Portia Brown is a Brooklyn-based sex educator, coach, and content creator. She uses her educational background in journalism and sexual health to educate, advocate and uplift. When she is not working and writing, she is learning about astrology, cooking, or listening to music. You can follow Portia on Instagram @FroeticSexology.
Not Feeling Present During Sex? The Reason Is More Common Than You Think
“My stomach looks huge in this position.”
“Did I remember to take the trash out?”
“I forgot to call that client back. Shit!”
“He doesn't look like he’s enjoying this at all.”
“This doesn’t feel good. Is something wrong with me?”
“Why am I taking so long to ‘finish’?”
At some point or another, I’ve had these thoughts during sex. If you’ve ever battled distracting thoughts when you’re supposed to be enjoying sex, you are not alone! We are thinking about everything from our cellulite to whatever random noise is happening in the background.
This phenomenon is known in the world of psychology as “spectatoring.” Essentially, we are “watching” ourselves engage in sex and pleasure, while also having an anxious dialogue about everything that is or isn’t happening.
And I know what you’re thinking, “The sex can’t be that good if you’re so distracted, sis!” But spectatoring can happen even with the most skilled and attentive partners.
But why? How?
We Don’t Live Mindful Lives
All day long, our minds are going a mile a minute. We are constantly toggling between Zoom meetings and laundry, to social media and social engagements, to lengthy daily to-do lists, and back again. This creates a “busy brain” which is not good for sex! The busy brain life we live is hard to shut off once we hit the sheets. We all spend a lot of time in our heads and we rarely connect with our bodies.
Tell me if you’ve ever been driving home from work, only to arrive at your destination with no memory of how you got there. Your body may be on autopilot while your brain is off doing other things. This happens in a lot of other scenarios. Fast forward to when I actually settle down to self-pleasure or have sex with a partner, it’s hard to trigger the mind to suddenly be reconnected with the body and focus on the sensations that are happening.
Not all trauma that I’m speaking about is sexual trauma but a good portion of it is. If you are someone who has had some level of sexual violence happen to them, it can show up in your consensual sexual situations. This can cause you to go into a protective mode and disassociate or not feel present during the act.
Our brains are very complex, but they are also really good at trying to protect us from harm. If you are someone who has experienced harm, it’s not uncommon for you to experience disassociation, or feeling disconnected from your body.
Orgasms aren’t the only things people fake in bed. We fake moans, body language, and facial expressions. It isn’t always because we aren’t into the sex we are having. Instead, it's because we have a particular image in mind of what pleasure looks like. So we try to perform pleasure for our partner. And if you’re performing, there's no way to be truly in tune with your body!
Oftentimes that means not giving our bodies enough time to really warm up before sex or self-pleasure. So then we spent a lot of time in our head trying to perform! This leads to us wondering why we are taking so long to orgasm, or why we don’t feel pleasure in a deep and authentic way.
Regardless of what the cause is, I’m sure the question on your mind is, “What the hell can I do to fix it?”
Sexual Mindfulness: 4 Ways To Be More Relaxed & More Present During Sex
1. Turn to your breath.
Our breath is powerful! Deep breathing is the most underrated sex tip out there. You wanna feel more focused? Breathe deeply! You wanna experience more pleasure? Breathe deeply! Do you want to feel more present? Breathe deeply! There is a reason people pay good money to sit in silent meditation. There is a lot to be gained from intentional breathwork.
During sex we often find ourselves tensing up or even holding our breath without realizing it. And while some tension is necessary for orgasm, our bodies need to have a balance of relaxation to allow proper blood flow. The next time you find yourself feeling distracted or busy brain during sex, try taking a few deep, slow breaths into your diaphragm to help you feel more present and more relaxed.
2. Focus on your senses.
Get out of your head and into your body! In order to fully access pleasure, we need to focus on grounding ourselves in our own bodies. If you find yourself wandering off during sex, try this grounding exercise: Think of one thing you can see, one thing you smell, one thing you feel, one thing you hear, and one thing you taste to help ground you. Our five senses are an incredible way to bring us back into our bodies and we can easily use them to ground us during sex.
3. Change your environment.
You may roll your eyes when you read this but “setting the mood” can be a game-changer. Get the lights just right, turn up your favorite playlist, light a candle! And make sure the door is LOCKED. Be free from any distractions and submerge yourself into the moment with your lover.
A lot of us just roll over and continue on with our day when we are having sex. We never spend time reflecting on the sex we are having with ourselves or with our partners! To be honest, the “debrief” after sex is one of my favorite parts of sex. Sex is about pleasure, but sex is also about learning, growing, and reflecting. Try to spend at least five minutes after sex reflecting with your partner or with yourself if you’re masturbating. In an effort to reflect and connect, consider asking yourself the following questions after sex:
- What was the most enjoyable part of this experience?
- How did I show up for myself and/or my partner?
- Think of a word to summarize the sex you just had.
It’s so important to remember that no one is perfect. Above all, have grace with yourself and remember that if you don’t do all of these things perfectly, that is okay. Finding a practice that works for your life takes time, but the journey is always worth it.
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Featured image by Getty Images
Who Should Initiate Sex & Why It Matters
My life revolves around sex. Every day, I speak and write about intimacy online, but I can also say that I loathe initiating sex! It can be awkward, my partner and I aren’t always on the same page, and when I try to sound sexy, we both start cracking up! Honestly, I’d rather eat a jean jacket than bat my eyelashes and ask my partner, “Are you in the mood?” And yet, time and time again, I find myself sliding into something lacy and queuing up my "sexy time" playlist. Why?
Because nothing is better than feeling desired by your partner, and I love seeing the look on my man’s face when I step out in next-to-nothing. Don’t get me wrong, at least once a month, I have to hype myself up in the mirror, like Issa Rae, before heading to the bedroom.
If you want a thriving sex life, initiating sex is part of the work that has to happen to get to the action. But in my work as a sex educator, I often see that one partner tends to initiate more often than the other. And if you’re on this road, take the next exit, because you’re headed straight toward trouble! This creates a huge imbalance, putting the burden on one partner to be the person who makes sex happen and never gets to experience being deeply desired by their partner.
You may have also fallen into the cycle of feeling guilty or pressured to initiate sex (we’ve all been there at one point or another.) You certainly want your partner to feel desired by you, but the uncertainty of how to initiate sex stops you dead in your tracks.
When should I ask? What do I even say or do? Are they even interested in sex right now?
You must figure out what it is that sparks the hesitation in the first place.
Fear of Rejection in Initiating Sex & How to Stop It
The truth is, we don’t like to hear “no.” Psychologist and intimacy coach Dr. Jacqueline Sherman says, “Many of my clients, particularly women, have a fear of vulnerability. They fear that when they ask their partner for sex, they may reject them.” Rejection is not fun, so you may find yourself sitting on the sidelines rather than taking the bull by the horns.
In heterosexual relationships, the problems go a layer or two deeper. “Some women say that because of how they’ve been raised, they feel like they shouldn’t have to initiate and they want their man to do it for them. They believe women are to be submissive and initiating sex would be them taking on a more dominant role,” Sherman explains.
But having one partner be responsible for initiating can be a disaster. “We know that when one partner is holding down the responsibility of initiating, they may become tired of it and eventually stop altogether. This is a perfect recipe for a dry spell.” When that partner gets tired of carrying that burden and taking on that responsibility alone, they may stop making sex happen.
The fear of rejection and desire to appear submissive is not limited to heterosexual relationships. Queer women experience some of the same fears and hesitations. Regardless of your partner’s gender, the hard pill to swallow is that we may need to get comfortable with rejection. There are going to be times that your partner is not interested in sex when you are. So how do we handle being told “not tonight” by our lover?
- Re-frame rejection for what it really is: your partner feeling comfortable enough to be honest with you about their desires, which is never a bad thing.
- Propose a different intimate activity. Sex may be off the table, but perhaps cuddling or a back rub are options.
- Find a different time to have sex. Their “no” may not be a “no” for good. They may be interested in doing the deed a bit later.
Lack of Body Confidence & Its Impact on the Desire to Initiate Sex
Personally, not feeling like I know how to be “sexy” enough is my biggest block to initiating sex. I can blame the media and mainstream porn for that. All my life, I’ve been pummeled with messages of what “sexy” is, what it isn’t, how it looks, and what it sounds like. Truth be told, traditional ideas of sex appeal don’t fit me. “Sexy is whatever the hell you make it!” Sherman hollers to me over Zoom. “We have a narrow idea of what it means to be confident and sexy, it's time to create our own standards.”
Discovering what is authentically “sexy” to you and shedding society's expectations takes time and effort. If you are strategic and patient with yourself, you can see a shift in your perception of yourself. Clear your social media of all influencers, celebrities, or even friends who make you feel inferior or spark negative thoughts about your own body. It’s OK to mute, block and unfollow them.
Some small changes you can make to build your sexual confidence are:
- Spend some time doing “mirror work” and saying affirmations to yourself out loud.
- Invest in lingerie or at least undergarments that fit your body well and make you feel your best.
- Music can greatly influence our mood. Create a playlist that brings out your inner sex goddess and play it whenever you need a boost!
A Better Way to Initiate Sex with Your Partner
Sherman says we can always course correct, and no relationship has to suffer permanent damage. “We have to communicate. Make [talking about sex] an ongoing conversation.”
She shares that when talking about sex, consider three things: tone, turf, and timing. Be sure that your tone is loving and curious, never defensive or accusing. In terms of turf, location is also important, and selecting a neutral environment like the car or kitchen is preferred to the bedroom. As far as timing, she adds that you shouldn’t have these talks before or after sex, as this can be a vulnerable time for you and your partner. Aim to begin the chat at a time when stress is low.
A key question to ask your bae is, “How do you like sex to be initiated?” Find out if they prefer verbal cues, physical touch, or something more creative.
If you and your partner decide on verbal cues, consider being direct:
- "Do you have time for sex right now?"
- "How do you feel about heading into the bedroom with me?"
- "Are you trying to get it in? Because I am."
For physical cues, try out:
- Sitting on your partner’s lap and looking into their eyes
- Offering them a sexy massage
- Giving them a passionate kiss
And if you are a bit shyer, you can always go digital by:
- Shooting them a flirty text
- Sending out a calendar invite for some “quality time”
- Sharing a voice memo detailing all the fun things you want to get into
Featured image by Getty Images