Spectatoring, Body Image and What We Think About During Sex

Bear with me, this shit gets kind of ACADEMIC. (But it's still about boning.)
Publish date:
September 2, 2011
body image, issues, spectatoring

I like to imagine what sex might be like if we had never seen sex. In a world without porn and Cinemax, would we focus purely on sensation, without worrying/wondering about the visual picture we're creating?

An article I read recently in "Psychology Today" finally gave me a name for all this from-the-outside-in experiencing of our sexuality: spectatoring.

Spectatoring is a process suggested by Masters and Jonhson around 1970, in which the sexual participating focuses on him/herself "from a third person perspective during sexual activity, rather than focusing on one's sensations and/or sexual partner." Men do it more, but women are apparently catching up, and we always led the pack on a related issue, body image concerns during sex. Not only are we watching ourselves during sex, we're watching to see how our stomach looks from that angle.

Look, I have trouble staying present anyway, which is why yesterday's meditation in "The Language of Letting Go" spoke to me so deeply I whispered the end of it fervently to myself several times before bed: God, help me let go of my need to escape myself. Help me face my issues so I am comfortable living in my body.

For many years after my rape and before seeking treatment, I fled my body the instant sexual activity began. It was literally like flipping a light switch -- one second I'm there, the next I'm gone. The lights aren't on, and also nobody's home.

Checking out was a survival mechanism when the things that were happening to my body were too horrible to process, and later became a way to ignore the feelings sex invoked, especially when I was having it with people who didn't like or respect me, or whom I wasn't attracted to, out of a skewed sense that I was obligated to be sexual with anyone who wanted me.

These days I still have to struggle to be where I am during sex without retreating into fantasy, to "have" sex instead of "performing sex." And while these are normal issues for someone with my trauma background, I think a lot of women struggle with this to some degree.

After all, we're well aware of the role of pornography in a modern man's life -- that by the time he's having sex with us, he's already watched thousands of augmented, airbrushed, hairless women perform any manner of fantasy sex acts with bodies perfectly angled toward the camera lens.

As a result, many of the acts we are expected to engage in enthusiastically are probably not the same ones we would have come up with organically. To put it another way, did the cavemen have facials?

And in engaging in them, are we engaging in an inherently performative act? I have been known to beg for one in true arousal, but then I am Queen Spectatorer. And I can admit that what turns me on in that situation probably has more to do with fulfilling a male visual fantasy than the feeling of baby juice hitting my face.

And that's cool! Despite all the ways I am and have been screwed up about sex, I love sex and all the various things that motivate human sexuality -- visual imagery, power dynamics, childhood issues, playacting and roleplaying and all the rest of the weird funky brain stuff we play out in bed.

But the problem with spectatoring is that it leads to anxiety, fear and sexual dysfunction. Don't blame me, blame Masters and Johnson! And I bet dollars to donuts that allllll that self-focus that us girls are engaging in during the act is making sex worse, not better.

So I say let's try doing it like the cavemen did -- with lots of grunting and clubbing each other over the head.

Just kidding! What I really think we should do is try to focus on our partners and our pleasure. There are a series of exercises that have been recommended to me called "sensate focus." They're supposed to help you pay attention to your own sexual senses, and doing them will make you feel incredibly stupid. But all the best therapy stuff does; just ask the pillows I've been beating the hell out of with a Wiffle bat for the past year, or the CHAIR I TALK TO LIKE ITS MY FATHER.

Alternately, use a blindfold and pretend it's kinky!

Can you relate to feeling like you're thinking more about how sex looks than how it feels? What are you thinking about during sex?