books.
The principal behind sensate focus is that couples often get diverted from intimate pleasure by thinking of orgasm as the one desirable and true goal of any sexual encounter. For either a man or woman, this may pose a challenge, leading to failure in performance, disinterest in sex, or a failure to find sex enjoyable. These positions gradually diminish the sex life of the couple or they create tension in the relationship. Vicious cycles can then be observed with dissatisfaction in sex life leading to unhappiness in married life, which leads to yet more dissatisfaction in sex life.
To arrest this process, couples may undertake a variety of exercises designed to increase focus on the many ways that touching and intimacy are of value, and these exercises do not initially include any involvement with the genitals. Couples are encouraged to spend time with each other unclothed, and focus on things like touching, back rubs, and hugging. As exercises progress, more involvement with parts of the body traditionally considered sexual are incorporated, but still sensate focus exercises discourage people from engaging in intercourse or attempting orgasm of any type.
Such exercises to enhance sensate focus could be undertaken over several weeks or months depending on the couple’s time in therapy. In any form of sex therapy or couples counseling, couples might discuss results of their experiences with their therapist, and decide to repeat exercises or move on, depending on those results. When these exercises work, their de-emphasis on orgasm typically takes the pressure off of needing to perform in some “set way” during intercourse or other sexual experience.
Focus on the pleasure of non-sexual touch and intimacy is often particularly useful for men who suffer performance anxiety, or for women who find it difficult to be sexually aroused. Removing orgasm as an endpoint and reminding couples of the many pre-sexual ways in which togetherness can be achieved can be of great use. Exercises might be tailored in one way or another to fit specific issues, and this greater specificity can be helpful for couples who face unique challenges.