DEAR DR. JENN,
Sometimes during sex, I'm too focused on my performance and appearance to actually enjoy it. At best, my mind simply wanders; at worst, I'm thinking about what my body looks like instead of what it feels like. How do I stop? —Distracted Lover
DEAR DISTRACTED LOVER,
You are not alone. What you are experiencing is what sex therapists often call spectatoring, a term coined by the legendary '60s sex researchers known as Masters and Johnson. What it comes down to is being overly conscious of yourself, your partner, or how your partner views you during sex, and it usually shows up as a critical internal dialogue or distracting thoughts, when what you really want to be doing is focusing on your own and your partner's sensations.
Spectatoring is essentially the opposite of being "in the moment" during sex. You are so busy analyzing the situation and judging yourself that you can't fully enjoy the sexual experience—instead, sex becomes a spectator sport. Often, spectatoring can cause anxiety or even sexual dysfunction. But at the very least, it's a libido killer; research shows that women who engage in spectator sex are less satisfied, have fewer real orgasms, and have more fake more orgasms. And we don't want that for you.
There are a number of reasons why people spectator, but before I get into the most common triggers and tools tailored to each one, I want to share one method that can help put an end to almost any kind of spectatoring.
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Yes, there's a fix, but it's not necessarily an easy one: In order to put the kibosh on your wandering mind, you have to practice mindfulness. This means quieting the destructive and distracting voices in your head so you can focus on the present and completely immerse yourself in the feelings and sensations. To do this, you need to shift from a goal-oriented mindset (looking hot, reaching climax) to a process-oriented one (sensation).
Try practicing this exercise solo before your next doubles match: Explore your body as though you have never touched yourself before, not just there but everywhere, including spots you don't think of as erotic. No toys, no porn, no fantasy, no distractions. As you move your hands over different body parts, take notice of the sensations. Feel your breath moving in and out. Be aware of all the feelings you experience, good or bad, as you explore your body. Notice what it is like physically and emotionally to be so present with yourself. Resist the urge to hurry or get to the climax. If you do get there, try to stay in your body, focusing on what you feel as you do.
This is a good starting point for mindful sex, but know that spectatoring isn't an issue that goes away overnight. Like with lifting weights, repetition strengthens the muscle and its ability to perform over time.
That's the what. But understanding why your mind isn't where you want it to be during sex can also push you toward a solution. Here are some of the most common reasons we spectator and what you can do about it.
1) BODY IMAGE ISSUES
Negative thoughts about your body can have a host of damaging effects, including destroying your sexual desire. It's no wonder that you're unable to enjoy the bodily pleasures of sex if you're eyeing your own body with a critical lens or wondering what your partner may be thinking about your appearance during the act. It's easy to say, "Stop paying attention; your partner is far less critical of your body than you are" (though it's true—they are, after all, having sex with you). To get the most out of your sex life—hell, out of your life—you need to get to the bottom of where your body image issues come from.
That requires a lot of independent work and, possibly, work with a therapist, even if you are not one of the 20 million American women who have eating disorders. I've never met a woman who hasn't at some point struggled with issues relating to body image, and many women have what psychologists call subclinical eating disorders, meaning they they don't have all of the symptoms that make up anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa but have enough to impact their lives. If that describes you, see a licensed therapist who specializes in eating disorders. But regardless of the severity, it is important to address these issues. In addition to talk therapy and self-care, books like Breaking Free from Emotional Eating and Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works and my app No More Diets app—based on my my doctoral dissertation, my own personal recovery, and the methods I use in my private practice—can be helpful.
2) PERFORMANCE ANXIETY
Performance anxiety is not just for men. Women who worry that they're not “getting there” fast enough, compare themselves to previous lovers, or worry they're not being sexy enough all have versions of performance anxiety. Nothing kills the sexual experience or pulls you out of your body faster than that self-criticism. If this is the case, it is time to have a conversation with your bae about your fears and anxieties. If they're is not able to help calm your fears, a good sex therapist can.
3) GETTING STUCK IN WORK MODE
It can be very challenging going from boss lady or mommy mode to lover mode. Those mindsets are just totally different than the one you need to be in to receive pleasure. Most women need some transition time between such roles. So borrow a lesson from tantric sex: create rituals to clear your mind, help you relax, and signal that you're moving into a sensual state of mind and another party of your day. Take a bath, light some candles, play some relaxing music. Don’t make your partner do all the heavy lifting when it comes to seduction. Start seducing yourself by putting on lingerie, reading an erotic novel, watching porn, or touching your body. All these things can help you leave the office behind and shift into a more open, erotic state of mind.
4) PLAIN OLD DISTRACTION
When your mind is constantly jumping in to remind you to add something to the grocery list or of that conversation you had with your mother, you're not mentally available to enjoy sex. Keep a pen and paper by the bed to purge your intrusive thoughts so you don’t have to worry about forgetting your to-do list.
But more importantly, you need to start to develop the mental muscles to block out intrusive thoughts and learn to clear your mind. There is no better method than meditation. Hear me out: I used to hate meditation, and now I do it every night. You don’t have to be spiritual, wear a robe, or listen to Sting to meditate. You don't even need to have the time. You can start with one-minute meditations using an app like Headspace.
5) UNRESOLVED RELATIONSHIP PROBLEMS
It's really difficult to enjoy sex with a partner you're secretly seething at. If you're ruminating about your last fight, whether it's your partner not taking out the trash or liking their ex's bikini pic on Instagram, take a break from the bedroom and talk it out before attempted to get frisky.
6) SHYNESS IN BED
If you don’t ask for what you want in bed, your sexual experiences will never quite be satisfying. If you spend your erotic time trying to figure out how to word your request or subtly cue your partner to move a little to the left, sit your SO down—outside of the bedroom—and have a conversation about establishing better sexual communication so you can feel free to get your needs met.
7) TRAUMA, DEPRESSION, ANXIETY, OR INTIMACY ISSUES
Those who've experienced sexual trauma are highly likely to be impacted in the bedroom. Getting support from trauma hotline and reading books on the issue can be a good start, but therapy is necessary to fully address these issues.
If you are someone who struggles with depression or anxiety, I don’t have to tell you that they can steamroll your libido, not to mention make emotional closeness difficult to achieve. While I recommend everyone experience at least one year of weekly therapy, if it sounds like one of these issues may be the culprit of your spectatoring, it's of utmost important to seek professional help.