What Is Mindful Sex?
Mindfulness to Awaken Pleasure & Intimacy
I was 20 and a virgin at my wedding. Before that rainy afternoon in July, one painted by wildflowers and dove-white candles, my sex ethic was an interesting cocktail of abstinence-only education and pop culture references. I didn’t have personal experiences. I wasn’t familiar with my body. But I’d seen the movies. I assumed my partner (also a virgin) would know what to do. We’d be fine, and it’d be fun.
Sex was different than anticipated. It wasn’t intuitive like we’d been told, and our high expectations quickly dissolved into confusion, disappointment, and eventual disembodiment. In the weeks that followed the wedding, I learned how to mentally escape during sex. I coped by separating from my body; I floated above what was supposed to be an intimate experience with the person I love. It’s not that I wanted to detach or distance myself from my partner, but I felt uncertain and numb in my own skin.
My partner and I struggled like this for years. We went to therapy and sifted through the wreckage. It took almost a decade to experience arousal and pleasure. Much of that healing was in thanks to learning how to approach sex mindfully.
Part of me feels embarrassed writing about this, even though I know I’m not alone in my experience. The subject of physical pleasure (specifically for women) remains taboo. “Mainstream” sex is, for the most part, still male- and hetero-focused—even in 2022. Moreover, it’s results-oriented: We’re programmed to measure the success of sex by (his) climax.
For so long, many of us have subscribed to sex as a hierarchal activity—intercourse is better than foreplay; genital stimulation is better than non-genital touch; kissing is preferred to holding. This is the script we know. Modern sex is mindless and performance-driven and, supposedly, mind-blowing.
But if this is true, why then does it leave something to be desired for many of us?
What Is Performance-Driven Sex?
When I first started having sex, I was zoning out and thinking about things unrelated (i.e., dinner plans, to-do lists), or I was dissecting the sexual experience itself.
How does my body look? How long will this take? Does this feel good for my partner?
My wandering mind was literally preventing my body from pleasure and intimacy.
Fantasizing didn’t help, either—which I tried at the suggestion of one therapist. The practice was intended to ground me and keep me engaged. Instead, I felt ashamed and even more disconnected from my partner.
I wanted to be with him in the moment, aroused by what was real and in front of me. It wasn’t until years later, after I’d given up on fantasies, opting instead to “check out,” that I stumbled across the work of the late Gina Ogden, Ph.D. She questions this standard advice in her book “Women Who Love Sex.”
“I have found…standard sex therapy causes some women to feel and act even more turned off, even more confused,” Ogden writes. “To teach women how to use fantasy to disconnect from their memories and feelings does not necessarily empower them…Nor does it necessarily improve women’s lives to teach them how to alter their parasympathetic responses—to relax and lubricate—so that they can tolerate the kinds of stimulation and penetration that the literature labels sexual.”
With the climax expectation comes immense pressure. Sex is already vulnerable and exposing, so to throw performance-driven agendas and expectations in the mix—well, it’s just too much.
For women especially, when we can’t meet our partner’s level of arousal or sex isn’t going as anticipated, we check out or fantasize in hopes of catching up. We rely on our brains to achieve climax, believing that’s the ultimate goal. Ogden calls this “performance tripping.” It’s “the notion that orgasm is a competitive goal, to be achieved rather than felt, experienced, enjoyed, savored, shared.”
What Is Mindful Sex?
Mindful sex flips this script. This approach to sex comes without goals or distractions or fantasies. It isn’t only reserved for people who struggle with physical intimacy, either. Even if you have the most satisfying sex life, incorporating mindfulness into your sexual encounters can be transformative.
Mindful sex is making the conscious decision to be engaged and present during your sexual encounters. It allows you and your partner to make the rules and decide what feels good and right for your relationship.
Think of mindful sex as an invitation, as an opportunity to explore the mystery of sex. The reward is deeper intimacy, more meaningful connections, and (fingers crossed) greater physical pleasure. Like floating in a sea, as opposed to a river. Sex with no singular direction, but an experience that invites us to float in surrender.
How To Practice Mindful Sex
1. Talk About It—Before, After, and During Sex
You and your partner deserve to have a safe space to discuss sex. Use plain speech to tell your partner what you need, what feels good, and what doesn’t. You can do this before, during, and after sex. While the conversation may not seem sexy at first, vocalizing your wants and needs is empowering—and feeling empowered is a gateway to freedom and pleasure. Plus, talking about sex keeps you focused on the moment, on your body, and on your partner.
During sex, consider keeping your eyes open and talking about what you’re doing—almost as if you’re narrating the encounter. You don’t need to “talk dirty” or change your voice. Instead, be genuine and true, using anatomical language to remove shame and former constructs. The point here is to personalize sex, as everyone and every person’s body is unique.
2. Clear Your Mind
Many of us, for one reason or another, are holding onto narratives about our bodies and sexuality that prohibit us from experiencing the full realm of sexual pleasure. While it may seem intuitive to use your mind to guide you through sexual struggles, it can actually be counterproductive. Try clearing your mind of thoughts during sexual encounters instead.
This works similar to other mindfulness practices. Start by breathing deeply and letting your current thoughts drift away. Check in with your body, beginning at your toes, and use your senses to observe. When thoughts do pop in—because they will—don’t them linger. Instead, notice them and then let them pass. Focus on remaining present with your partner, thinking only about what is happening in the exact moment. Let your body, not your brain, guide you through the experience.
3. Practice mindfulness & embodiment outside the bedroom
Lastly, resist saving mindful and embodied practices for sex. Everything is connected and, when we live disembodied and detached lives, it’s much more challenging to practice mindfulness in the bedroom.
For me, this looks like spending the first few minutes of my day in silence or with a guided meditation. When I walk my dog, I try to stay off my phone and instead focus on feeling my feet on the pavement. Eating colorful foods, exercising, and regularly touching my partner (despite “touch” being at the bottom of my love language list), also keep me balanced and embodied outside of the bedroom. I’ve noticed these practices make a significant difference in sex.
Have you also struggled with sex, pleasure, and intimacy? If you feel comfortable sharing, we’d love your help creating a space of solidarity in the comments below! 💛
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.