How to have mindful sex
Psychosexual and relationship therapist Kate Moyle explains how mindfulness can bring back your pleasure principle
If the last thing you touch at night is your phone rather than your partner, it’s unlikely that you’re having much ‘mindful sex’ – but you’re not alone. More than half of us check texts in the bedroom, says one recent survey, giving more attention to the device by our bed than the person in it.
Sadly, smartphones aren’t the only intrusion in our sex lives. Most of us carry a headful of distractions that affect our ability to turn off, not to mention our ability to get turned on.
The brain is the most powerful sexual organ of all. It responds to erotic cues by releasing surges of hormones that divert blood to the genitals and cause the swelling, tingling and wetness that put us in the mood for sex. But the thing is, our minds aren’t actually that great at multitasking. So if you’re mulling over your tax return as your partner sidles up to you in bed, you’re unlikely to feel any great desire for sex.
Switch your focus
Mental distractions can also dampen the body’s ability to respond to sex. One study in the Journal Of Sexual Medicine, for example, found that women who reported the highest levels of distraction displayed the lowest levels of genital arousal when watching an erotic movie. Which figures. If your mind is elsewhere, your sexual organs simply don’t get the memo that passion could be on the cards.
For many of us, sexual insecurities can be the biggest distraction of all. After reviewing 40 years’ worth of studies on women with low desire, French sexologists concluded that negative thoughts play a key role in sexual dysfunction, producing anxiety and guilt, and diminishing sexual arousal and pleasure.
Shame around sex, or fear around body insecurities, can seriously undermine your experience in the bedroom, as negative thoughts shift your focus from the sensual to the act itself. We’re so busy worrying about how we look, we put on a performance, physically detaching as if watching from the sidelines. Sex therapists refer to this phenomenon as ‘spectatoring’.
This act of dissociation can become a coping mechanism, particularly for those who have experienced sexual pain or trauma in the past. Detaching ourselves distances us from a very real trigger. The problem is, it also prevents us from connecting sexually and achieving pleasure.
For some women, negative thoughts during sex send the body into ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. Stress hormones block the sexual response, diminishing pleasure and affecting the ability to orgasm. This then becomes a source of anxiety in itself. Sex can also become painful if your body doesn’t respond.
How to stay in the moment
So how can we be more present in the bedroom? Mindful sex is currently gaining newfound interest thanks to the popularity of meditation and mindfulness. Essentially, it’s about creating the mental space to be sexual, then allowing yourself to fully engage with the physical pleasure.
I often liken it to a massage. One of the reasons the physical sensation is so deeply relaxing and pleasurable during a massage is because we set aside the time and give ourselves permission to be sensual. This allows us to really relax and tune in to pleasure.
It sounds deeply unsexy, but scheduling sex in your diary can help for the same reasons. It signals to your brain that this time has been ring-fenced for pleasure. This allows you to focus on the sensations and forget everything else.
Focus can take practise, of course, so here’s an exercise I often recommend to clients. Next time you’re in the shower, close your eyes and zoom in on your senses. What can you hear? Smell? How does the water feel on your skin? The more you practise, the better you’ll get at tuning out from negative chatter and tuning in to sensory pleasure.
Masturbation is another important way to practise mindful sex. Visualise any thoughts of guilt or shame hovering outside your head as if in a cloud. Then mentally scan through your body, tuning into the sensations – the feel of your skin, the way your vagina responds to your touch, the warmth building between your legs. You should find the thought cloud recedes as the physical pleasure takes centre stage.
This mental tool works during sex with a partner, too. When negative thoughts strike – ‘My breasts look saggy in this position.’ ‘Is my partner enjoying this?’ – bring yourself back to the physical by focusing on your senses. The smell of your partner’s hair. The sound of their breathing. The taste of their lips. The warmth of their skin. Again, the negative thoughts should recede as your senses take over.
Breathing also helps. Often during sex we hold our breath through anxiety or a fear of letting go. But taking long, deep breaths from your belly stimulates the vagus nerve in the diaphragm, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This relaxes the body, dilates blood vessels, soothes nerve endings, and lets your body respond in the best possible way.
Get out of your head
Ultimately, mindful sex is about getting out of your head and into your body. If that’s something you’re struggling with, counselling would definitely be a good idea, to explore negative thoughts around sex. Repressed parents, an unhealthy relationship, body hang-ups, sexual trauma… past experiences and subconscious beliefs can all affect our ability to be present in the bedroom, so it’s important to work through them.
More than anything, mindful sex is about loving yourself enough to recognise that you deserve pleasure. And the more pleasurable sex feels, the more you’ll want it – a win-win situation. So, go on, give yourself permission to surrender to your senses. Just remember to switch your phone to silent first.