One of the most useful couple-oriented activities for enhancing mutual sexual enjoyment is a series of touching exercises called sensate focus (I Figure 14.3). Masters and Johnson developed the technique of sensate focus to use as a basic step in treating sexual problems. Sensate focus can help to reduce anxiety caused by goal orientation and to increase communication, pleasure, and closeness (De Villers & Turgeon, 2005). This technique is also useful for any couple wanting to enhance their sexual relationship.
In the sensate focus touching exercises, partners take turns touching each other while following some essential guidelines. Both homosexual and heterosexual couples can benefit from sensate focus. In the following descriptions, we assume that the one doing the touching is a woman and the one being touched is a man. To start, the person who will be doing the touching takes some time to "set the scene" so that the environment will be comfortable and pleasant for her; for example, she might turn off any phones and arrange a warm, cozy place with relaxing music and lighting. The two people then undress, and the toucher begins to explore her partners body, following this important guideline: She is to touch not to please or arouse her partner but to please herself. The goal is for the toucher to focus on her perception of textures, shapes, and temperatures. The person being touched notices how the touching feels, and he remains quiet except when any touch is uncomfortable. In that case, he describes the uncomfortable feeling and what the toucher could do to make it more comfortable. For example: "That tickles. Please touch the other side of my arm." This guideline helps the toucher attend fully to her own sensations without worrying about whether something she is doing is unpleasant for her partner. The nondemanding quality
of this kind of touching helps reduce or eliminate performance anxiety and allows the couple to expand touch beyond goal-directed stimulation.
In the next sensate focus exercise, the two people switch roles, following the same guidelines as before. In these initial sensate focus experiences, intercourse and touching the breasts and genitals are prohibited. Only after the partners have focused on touch and on communicating uncomfortable feelings do they include breasts and genitals as part of the exercise. Again, the toucher focuses on his or her own interest and pleasure, not the partner’s. After the inclusion of breasts and genitals, the partners progress to a simultaneous sensate focus experience. Now they touch one another at the same time and experience feelings from both touching and being touched.
Modern Western sex therapy is based on the assumption that the values of open communication, emotional intimacy, and physical pleasure for both partners guide treatment and are its goals. However, these principles are antithetical to many cultures’ norms (Goodman, 2001), as we explain in the following Sexuality and Diversity discussion.