Intimate Touch: How Sensate Focus Can Improve Your Sex Life

Have you ever initiated sex with your partner only to lay there thinking about the grocery list as they reach orgasm? Do you yearn for sex that turns you into a bundle of nerve endings without the ability to think? Is your masturbation routine the same every time – a release but little satisfaction?

Many people come to sex therapy frustrated with their inability to reach orgasm. They may experience pain with sexual intercourse, carry shame about sexuality, have performance anxiety that keeps them from focusing, or some other form of sexual dysfunction that keeps them from having the sex life they crave.

You don’t have to live with disappointing sexual experiences. You can learn what you like in the bedroom. You can explore your body without the pressure of orgasm or genital stimulation to find out how and where you want to be touched. Then, once you know yourself and are intimately connected with your body, you can share sensate focus or intimate touch exercises to improve intimacy and emotional connection with your partner.

What is Sensate Focus?

Sensate focus is a sex therapy technique created by Dr. William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson in the 1960s. Sensate focus describes a series of non-genital touching exercises. You can do it alone or with a partner that helps you learn to focus on pleasure instead of orgasm. Often, when we focus on orgasm as the goal of sexual experiences, we miss out on opportunities for building sexual arousal, pleasure, and connection.

Sensate focus activities can help you overcome sexual difficulties related to:

  • difficulty orgasm
  • body image
  • premature ejaculation
  • lack of sexual response
  • anxiety about masturbation or partnered sex
  • erectile dysfunction

What is the Typical Duration of an Intimate Touch Session?

A sensate focus session can last as long as you want. Whether you only have a few moments of peace because your children are napping, or you’ve found a block of uninterrupted time, sensate focus will fit into your life.

If you involve a partner in your intimate touch session, it’s best to set a clear expectation of who will be the toucher, the receiver, and how much time you’ll have. Setting a timer will help you relax into the session, so you aren’t worried about missing your zoom meeting or being late to pick up the kids from practice.

Do I Need a Partner for Sensate Focus?

Sensate focus activities involve an intimate connection with the physical sensations in your body so you can identify your true desires and unique erotic code. It’s about learning what you like and how you want it. So, sensate focus can involve your partner, especially if you’re helping them learn your body – but it’s often best to start them independently.

We recommend people engage in sensate focus exercises on their own a few times before involving their partners. Mutual touching is more complicated than solo time because one partner may feel pressure to engage in sexual activity rather than only touch exercises.

When you’re in a relationship, intimate touch exercises allow you to enjoy and explore your partner’s body. You may find they like their ears touched or kissed or that brushing your fingers along their ankles makes them moan.

Setting Expectations and Boundaries for Sensate Focus

It’s common for people to become aroused during sensate focus activities – that’s the whole point, especially if you’re using intimate touch to overcome sexual difficulties. Once we become aroused, it’s difficult to think logically. When your instincts take over, you may worry that you’ll pressure your partner for more than they want or worry about them pressuring you.

We recommend setting boundaries and expectations for each intimate touch session so you both know where you’re starting and ending the session. Here are some questions to think about as you set these parameters with your partner:

  • Who is the giver, and who is the receiver? Are you taking turns, or is only one person receiving this time? Both partners should receive at some point, but sometimes the receiver will have trouble relaxing if they know they have to give afterward.
  • What can the giver use during the touch session? (hands, lips, tongue, feet, whole body)
  • What areas of the receiver’s body are open to touch and off-limits? Remember to stay away from genital stimulation during these activities.
  • Will one or both partners be clothed or naked? If you’re dressed, be sure to wear something loose and comfortable.
  • How long will the session last? Fifteen minutes per receiver is a standard recommendation, but the duration is up to you.
  • Will you use massage oil, lotion, or nothing during the session?

What Does the Giver Do?

During sensate focus activities, the giver touches areas of their partner’s body while varying their touch. Massaging, grazing of fingernails or fingertips, and even kissing if you and your partner agree are great ways to start. When you’re the giver, focus on the temperature of your partner’s skin, the contours of their body, and even the way their skin’s texture changes.

What Does the Receiver Do?

When you’re the receiver during intimate touch activities, don’t comment on how your partner touches you or direct their movements unless you’re uncomfortable. Consent is necessary, and learning what types of touch turn you off is part of this process. Notice how different types of touch feel during the exercise so you can share with your partner.

What About Solo-Intimate Touch?

Sensate focus was initially designed for use by couples, but intimate touch is a wonderful way to learn about yourself. When you’re engaging in sensate focus on your own, you’ll still want to plan what areas and type of touch you’ll use. You can be naked or clothed – some people enjoy intimate self-touch in a warm bath or the shower.

What Do We Do After an Intimate Touch Session?

After an intimate touch session, it’s a good idea to talk with your partner about the experience. Sensate focus is a learning experience, and sharing what you learned about your body will improve your intimacy and sex life.

If you’re solo, reflecting on the experience will help you voice your intimate touch preferences to a future partner and internalize what you enjoy most so you can use it during masturbation. Try writing your reflection in a journal.

Here are some prompts to get the conversation or journaling started.

  • Describe what you felt when your partner touched your arms, face, neck, legs, back, feet, etc. What areas felt best?
  • Describe how it felt to touch your partner. What did you notice when you touched various areas of their body? Did they react in any way (moans, shudders, pulling away)?
  • What did you want more of? What do you want to avoid next time?
  • How did it feel to engage in intimacy that wasn’t sex or orgasm-driven?

Sexual and Relationship Issues Can be Complicated

If you struggle with shame, guilt, or sexual and intimate touch avoidance, you are not alone. Our upbringing, societal expectations, and the stress of daily life can impact how we show up in the bedroom and in our intimate relationships. But, intimacy, communication, and sex are skills you can learn and refine to build the sex life of your dreams.

Sensate focus and other types of sensual touch are tools you can use to build your self-knowledge and connection with your partner. Working with a sex therapist may help if you still have trouble connecting. Reach out today to schedule your FREE Intimacy Recovery Discovery Call. Our therapists will help you clarify your sexual and relationship concerns and identify a plan to help move you toward the pleasure and connection you deserve.


If you’d like to learn more about sensate focus techniques, click here to purchase our Intimacy Recovery Kit, which includes a guided intimate touch activity you can do alone or with a partner.


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