Trigger warning: mentions of sexual assault.
For individuals who have been sexually, emotionally, or mentally traumatized, intercourse may be a sensitive topic within the relationship.
Anxiety is vasco-constricting, meaning that there is constricted blood flow which contributes to the lack of erotic sensations when overcoming trauma. An individual may be sexually turned on but unable to successfully perform due to their stress levels and the tightening of muscles.
According to Ruth Cohn, once the nervous system has been affected by a certain experience, like mistreatment or abuse, the “limbic brain is adamant that it will not happen again.” Because of this, it becomes “highly sensitized to stimuli even slightly reminiscent to the original event, and responds to them as if the cataclysm is about to happen again.” If you would like to have intercourse with your partner, but experienced traumatic abuse in the past, your body may reject the action of sex as a response — a form of fight or flight.
Sensate focus is a practice developed by Masters and Johnsons in the 1970s to increase the awareness of one’s own body and their partner’s to overcome trauma or anxiety without the use of medication. By encouraging one another to increase attention to certain areas of the body, senses are activated, and both individuals identify relaxing and erogenous zones.
Sensate focusing is a step-by-step process — it’s not a quick fix for couples by any means — and is presented in seven stages that should be achieved successfully before moving forward to the remaining step. The overarching idea behind the practice is that couples touch one another in specific ways and agree to not touch the entire body, only a selected area. Sensate focus does not involve intercourse (until stage 7) and allows the mind to activate a region of the body which should alleviate any stress of having to successfully perform during sex.
The seven stages for sensate focusing include:
The Back Massage
Couples should spend one to two hours focused on the back massage while nude. All focus should be on the give and take relationship which means all computers, phones, and electronics should be absent. The back massage provides touch, without being overtly sexual. Each step should be practiced for five minutes.
- The first five minute touch is about the giver. They should be selfish, it’s the kind of touch that they desire. The second five minute touch is how the receiver would touch if they wanted to turn on their partner — pleasing the receiver is the ultimate goal.
- Next, couples are encouraged to make noise if they enjoy a specific touch. Not only does sensate focusing build upon the relationship of touch, but it also incorporates sound as a pleasure identifier.
- Choice A or B is a segment where the receiver gives two types of touches (A or B) and the receiver must choose between the two as to which one they prefer.
- Moving beyond moans and groans, the giver is now encouraged to talk for five minutes to the receiver in pleasurable phrases while the receiver simply listens. “I like…” or “I want to do…” are examples of how to talk to your partner.
- Slowly begin to interact with one another. The receiver is now able to guide the givers hands in order to display where pleasure is desired. Spend, once again, five minutes in this step while in complete silence.
- After all of these steps, the couple should discuss the touching experience. Example: What they liked, what they didn’t like.
The massage exercise should be repeated three times and is meant to connect the couple towards a more comfortable means of communication.
The Frontal Massage
Complete the previous step-by-step exercises on the front of the body, however, no genitals or nipples should be touched.
The Breast and Chest
Now we can introduce the sexual organs (no one said this was a fast process). Couples should remember to not focus on the nipples for the entire length of time as this can become tiresome and painful for the receiver.
Go through all of the steps by touching genitals with manual stimulation or using a sex toy. Think of sensate focusing as a way to explore your partner’s body, and your own, with ease and patience. Practice this step at least 3 times as it can evoke the most anxiety for an individual.
Here is where the “giver” and “receiver” roles evaporate. In this environment, sensate focusing wants the couple to imagine one of the individuals to be in control, while the other is passive. As someone who has experienced trauma, this can seem a bit daunting; however, this is the last and final stage and the couple should be comfortable with exploring one another at this point. If not, work on the previous steps until you arrive here.
Sensate focusing is essentially the “practice” of sex until intercourse can be fun again. The worries and the stress that contribute to anxiety and vaginismus can be cured by trying again and again, without the pain and burden of diving right into sex. Since sensate focus takes couples out of the traditional sexual environment and into something more tedious and present, the practice integrates the body, emotion, and the mind.
Furthermore, patience, time, and love are tested with this sexual recovery practice. The work put in is, ultimately, worth the wait.