Spectatoring in sex is a concept coined in 1970 by sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who describe it as watching yourself engage in sex instead of actually being in the moment and experiencing the sensations.
Common reasons folks may experience spectatoring in sex
Though the term itself is hardly new, experts say it's still very much pervasive for many sexually active people—particularly people who identify as women. “This is largely due to societal conditioning that tells women their role in sex and in life is to please other people,” says Suzannah Weiss, a certified sex educator and sexologist.
Though there is a growing understanding that we must untether gender expression from identity, advertisements and media still largely uphold traditional views on gender roles. As that pertains to sex, messaging about “looking sexy in bed” and the expectation of normalized body-hair removal “give women the impression that they constantly need to be thinking about how they look,” Weiss says.
It’s crucial to note that people who identify as men also experience spectatoring at the hand of cultural influences, like toxic masculinity. “Men are taught that they have to be the leader of the sexual encounter, to be dominant and ‘take charge,’ and to satisfy their partners in order to be a ‘real’ man,” Weiss says. “They are taught that it is embarrassing if they cannot get an erection or last long enough.” So, there’s no surprise that these messages make some men feel anxious about their worth in the sheets.
Societal messaging isn't the only cause of spectatoring. Sexologist Marla Renee Stewart, MA, sexpert for sexual wellness brand and retailer Lovers, says gender or sexuality confusion can be another guiding cause of spectatoring—one that research has found to exist among nonbinary, transgender, and queer individuals.
Stewart adds that feeling stressed about something outside of sex, not enjoying sex, and past sexual trauma are other possible factors. Basically, any confusion or insecurity regarding your body or your life can get in the way of enjoying sex.
4 tips to stop spectatoring during sex and start experiencing real-deal pleasure
1. Prioritizing your orgasm
If you're prone to experience spectatoring in sex, you can take steps to end that cycle. In addition to minimizing stressors and practicing deep breathing, Stewart suggests a certain mindset shift. “Make pleasure the goal of your sexual experience,” she says. “Take more of a leadership or initiative role when it comes to how you’re getting pleasure and how you are being more in charge of your own orgasm.”
Worrying too much about having an orgasm, though, can add to the stress that supports spectatoring in sex, but embodying the desire to have an orgasm can feel empowering.
2. Be present in how you feel, physically
Being mindful of how you feel physically and sexually is a great tool, too, says Weiss. Ask yourself questions (ideally in your head) to concentrate on those feelings. Some questions she suggests asking include:
- How is your partner touching you in this moment?
- What kind of touch is it?
- Where do you feel that touch?
- How good does it feel?
3. Use your own senses to focus on your partner
Another suggestion Weiss offers is paying attention to your partner while using your senses. What do they look, sound, feel, taste, and smell like? What aspects are turning you on?
4. Reframe your thoughts
“Remember that your partner likely isn’t judging you as harshly as you’re judging yourself,” Weiss says. “You’d be surprised by how little others actually notice your perceived 'flaws.'" She adds that they're more likely just grateful to be in the situation with you.
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