Do you struggle with your body image? Do you feel out of touch with your sexuality? These concerns are common for women throughout their lifespan. Body image is defined as one's thoughts and feelings about the appearance and function of their body. About 90% of women admit to struggling with body image issues. Body image, body shaming, and negative body talk are normalized in the media. Therefore, having negative feelings about your body may feel valid. When we start to think negatively of our self, we become even more disconnected to our bodies and our pleasure. More than 40% of women report experiencing sexual dysfunctions to some degree, which in part impacts sexual satisfaction. If a person has body image issues, it may connect directly to their sexual dissatisfaction and dysfunction.
Women are often taught not to be sexual beings and thus start to have shameful feelings around their sexuality. What often happens is this shame starts to build a disconnection around their unique sexuality. Sensate Focus techniques are a great way to become more confident with one’s pleasure, but it may create anxiety for folks who struggle with body image.
What is Sensate Focus?
Sensate focus is a series of exercises aimed at increasing personal and interpersonal awareness of the self and the others needs. Masters and Johnson (1994) first coined the term “sensate focus” in their published book Heterosexuality. The exercise included five progressive steps that guided the couple from non-genital touching to sensual intercourse. The purpose of these exercises is for the participants to focus on the physical sensations of the body when it is touched. This idea aims to help people veer away from the expectation that sex results in orgasm or penetration. Thus, shifting the focus away from the goal and toward the experience of pleasure during touch then individuals and couples will be more able to enjoy the moment and remain present during their sexual experiences. Sensate Focus can help you identify if your body image is limiting your ability to experience sexual pleasure, and how to counteract your own personal thoughts, feelings and attitude. The exercise described in this tip is a variation of the original sensate focus work, that emphasizes individual exploration of the body and incorporates body image sensitivity.
How does body image impact sexual functioning?
Sexuality covers a broad spectrum of attraction, intimacy, sensuality, emotionality, and physicality. Sexuality is much more than the act of sex, but incorporates how we experience and express ourselves as sexual beings. The relationship we have with our bodies plays an important role in how we experience pleasure and intimacy. Not only is body image associated with sexual functioning, but body image also contributes to a pleasurable sex life. It can be difficult to be confident in the bedroom when you are constantly self-conscious of your body. Here are some questions to assess whether your body image is negatively impacting your sex life:
- Do you feel more comfortable having sex with in the dark?
- Do you think negatively about your body features during sex?
- Are thoughts of your sexual performance more important than your pleasure?
- Are you concerned about how your body looks during sex?
- Are you comfortable being naked by yourself? In front of your partner?
- Does being naked in front of your partner cause anxiety?
- Are you self-conscious of body features during sex?
- If you are self-conscious about these body features, do you think about them during most of the time when you are having sex?
- Does thinking about these features cause you distress?
- Do you avoid sex because of the distress you get from thinking about your body?
- Is it difficult to stop thinking about these features during sex?
If you answered “YES” to any of the above questions, then your body image may be negatively impacting. Focusing on solely your body takes away from being present in the moment and enjoying the pleasurable sensations your body feels. Of course, the more “yes” answers you had, the more your body image is negatively impacting your sexual experience. If you answered “yes” to only one or two questions, then your body image has less effect on sex.
Sensate Focus Prep Work – designed to be done alone
This exercise can take anywhere from 10 min- 60 min depending on your comfortability. You may only feel comfortable doing 5 or 10 minutes to start and with practice you may be able to do this exercise for longer.
Before starting, make sure you are in a quiet and safe place where you will not be disturbed. It is important to not have a mirror present. Mirrors focus on the external image you see, and this mindfulness exercise aims to focus on the physical sensations of the body. You can do this exercise while you take a bath, shower, or simply in your room.
Sensate focus exercises start with your partner. Prior to the official start of Sensate Focus Exercises connecting to your own body is key. Body image often creates a disconnection to your body, so touching your body helps begin to mend the relationship. Start by taking off your clothes slowly. As you remove each item ask yourself “how does it feel?” Notice how you feel when your hands meet your skin as you take off your underwear. How comfortable do you feel? Do you feel exposed? Do you feel relaxed or anxious? No particular feeling is wrong during this exercise. There is no wrong way to feel. This exercise can definitely feel uncomfortable. After some practice, this discomfort may slowly fade.
Once you are fully naked, start to run your fingers down your arms and onto the rest of your body. You can massage parts or continue to run your fingers down. What feels good? Is there a part of your body where this feels better than others? Is there an area that does not feel good to be touched? Once again, there is no right or wrong way to feel. This exercise just builds an awareness around what feels good and what doesn’t feel good for your body.
Other types of touch can include massaging the muscles. When you rub your body, notice how it feels. How does it feel different from running your fingers down your body? Is it harder? Easier? Which feels better? Start to wonder why one might feel better than the other.
After practicing this exercise, think about the parts of your body that you may have felt uncomfortable touching. When you are ready, it may be helpful to start focusing on those areas that caused discomfort. While you touch these areas, start to pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that come up. If it feels uncomfortable, ask yourself why. What about touching these specific areas feels uncomfortable. Do you notice negative thoughts pop up around these areas? What are the thoughts? What caused these thoughts?
Sensate Focus Exercise – Designed to be done with a partner
Step 1: Try it with your partner.
This exercise can take anywhere from 30-90 min. Start where you feel comfortable. It may be helpful to start this phase with the lights off or dimmed to lessen the anxiety during this process. In this stage, one partner will be the toucher and the other will be the touchee (person being touched). The first time trying this exercise, the touchee can start for 10 minutes and then switch roles. Make sure to plan your schedule so you both will have time alone in a space that is quiet and safe. The touchee and toucher will start by taking off their clothes. You can start by taking off your own clothes or you and your partner can take off each other’s clothes. Whichever feels comfortable to start. Next, the touchee will find a comfortable position, maybe lying on the bed face down and the toucher will start tracing their fingertips along the touchees body.
This step is similar to the first step but includes your partner as well. The first stage of sensate focus involves being naked and touching, but without touching the genitals or breasts. If being naked causes anxiety, then this stage can start with clothing such as a bra or underwear or a shirt. Partners should have the experience of both being the toucher and touchee (person being touched), however this exercise is focused on the partner who struggles with body image and that partner should start as the touchee. The objective of this exercise is to get comfortable being touched by your partner. Individuals with body image issues are often less comfortable being naked because it creates vulnerability. Practicing being naked and vulnerable with your partner while exploring the pleasurable sensations of your body will help facilitate a more positive relationship with the body.
Talk About It
Communication is an extremely important part of this step. Before starting, talk to your partner about your anxieties and concerns about this exercise. For example, if you are nervous about it being awkward because it is new or if you feel vulnerable because you’re going to be naked and that feels uncomfortable. Talk about expectations and validate each other. If there is an area of your body that you want your partner to avoid, let them know. Although touching may seem simple, touching is also an incredibly intimate activity that can create anxiety. Once again, make sure you do this exercise in a private and quiet space where you will not be interrupted.
Next it is helpful for the partner working through body image issues to become aware of the features they are most confident about. Pick out the areas of your body that cause the least anxiety and tell your partner to focus on these parts when touching you. This phase of touching includes gently running fingers of your partner’s skin while they communicate what areas feel pleasurable and what areas feel less pleasurable. Before the activity let your partner know your concerns. During the activity you can verbally tell your partner what feels good and what is uncomfortable. Non-verbal affirmations such as smiling and moaning can also be a strong way to communicate with each other. Hand riding can be utilized to guide your partner to the areas of your body that feel good. Hand riding is when the touchee places their hand on their partners and guides them to the different parts of their body.
Switch Up Positions
At first it may feel most comfortable to start this exercise lying on your stomach and having your partner touch your backside. This is definitely a great way to ease into sensate focus. After a couple sessions, maybe you are comfortable to switch up positions. Some positions may cause more anxiety than others because certain positions leave your body more exposed, which may feel vulnerable. Another position to try is sitting in between your partner’s legs. They can sit behind you, leaning against the wall or headboard of the bed. Your back will be touching your partner’s chest or stomach. Your partner can then trace their hands over your shoulders, arms, stomach, etc. Once again, if there is an area you are not ready for them to touch, talk to them about it. A more advanced position can be you laying on your back, front side up. Your partner can sit at the end of your feet or in between your legs, while they touch your legs, feet, etc. This can be a very vulnerable position for people. You can try this position with your eyes closed to better focus on the sensations in your body.
There will be times where you will feel stuck. These exercises are not a “one time fix all” but instead a way to practice intimacy with each other. It is a practice, and it takes time. Be patient with each other. It is a natural part of the process to feel frustrated at times. We often place an expectation for sex to be goal oriented, which can make us forget to stay in the moment and enjoy the pleasure with our own self and our partners. Thus, this ingrained goal oriented fixation may carry over into this touching exercise. Try to avoid the expectation that this exercise is meant to have a goal to be met. Instead, think of it as a process and learning experience that involves creating intimacy between yourself and your partner. Intimacy is a way to feel close to the people we love. Learning how to become comfortable with our bodies, pleasure and sharing our insecurities with our partners is extremely intimate and draws us closer together.
It is difficult to enjoy sexual experiences when we are constantly distracted by our thoughts, worries, and feelings about our sexual performance. Sexual pleasure comes from being in tune with the physical and emotional sensations experienced in the moment. It is easier to be present during sex when we become aware of the body’s sensations we feel. In order to become mindful, we must shift our focus from the thoughts in our mind to the pleasurable feelings of our body. Sensate Focus techniques can help people with body image issues learn to be more connected to their sexual pleasure. Sensate Focus is a set of touching techniques that serves as a therapeutic approach to help people experiencing sexual difficulties. There are some modifications that can be applied to Sensate Focus exercises to create a comfortable space that incorporates body image. This specific exercise highlights the importance of touch in intimacy, without the expectation that intercourse is the goal. Moving through these first steps allows individuals to start exploring their body and the body of their partner.