Almost every Couple I’ve worked with has been to Couples Therapy.
It’s not surprising, given the ubiquity of Relate and similar organisations, and the widespread belief that sexual issues within a relationship are best addressed by talk therapists.
As part of their therapy, the Couple will have been given Sensate Focus exercises. These would either have worked a little bit, or not at all. The Couple would have lost heart and discontinued the therapy. And then, through the dizzy mystery of the internet, they found me.
Sensate Focus was created by Masters & Johnson around 60 years ago. In essence, it takes heterosexual intercourse as a given and dramatically slows it down. Instead of focusing on the goal of intercourse and orgasm, the couple are encouraged to take turns to explore the body of the other in a sensuous way, pleasing to them and, at least intially, avoiding explicitly erotic touch and intercourse. The other partner is encouraged to say what they like and don’t like. It is specifically intended to reduce performance anxiety and stress around sexual activity, and to encourage better communication.
To the extent that it works, it’s completely unobjectionable, but often it doesn’t. Why?
We can understand better how it doesn’t work by understanding the ways in which it does.
It makes sexual intercourse less rushed But what if, for you, sexual intercourse isn’t actually that great? Your partner might enjoy it, and want you to enjoy it too, but what if you don’t? What if you never, or very rarely orgasm?
It encourages touch But what if this is problematic for you? What if you don’t particularly like how you’re touched, but you can’t seem to say what you prefer? Or you don’t even know? What if you lack a language of touch?
It encourages saying what you want But what if you don’t know what you want? Perhaps you only know what you don’t want, which makes your partner feel criticised and you feeling disappointed. Perhaps you have a vague sense “There must be more than this”, but don’t know what.
In other words, Sensate Focus takes a whole load of things for granted:
- the point of [heterosexual] sex is intercourse
- that’s what everyone wants, so long as there’s enough build up
- sex is natural, so people don’t need to learn how to touch or how to communicate, they just need to let go of their hang-ups
- sex is purely physical; it’s just learning to do it at the right speed so there’s enough arousal and little anxiety
But what if none of this were true?j
When I started working with [heterosexual] Couples, one of the things which struck me was that one partner, usually the woman, would complain that it was impossible, or at least very difficult, for there to be any physical intimacy which didn’t have the expectation of ending in intercourse. If it didn’t, their partner would be annoyed or disappointed. In consequence of that, intimacy would often be avoided altogether. And often, when intercourse happened, it was more to keep the peace than because of genuine desire. The partner would still be annoyed or disappointed -just not quite so much – because they expected their partner to enjoy intercourse as much as they did.
A variation of this was that one partner, again usually the woman, would complain that their partner would avoid any physical intimacy, and they didn’t know why.. On enquiry, it was usually that the man had anxieties around intercourse, but didn’t feel able to share those.
And a very common complaint was boredom and repetition.
So what can be done?
The most obvious thing is to widen the sense of what sex is, and can be, and that widening can take a number of forms.
sexual styles. There’s lots of different schemas. For example, there is an idea popularised by David Schnarch in ‘Passionate Marriage’, that there are three sexual styles: trance, partner engagement and play. Trance is where our experience is very inner. We will tend to be quite still and fairly quiet. Partner Engagement is the opposite; lots of talking, eye contact, connection. Play is newness, experimentation, role-play. If you know your partner’s style, then behaviour which appears disconnected, or wanting approval, or insincere, suddenly makes sense. And if you understand your own, things might become a whole lot easier. I write about this more here. Another perspective is the idea of erotic blueprints. The American Sex Educator Jaiya has said there are five: The Energetic, The Sensual, The Sexual, The Kinky and The Shapeshifter. I write about this more here. The thing about these topologies is to think of them, not as absolutes, but as useful lenses to see the sexual world, our own and other people’s, in a way which is inquisitive and expansive rather than blaming or shaming.
the realms of sexuality. I believe there are eight dimensions of sexuality. I write about this idea here. Carefully curated exercises exploring these various realms is a wonderful antidote to boredom caused by a very restrictive idea of what sex is.
the use of the imagination. The greatest single failure of the Sensate Focus perspective is that it fails to take into account people’s erotic fantasy life. I have been developing work on The Erotic Imagination with the writer Rachel Connor, which you can read about here, but I find it very helpful to also use this in my private work.
challenging the idea “there’s something wrong with me”. An exclusively physical notion of what sex is, and an over focus on orgasm through intercourse, leads many women to think there’s something wrong with them. It is a human catastrophe, and entirely avoidable. I write about that here
If you’ve tried Sensate Focus and it didn’t work for you, then please get in touch with me to arrange a call. I set out the process here
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