Each of these tools are techniques and approaches I incorporate into my sex therapy practice. Each have their primary focus, underlying philosophy, and limitations. None of these tools have immediate results or offers “the move” to have amazing sex every time. Rather, they are fundamental sex therapy skills that will support you in having deeply satisfying sex with your favourite moves, kinks, or partners.
1. Sensate Focus Sex Therapy
What I love about this tool is the philosophy and practical guidance on how to develop presence with the sensory experiences of touch. The exercises are basically a series of touching your own body or the body of another person while focusing on the temperature, pressure, and texture of the touch. It’s not about doing what you like or what you think your partner would like, rather, it’s to encourage curiosity and playfulness with touch. Like learning scales on the piano to prepare for playing music, sensate focus exercises are meant to be practiced outside of times you wish to have sex with yourself or others. They are a skill-practice, the skill of attending to sensations, not meant to be sex itself or a precursor to sex. It’s also particularly helpful practice for those who enjoy kinky sex that is focused on exploring the textures and sensations of impact play or specific materials like latex or leather.
The philosophy underlying the exercises also includes each person taking responsibility for their own orgasm, pleasure, and playfulness during sex. There is a hope that each person will eventually learn how to touch for their own curiosity/enjoyment during sex. In doing so, ironically, each person will end-up creating optimal sexual touch for everyone involved because everyone is taking care of themselves and not becoming anxious with trying to do something that their partner will like.
This technique was developed by sex researchers Masters and Johnson in 1960’s. It has been a classic approach in sex therapy since and one of the first tools developed after researchers observed heterosexual couples having sex in a laboratory. It is important to note: laboratory sex is quite unlike every day real-life sex and who is willing to come into a lab and have sex while being watched is a special kind of person, indeed! So this tool comes with A LOT of caveats.
The original technique/tool outlined by the book linked below is incredibly intensive. It takes a long time, slow going, and can be extremely useful for people who require a slower pace due to sensory overload, working with sexual trauma triggers, body dysmorphia, or post gender-affirming surgeries. It is also a technique that many sex therapists will be able to modified and personalize to the needs of individuals and relationships. I also don’t believe you need to follow it by the letter to explore what it has to offer.
Get the book: Sensate Focus in Sex Therapy: The Illustrated Manual:
Considerations: This is a sex therapy textbook, not designed for the general public in style. It includes information on how to use sensate focus approaches within queer, kinky, and polyamorous relationships, with information on healing from gender affirming surgeries but no guidance for individuals who are nonbinary or have not pursued gender affirming surgeries and are hoping to manage body dysmorphia. There is a big focus on penetrative sex and the sequential descriptions of what people are working toward is definitely penetration and in this way is quite heteronormative which is reflective of Masters and Johnson’s research in the 1960s. Penetration is not the most important sexual activity and not required for satisfying sex. However, modification of the progression of techniques is absolutely at the discretion of you!
2. The Wheel of Consent
Betty Martin’s work with teaching people how to give and receive touch/physical contact is another highly useful framework for exploring our relationships to our autonomy and interconnection with others. Martin calls her framework The Wheel of Consent wherein she explores the different ways we give touch and receive touch in both active and passive ways.
What I love about Martin’s work is how through active engagement with the exercises she outlines on her website/in her book, people are given guidance on how to recognize their personal barriers to giving and receiving touch as well as philosophical/political implications for our relationships to giving and receiving. Martin speaks to the importance of being able to take from one another in order to enhance physical intimacy while honouring each others boundaries and limits so we may eventually fully give into reciprocal, playful, sexual connection with safe and trustworthy partners.
What sensate lacks in the nuances of noticing what we truly desire in our physical intimacy with others, The Wheel of Consent explores in abundance; while the Wheel of Consent lacks the specific focus on sensory texture that sensate focus offers. Both approaches recognize the importance of curiosity while learning how to take and play in a loving, safe, consensual relationship.
Get the book: The Art of Giving and Receiving: The Wheel of Consent:
Considerations: Focused primarily on dyadic exercises for couples. Acknowledgement of gender diversity with thoughtful deconstructing of gender roles and how this influences consent practices across gender identities.
3. Practicing Presence
The first thing I want to point out as a person with a very novice Buddhist practice is that what is described as mindfulness by Lori Brotto in her book recommended below is more about practicing presence than mindfulness. As thoughtfully noted by Peggy Kleinplatz in Magnificent Sex: Lessons from Extraordinary Lovers, mindfulness is a spiritual practice to support people toward enlightenment. In other words, in preparation of the inevitability of death. Mindfulness as a practice has been largely appropriated without sufficient acknowledgement within psychotherapy trainings and texts. While developing an ability to be in the present moment is certainly part of a mindfulness practice, mindfulness is specifically a practice that is part of Buddhist philosophy.
Practicing presence in our bodies through regular body-scans (i.e., attending to the sensations we feel in our bodies) that includes attending to the sensations and feelings in our genitals, nipples, anus, and other erogenous zones helps us practice continually bringing our attention out of our heads and into our bodies. This is often easier said than done, so continual practice of this skill on a regular basis is useful.
This can be an extremely helpful practice especially for those of us who struggle with flashbacks to sexual trauma, getting distracted by the stress of the day, or helping us draw attention away from pain toward the pleasures we may be simultaneously feeling in the body.
Get the book: Better Sex Through Mindfulness:
Considerations: this book is very much written by a ciswoman for ciswomen to help ciswomen manage painful penetrative sex. While I do not believe attending away from pain toward pleasure is sufficient for a fully satisfying sex life, nor do I believe penetrative sex is necessary for a satisfying sex life, the basic practice of developing presence with our physical bodies is the juicy heart center of this approach. Body-scans can also be a very distressing experience for individuals who have traumatic body memories. If you struggle to do body-scans, you may want to work with a somatic teacher or therapist to support your sexual health.