Have you ever had this experience: Someone is going down on you and suddenly your head is flooded with questions. How do I taste? How long have they been down there? Isn’t their neck cramping? When is their tongue going to get worn out? Why haven’t I cum yet? Am I going to cum at all??
Masters and Johnson named this phenomenon “spectatoring” back in the 1970s. It can feel like an out of body experience like you’re a third party watching yourself have sex, or even like you’re performing sex instead of having it. If this sounds like you, you’re not alone, and there’s more good news! You can do something (ok roughly 7 things) about it.
We sometimes associate spectatoring with men’s performance anxiety but today women are just as (or maybe even more) likely to experience this sexual challenge. Masters and Johnson recommended a therapeutic practice called Sensate Focus (you can read all about it with a quick Google search).
Here are seven ways for you to overcome spectatoring and get into your body while having sex:
1. Practice mindfulness (…or at least focus on your breath)
At this point, telling someone to focus on “being present” is nearly overplayed. But that’s because it’s good advice and it works. But before you can dive into the present moment, I think it’s helpful to have a way to practice, and the easiest place to start is by focusing on your breath. When you focus on your breath you’re paying attention to your body, to yourself, and to the moment. You can’t think about what your butt looks like at this angle if you’re too busy breathing. The other benefit of focusing on your breath is that your autonomic nervous system (which includes your throat and anus) will relax a bit, making you more able to experience increased physical satisfaction.
Focus can look like a lot of things, so my favorite way to practice it is by counting off in and out breaths as ones and zeros. I like to think of the in breath as a “one,” it signifies the presence of something, that I, we, this moment exists. Every time I breathe in I think of a one and associated feelings of wholeness, gratitude, exuberance etc. Alternatively, out breaths are a “zero” or the absence of something, a reminder that nothing exists, or that we have access to nothingness.
With these come thoughts of clarity, of weightlessness, of freedom. With all this philosophy floating around in my head, it’s easy for me to clear away the other chatter. Once you’ve practiced bringing your attention to your breath, you can expand your efforts to being generally mindful. You can practice mindfulness outside of the bedroom by occasionally calling attention to your thoughts and to your physical being.
Right now, bring your attention to your body. How does your chest feel? Your belly? The middle finger on your left hand? What’s your energy like? Can you name the emotion(s) you’re experiencing right now? As thoughts enter your mind, can you experience them without judgment? Spend a couple minutes every day practicing this to make it easier to access once you’re in the bedroom.
2. Communicate with your partner.
I believe the core of spectatoring is not negative body image but rather a lack of clarity around sex and satisfaction. When you’re not 100% sure of what you and your partner want or enjoy about a sexual encounter, you’re left in the dark, which is where all those pesky questions start to arise. So to tackle this challenge head on, ask your partner to tell you the things they like about having sex with you, while they’re having sex with you. This will take out some of the guesswork and instill you with confidence that they’re not questioning when the last time you shaved was, but instead are in total awe of your perfect tits/lips/ears.
The next time you find yourself in your head wondering how you look in reverse cowgirl, why not just ask them? After all, how are you supposed to know what feels good if you don’t talk about it? Try saying to your partner, “I want to know when sex is feeling good for you, can you give me some feedback? Little moans, grunts, or sighs would be a good place to start, but I’d also like if you told me I was sexy, or things you like about my body.” Start slowly, use your own words, you don’t have to sound like two porn stars reading a script.
Let your partner know that it will increase your pleasure to know that he’s pleased. Don’t forget to reward him for trying even if it’s awkward at first, and most importantly, don’t forget to believe him. If he says your thighs are sexy, don’t quickly retort, “Oh sure, I know they look like cottage cheese from that angle!” Just believe, focus on your breathing, and let yourself feel sexy and desired. Finally, just as important as sharing your approval when something feels good is letting them know when something doesn’t! Trying to get out of your head when all you’re thinking is, “I hate when he does that,” is going to be impossible. Do the kind thing, for both of you, and gently guide your partner to do the things you like in the way you like them done.
3. Focus on pleasure.
A tip that I share with all my clients is to make pleasure the goal of sex, not orgasm. If you work to locate and create pleasure in bed you’re going to find yourself being way more successful than if you’re laser-focused on the big O. And it stands to reason if you’re too worried about producing an earth-shattering orgasm then you’re probably not setting aside a lot of brain space to focus on enjoyment. Bringing pleasure back into focus is actually quite simple. Anytime you find your mind wandering into spectator territory, try switching gears into sexy vixen mode. You can do this in two ways: by focusing on your partner’s pleasure or focusing on your own. I like to vary between the two.
If you’re focused on pleasing your man: squeeze your PC muscles around his penis, run your hands through his hair, stop whatever you’re doing and start going down on him… whatever it is that makes you feel like you’re a skilled and exciting lover. But don’t focus strictly on his enjoyment, take time and focus on your own as well. Give yourself permission to sit back and bask in pleasure without concern for what your partner is thinking (I like to think of this as bro-mode).
You can even try a game: think about anything other than where the sensation is on your body. So if your partner is going down on you, tell yourself not to focus on your clitoris. This little mental trick might be enough to tease your brain back into the moment.
4. Play your part (AKA fake it till you make it)
No, I am not recommending that you fake an orgasm (never, ever do that… please). I am suggesting that you try on a different persona for a while to get in touch with your sexual side. As women, we are often encouraged to suppress our sexual selves to play our other roles: professional, friend, mother, so in order to tune into our sex kitten selves, we might need to pretend we are someone else for a while. In other words, we get to play a different part in this scene.
To do this, think of a time where you felt sexually wild and free. Get into that moment and give that person a name, Cinnamon, Alexandria, Nefertiti, Marilyn… whatever feels sexy and fun to you. Now get into that role, think of what that woman would do and how she would feel. Hold yourself the way she would. Swish your hips, roll your shoulders back, caress your décolletage etc. Try on the role of a sexually adventurous woman. Ask yourself, who do I need to become in order to have the kind of sex I want to have? Then pretend you are that person until you actually become that person.
5. Explore your own body.
Spectatoring is closely related to body image and the way you experience your body. The more self-critical and self-conscious you are about your body, the more you’ll be tempted to concentrate on it instead of being in it. Working on this is crucial if you’re going to get out of your head. It goes back to that old adage if you can’t love yourself, how are you going to love somebody else?
My best advice is to start by breaking out the mirror and checking out your vulva (the term “vagina” refers to the opening of and the inside of your body, whereas vulva refers to your entire external genitalia, plus ‘vulva’ sounds awesome!
Now that you’ve got a good view, go ahead and explore! Pull back the folds, rub, pinch, prod, and poke. Change angles and lighting, pull on your lips and marvel at hour elastic you are! While you’re down there note what feels good and what doesn’t and make sure to pay yourself some compliments. It might be tempting to focus on the things you don’t like about your vulva but resist the urge to give that too much energy. Instead focus on the things you like, such as the smoothness of your outer labia, or the way your clit swells as you touch it, or the purplish hue of your inner labia.
Don’t measure your vulva against what you think is attractive, just look at it as if it was your first time seeing one and note the things you find pleasing. The more you do this the more positive things you’ll begin to notice about yourself! You can apply this practice to all of your body parts, slowly changing the voice inside from a critical antagonist to a compassionate advocate. Let me emphasize the slow part of my last statement, improving your relationship with your body is a matter of kindness and compassion and requires loads of patience and a ton of non-judgment.
This might not be the advice you wanted or expected to hear, but in order to have better-partnered sex, you need to get better at having solo sex. If you’re in the habit of getting yourself off already, try switching it up. Use your fingers instead of a vibrator, stand up or kneel instead of laying on your back or stomach, whatever you need to do in order to shake your brain out of its current pattern. Changing things up will help your mind and body to expand on what’s sexually relevant and exciting. If you’ve tried this to no avail, you might consider taking a break from solo sex for a while in order to build up more anticipation for partnered sex, which will make sex more physically enticing and should make it easier to stay in your body.
If you’re not already in the habit of masturbating, you’re in luck! There’s probably no better way to revolutionize your sex life than through sex with yourself. This is an awesome opportunity for you to learn more about your body and your pleasure. Try a little bit of everything: clitoral stimulation with your hands and with toys, inserting your fingers and other body-safe objects. Stimulate other areas of your body like your nipples, inner thighs, and anus.
Don’t make reaching orgasm your initial goal; you’re just trying to create pleasure in your body at first. Once you know more about yourself you can even practice breathing and mindfulness during masturbation. Then once you have all this knowledge about yourself, you can bring that to empowerment and awareness to sex with your partner. It won’t be hard to get out of your head and into your body when you’ve taken the time to practice.
7. Remove ‘should’ from your vocabulary.
This probably sounds ironic from an author who just listed out six things you should try, but it’s a serious issue and one that really deserves addressing. Thinking that you should feel this way or that way… that you should be able to get out of your head during sex, that you should be easily orgasmic, sexually curious, effortlessly communicative and breathlessly sexy…all of this is self-defeating. All you should do is accept yourself for who you are without judgment. Accept the way that you feel instead of fighting it.
You might find that when you stop struggling against how you’re feeling that it becomes much easier to deal with.