For most people, the recent passing of a woman named Virginia Johnson sounds fairly irrelevant to their lives. But if you read about her research and accomplishments alongside a man named Dr. William Masters, it is clear that her contributions have paved the way for better understanding and treatment of sexual issues that frequently affect relationships.
Among the work produced by Masters and Johnson is an exercise called sensate focus. Today, sensate focus is a recommended exercise not just for couples having sexual dysfunction, but for any couple who would like to enhance their sensual experience. The exercise is simple, it doesn’t require any props or tools, and it can be adapted to a couples’ personal preference.
Sensate focus removes intercourse as the primary objective of sexual activity and helps the couple connect through sensual touch. There are different variations of the model, but generally speaking a couple starting sensate focus would begin by taking turns touching each other (e.g. ten minutes each). Since the goal of the touching is not to be sexual per se but to heighten awareness of sensations, there is no touching breasts or genitals at this point. The “toucher” doesn’t have to mind-read what their partner does or doesn’t like, as there is constant communication between the partners about what feels good. However, Masters and Johnson recommend keeping the verbal conversation limited so that the partners can be fully present for the sensations and enhance their body awareness. The couple is instructed that if sexual arousal does occur, they are not to proceed to intercourse.
As the couple moves through further stages of the exercise, the hope is that they are not only feeling physically and emotionally closer, but more in tune with their own desires and needs. This translates into a better dynamic both in and out of the bedroom. This is especially pertinent to couples who feel like they are too busy to spend quality time together and can only get a few minutes here and there.
Sensate focus can be a fun and simple activity that can deepen the bond of a couple. It encourages an appreciation for the simplicity of human touch and what it means to be sensually connected to your partner. Moreover, it helps those who struggle with the ability to fully accept pleasure without feeling guilty. Every couple has their own preference for what they enjoy, and the exercise is useful in clarifying that without partners getting insulted or feeling like they need to pretend something feels good.
When Masters and Johnson came up with sensate focus, their objective was to make sex less goal-oriented. Couples can re-orient themselves to the power and beauty of touch. It’s about slowing it down, not speeding it up. and that can create lasting satisfaction and connection.