Stop Spectatoring: Mindfulness to Enhance Sexual Pleasure
To put an end to distracting thoughts during sex, immerse yourself in sensations
What is spectator sex? It isn’t watching erotic or pornographic images of other people having sex. According to sex research giants Masters and Johnson who coined the term “spectatoring”, it is watching yourself have sex, accompanied by an anxious, internal, self-conscious dialogue. The internal chatter can include worries about one’s body (“I wonder if he thinks I look fat”) or about one’s sexual performance (“He must be bored, I’m taking too long to come”; “Does he like the way I am touching him?”). During spectator sex, a person is intently monitoring their partner and themselves
Not surprisingly, research shows that women who engage in spectator sex are less satisfied. They have fewer real orgasms and more fake orgasms than women who have less internal chatter. This isn’t surprising, given that it’s hard to be orgasmic while holding your stomach in and worrying about what your partner thinks about your body. Also, focusing intently on whether you will orgasm and thinking you “should” have an orgasm can lead you to pretend to have an orgasm—something that more than half of women do.
So, what’s the solution? The answer lies in the definition of spectatoring given by the researchers who found what women already know from experience and that is, that watching yourself anxiously during sex is not very erotic. These researchers said that spectatoring is “an intense self-focus during sexual interactions—rather than an immersion in the sensory aspects of a sexual experience.” The “rather than” holds the key: A complete immersion in feelings and sensations is the solution for ending spectator sex.
Giving one’s complete attention to what is happening in the moment is called “mindfulness.” Mindfulness has garnered attention among psychologists in recent years, although it has been part of Buddhist teachings for centuries. Recently, psychologists have found that mindfulness decreases anxiety, minimizes depression, decreases the experience of pain, and even enhances academic performance. Researcher Lori Brotto reports that teaching women mindfulness increases their sexual arousal and sexual desire.
In A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex, I recommend mindfulness as a remedy for waning desire. In Becoming Cliterate, I recommend mindfulness for enhancing orgasmic capacity. In both books, I tell readers that mindfulness is akin to riding a roller coaster. If you have ever been on a roller coaster–and whether you liked the experience or not—it’s likely you were thinking of nothing else but what was occurring that very moment. You were too immersed in flying downhill to think about the pile of work left at home or in the office. In daily life, however, thoughts about one thing occur in the middle of doing other things. An email you have to respond to might pop into your head in the middle of a sexual encounter. During spectator sex, thoughts about if you are looking right or performing adequately distract you from enjoying yourself.
In mindfulness practice, such distracting thoughts are noticed and observed and then released without judgment. When practicing mindfulness, the key is to focus one’s totality on what is happening in the present moment. We can be mindful during any activity. Brushing your teeth, for example, can be a meditative, present moment if you completely immerse yourself in the taste of the toothpaste and the feel of the toothbrush against your teeth. Eating mindfully can enhance the pleasure of a meal. A state of total immersion and present-focus can be invoked during showering, talking to a friend, or in fact, any experience.
To put an end to spectator sex—and other distracting thoughts during sex— practice mindfulness. Practice throughout the day. The more practiced you are at achieving an in-the-moment state during daily activities, the easier it will be for you to achieve this same state during sex.
The next time you have sex, have mindful sex. Allow yourself to indulge fully and completely in the physical sensations of the moment. If distracting thoughts occur, take a deep breath and let them float by without judgment. Allow your breaths to lead you fully back to your body’s pleasurable physical reactions. Focus on being completely immersed in the sexual sensations.
It is no coincidence that the phrase “mind-blowing” is often associated with sex. To reach mind-blowing sex, you have to engage in mindful sex. To have sensational sex, you have to focus on the sensations and not on how you are doing or looking. Mind-blowing sex means that your mind is not working; only your body is reacting. Busy brains are not for the bedroom.
The next time you put out the “do not disturb” sign, make sure it is your own self you aren’t disturbing with distracting thoughts.
Note: For more resources on mindfulness, see the works of Jon Kabbat-Zinn