Gay Men’s Sexuality: Focus on the Five Senses for Better Functioning
In my experience as a gay men’s specialist therapist these 30 years now in 2022, and more recently as an AASECT nationally Certified Sex Therapist, I’ve had quite a few guys want to work with me frankly and honestly about their quality of life, by way of the quality of their sex life. That can be about the type, frequency, quality, setting, guys involved, feelings about it, functioning about it, and all kinds of variables that overall come under the heading of, “making my sex life better as a gay man.”
My previous articles have explored how a therapist or sex educator coach (I do both) might address erectile dysfunction, and two of those articles are here, and here, about “cognitive causes and cures” of ED. One strategy that I’ve been working with guys on more specifically, cognitively and behaviorally, is about what’s known in sex therapy as “sensate focus.” There are lots of discussions on this, but the one I’ve been helping guys try lately as their “homework” between sessions is to use the classic Five Senses approach. Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch.
Focusing on the five senses can help guys “out of their head,” which is a common complaint I hear. They want to be more functional in sex, either with erections or orgasms, or both, but they get an anxiety that they call “getting all up in my head” about it.
What’s antidotal to “getting in your head” is to ground yourself to sensations that, for once, aren’t really about thinking, deciding, analyzing, contemplating, evaluating, assessing, weighing, pondering, ruminating, whatever. It’s about bringing your experience of being alive – including in sex – to the basics of how humans function. Our senses help us to make sense of the world. Focusing on the senses tells us what we’re dealing with. It helps us to be “in the moment” – not in the past, not in the future, but concentrating on what the present circumstances are, to make the most of enjoying the experience, in this case the sexual experience.
The idea, and many guys report benefit from this, is that by focusing on each of the five senses, in turn, can be one of several cognitive-behavioral, in-vivo techniques for enhancing sex, and helping us overcome the hump (so to speak) from being less satisfied, to being more functional and more satisfied, with each and every encounter. It’s a technique to improve sexual functioning for gay men that differs from other demographics, and differs from other sexual enhancement (that might come from medical interventions from an endocrinologist or urologist), or even other cognitive-behavioral techniques that would be part of a discussion some other time, such as “roles” you might play as a sexual partner.
While all of those can be helpful, and part of your sexual tool-kit and repertoire, let’s discuss the Five Senses technique in more detail, and let’s make it focused more specifically on gay, cisgender men. In no particular order:
1. Sight – We process a lot of information from what we see. We get oriented to time, space, objects, the relationship between objects, risk assessment, and an overall positive or negative “picture” by what we take in, at “brain-speed” precision so fast that we can’t consciously realize the data we are processing. In the case of a perceived danger, for example, we are mounting a defense (such as putting our hands up to deflect an object flying at us) faster than we can consciously realize. So when we take our time more in what we’re seeing, in a way that can enhance fun and pleasure during sex, it can be a fun experience.
Start with asking yourself what you see, especially watching your partner. If you’re having sex with this guy, you’ve probably already established that you’re attracted to him visually. If you find yourself “in your head” with anxiety, just re-focus on every detail in your partner that you see. Does he have a sexy haircut? If you’re in a room with dim light, is the light reflecting off the shine of his hair? Does he have sweat on his pecs that’s sexy? What about his chest hair pattern? Do his teeth gleam when he smiles at you? Does he have a necklace that looks good on him? Does he have a pretty color of eyes? Does he have smooth skin, or a sexy scruff or facial hair? Does he have a shape of physique that turns you on?
Maybe there are other visual cues. Is he wearing a leather harness? Is there a glow of the light of a candle in the room? Is it daylight and you see him very clearly from the color of the morning light in the room? Is there a screen with porn playing in the background that’s turning you on with him?
Ask yourself what you see in terms of level of light, colors, shapes, textures, the relationship of objects to another (does his hair dangle in his eyes?), and how seeing each of these makes you feel. See if there is a connection between what you see and what you feel, and what arouses you, or intensifies that arousal.
2. Hearing – What you hear in sex can enhance the experience. If there is porn playing in the background, can you hear what the models are saying? What about its background music (that people love to make fun of)? What music is playing in the background? Are there other noises around, like being in a secluded place outdoors, but hearing planes fly overhead? Are there birds chirping? Is he being verbal with you, and saying sexy things that turn you on? Are you saying those things to him, and you’re hearing yourself say them? Is there a specific sexual sound you hear (like someone’s balls slapping against an ass)? Is someone slapping someone’s ass cheek? Is it hot to hear the bed squeaking, or the chains of a sling ringing? If you close your eyes, and focus on the sounds, what do you hear? Can that take your arousal to the next level?
3. Smell – Scent can be a favorite. While most guys either love or hate the musky man-scent of a guy with no deodorant, that can be a turn-on from the pheromones your partner is releasing (or you) and can enhance arousal, like “natural poppers”. Or, do you smell actual poppers? Again, these are not for everyone, and poppers need to be used with caution (because they’re not exactly health food), but they are a classic scent enhancer in sex. Does your partner wear a cologne that you associate with him? Is there incense burning in the room? Is there another scent in the room, like it’s a secluded locker room, or room in a sex club or bathhouse? Does the scent smell domestic, like you’re having a quickie before dinner is ready, which you can smell from the kitchen? Some guys get turned on by the lingering scent on a smoker, either of tobacco (like cigarette or cigar play) or marijuana. Scent is especially powerful for arousal because of its neurobiological association with memory in the brain, and its many recollections and memories it can trigger. While some scents can trigger in a bad way, like a traumatic memory, or even the scent of, let’s say, a “sexual hygiene accident”, scent can be a popular arousal enhancer of many different kinds and circumstances, and has a powerful potential to influence us strongly.
4. Taste – This might be a lesser-recognized sensual enhancer, but it can be important. Certainly, kissing and tasting a guy’s tongue and mouth would be the most common, but some guys use taste in other ways. The taste of pre-cum, semen, or sweat would be natural fluids, but some guys use taste in another way, like the use of whipped cream or chocolate syrup to lick off. Romantic foods like chocolate-dipped strawberries (which are kind of shaped like the head of a penis) or grapes can be classic foreplay. More controversially perhaps, the taste of a recreational substance like Ketamine or cocaine snorted in the nose and back of the throat can be an association with sex. Marijuana or tobacco smoke play (one guy blowing it in another’s mouth) can involve a taste sensation (and here please note: I really don’t ever recommend the “other” smoke, crystal meth, because in my many years of practice, I have never seen any recreational use of that drug be manageable; the others are not exactly health food, but I vehemently recommend that even relative to the other substances, which I don’t necessarily endorse (that’s up to you), I do take a stand to recommend that you steer clear of meth, as I believe its relative harm far outweighs the others, based on my over 30 years of clinical experience working with gay men). The idea here is to think of what kind of taste sensations would enhance your experience, for you, even if other guys might not get into that. And that’s true with all of these sensory stimuli; what one guy likes, or goes crazy over, another guy might not tolerate at all. Part of sexual communication might be exploring what you, and your partner, both like.
5. Touch – Many guys report to me that a lack of sex can be emotionally difficult because of simply the lack of being touched. There’s that classic research that says that babies need to be held or they will die. We love getting and giving hugs. So the role of touch in sex is pretty obvious, as it is sex, but we can get an enhancement out of it if we really focus on touch sensations of so many kinds. The warmth of someone’s body against ours. The weight of feeling a guy on top of us, or us on top of them. The feel of the skin of so many body parts under our hands – back, neck, ass, cock, balls, hair, face, arms, hands, feet. Other kinds of touch can be arousing, like the tightness of leather straps, cuffs, silk ties, or rope in bondage play. The feeling of cotton, satin, or leather-like play sheets on the bed. The firmness of a bed, or its pillows. Or the scratchiness of a carpet if we’re on the floor, or the cold of porcelain like in a tub or shower. The stimuli of touch can be so many things about our partner, or what’s around us. Penile stimulation is a lot about touch. Sensate focus on your cock can explore, each in turn, the sensations of warmth, wetness, tightness, and friction, of their mouth or anus. Even a conceptual “touch” idea, like feeling his mouth or anus being “hungry” can arouse us and enhance erectile hardness or functioning. The intensification of touch stimulation can make the difference between achieving orgasm, or not, in conditions like Delayed Ejaculation.
Actually, an intensification of the arousal we get from a focus on all five of these sensations can help be a cognitive-sensorial intervention for erectile dysfunction or delayed ejaculation, and it’s just a matter of “putting our mind to it” to focus on each in turn. When we do this, we probably find that we have a favorite stimulus, and that’s making it fun for us.
Other kinds of cognitive experiences can arouse us and enhance sex, such as getting into being dominant or being submissive, or being aroused by the idea that we are finally having sex with our favorite gym crush, or our favorite social media pen pal, or someone we’ve admired for a long time. These are not sensations as much as they are just thoughts or ideas that turn us on, but they can enhance arousal as well. Even verbalizations (“dirty talk”) can be a kind of sensory enhancement, that relates to hearing but is also about role-playing in dom-sub dynamics, or even role-play of all kinds is another “cognitive enhancement idea” that enhance arousal (more on role-play some other time).
So if you’ve been disappointed in sex lately, or plagued lately by the “getting all up in your head” anxiety, try to remember that among consenting adults, all is fair. Not only do you have the right to sexual enjoyment (despite the constant barrage of anti-gay sentiment from Republican or “religious conservative” voices in media), you have an obligation to your physical and mental health to provide sexual enjoyment for yourself, just like you would give yourself food, beverages, sleep, and shelter from the elements. And if you’re following sound sexual principles as a guide (my article on the “Six Principles of Sexual Health as Applied to Gay Men” is here), you’re on solid ground in terms of basic responsibilities.
If you need more specific help on troubleshooting challenges in your own sex life, please consider therapy (if you’re a resident of California, where I’m licensed to practice), or coaching (in other states or countries). There are some important legal and ethical differences in those services that we can discuss, but there are many areas of overlap, including having support for improving your subjective quality of life. While many mainstream therapists or coaches (or even gay male ones who aren’t specialists) either can’t (due to lack of training) or won’t (because they find it “icky”) deal with gay men’s sexual issues, I’m happy to. Call or text 310-339-5778, or email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com for more information.
©2022 Ken Howard, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, CST, Inc.