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Sexual Wellness

A Somatic Sex Therapist on How to Stay Present During Sex

| 09/05/2021

two people touching and staying present during sex Illustration by Gica Tam

When you think of “good sex,” images such as multiple orgasms, ripping your clothes off, going at it for hours on end, numerous positions, and an unfaltering erection might come to mind. These are the dominant images portrayed in films, TV, books, and even conversations about sex.

While this might feel like motivation or give us something to aspire to, this messaging can be damaging. They can often take us out of our bodies and into our heads. We end up competing with fantasy, porn, and unrealistic expectations about what “should” happen during sex rather than experiencing what is happening. We might find our minds wandering to an unending to-do list: work stress, parenting, anywhere except in the moment. If you’ve ever found yourself unable to focus, feeling confused, or trying really hard to achieve a specific result, you’re not alone.   

Because there is a great deal of shame surrounding having sex and sexual exploration, folks often end up turning to one-dimensional or antiquated notions of what sex should entail. Sex education is often confined to abstinence, condom use, periods, and pregnancy and STI prevention. While some of this may be useful information to know, there is a glaring hole in most sex education curriculum: pleasure.

People with vulvas often get the message that having sex will hurt the first time, but to “lay there and take it.” We teach people with penises that size and the length of the erection is how to measure masculinity. Bodies should be thin, and pubic hair should be non-existent, breasts should be big, waists small, penises large. No wonder people feel immense anxiety or inadequacy around sex and their bodies; there are tons of expectations we think we need to adhere to! 

With all of the expectations floating around in our heads, when it comes time to connect with partners, sex can sometimes feel mechanical. When our bodies don’t behave the way we think they should, we feel shame and immediately are taken out of our bodies and into our heads. We overanalyze, overthink, and become preoccupied with impossible standards rather than approaching sex with a sense of curiosity and exploration. 

When we take orgasm off the table, we redirect the energy of what sex is.

So how do you get out of your head when it comes to sex? Let’s bring pleasure into the picture in an intentional way. If you stop asking what you should do, feel, say, and like, what is real for you? If you remove heteronormativity, singular standards of beauty, and even orgasm from the picture, what’s left?

Maybe you’re curious about bondage or impact play, perhaps you’ve wanted to try a butt plug, maybe you like being tickled, your feet worshiped, or nipples played with. Maybe you want to experiment with sensory deprivation or group sex. Maybe you love oral. Maybe you hate it. A great way to access what you like is to allow your needs to be recognized and validated, and you can start by doing that for yourself.


One of the best ways to get in touch with your body, pleasure, and desire is through solo play. The pressure to perform might not be as present, so you can allow yourself to experiment with your body and needs. Some challenges might be that masturbation can feel like a routine. Folks might watch the same porn/erotica, have the same fantasies, use the same toys, even masturbate at the same time of day.

This is understandable because when it comes to masturbation, you might be looking for a tried-and-true technique that gets the job done rapidly without fail. Just as with partnered sex, masturbation can lose some of its allure when things feel predictable. Masturbation might feel like a means to an end rather than an opportunity to connect with yourself and explore pleasure. As a result, you might not even be fully present in your body when masturbating.

To spark some creativity, try switching up your masturbating routine. If you typically masturbate at night right before going to sleep, consider masturbating at a different time of day. Perhaps you usually masturbate in bed—consider trying out the shower, bathroom, or couch. These simple changes can help you get more present in your body.

Pay attention to different senses, not just touch, to have a more conscious sexual experience.

Also, we often think of masturbation as only being genital stimulation. Try touching your nipples, ears, butt, feet, and other erogenous zones either with your hands or vibrators. If you’re into anal stimulation, consider buying a butt plug to insert while you touch different parts of your body. Practice edging. When you feel like you are about to climax, back off of the sensation and try again; this leads to a more intense orgasm. These are some ways that you can really centralize your body’s wants and needs, rather than purely trying to achieve the goal of orgasm.

Remove Orgasm From the Conversation

I know what you’re thinking: “What?! But how will I know if the sex is good? How will I know when it’s over? How will I know if we’re sexually compatible?” There are two things about orgasms: They are fantastic, and they don’t have to happen for sex to be good. When we take orgasm off the table, we redirect the energy of what sex is. It becomes less goal-oriented and more focused on the needs of everyone involved. When you’re one-track-minded about achieving orgasm, you miss all of the other pleasurable sensations that are happening and dismiss them if they don’t lead to an orgasm. Prioritizing orgasm over pleasure puts a ton of pressure on everyone involved, immediately taking you from your body to a critical, cognitive headspace.

The truth is, not everyone comes from penetration, and that’s fine! You can have great sex without penetration and orgasm, especially if you are instead concentrating on what actually feels right for you and your partners. 

Bring In All the Senses

If you find yourself spending a lot of time in your head during sex, consider bringing your awareness to your breath. Paying attention to the part of your body where you most easily feel the breath (belly, chest, nose, mouth) and bringing your attention back to that part of the body is a great way to remind yourself of the importance of intentional, deep breathing. Noticing how the breath feels and sounds also helps you get grounded and present in the moment. 

Pay attention to different senses, not just touch, to have a more conscious sexual experience. Notice how your partner smells, what the curves of their bodies look like, what tastes you pick up in your mouth as you kiss, what it sounds like when they or you moan; these are all great ways to become grounded in your body and present in the moment. Consider lighting candles or incense to target your sense of smell. Play music to stimulate sound.

It’s challenging to be focused on being self-critical or mechanical when you have a total body sexual experience. It’s ok and perfectly normal for your mind to wander, and when it does, bringing your awareness to one of your senses is a great way to get present in the moment.

When you approach sex with a sense of curiosity and exploration, you’re more likely to be in the moment and less preoccupied with distracting thoughts. Acknowledge that what is real and exciting for you is valid. Take your time, switch it up, get all of your senses involved. These are ways for you and your partners to access authenticity, vulnerability, and fun, for a more gratifying sexual experience. 

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