It won’t surprise many people to hear that, according to research, both men and women think about sex quite often while they are doing other things. While such thoughts are most often harmless, they can still cause a commotion. In particular, the idea that men are distracted by the sight of women is a staple of gender relations history, emerging in occasional media brouhahas about, for example, high school dress codes, in which females’ sartorial choices are sometimes restricted so as not to “distract” male students. (Somehow, dress codes for boys don’t seem to be guided by concern about distracted female students.)
Given how much we pine for sex while not having it, you’d think once we were actually in the act, we’d think of nothing else.
Alas, this is not the case.
It turns out that just as people often think about sex in non-sexual situations, they often think about non-sexual things while they are having sex.
Some of this is benign: Our thoughts often wander for the same reason that seagulls fly over the waves—it’s just what they do. However, at other times, being distracted can undermine our sexual experience.
The evidence that sexual arousal, performance, and satisfaction are shaped in part by thought processes has been around for a while. Back in the 1970s, James Geer (then of State University of New York at Stony Brook) had groups of male undergraduates listen to increasingly complex cognitive tasks in one ear, while an erotic tape recording played in the other. He found that “sexual arousal, as measured by changes in penile tumescence, varied directly as a function of the complexity of the distracting or interfering cognitive operations.”
Isn’t science great?
Subsequent work has shown that many people are distracted during sex not by external concerns (“How will we afford the mortgage?”) but by negative thoughts and worries about their performance and appearance (“Am I doing it right?”). Such cognitive distractions during sexual activity have been shown to predict lower sexual satisfaction and less persistent orgasms.
Reviewing some 40 years of research on women with problems of low sexual desire, French sexologist Marie Geonet and colleagues recently concluded that negative thoughts play a key role in women’s sexual dysfunction: They distract women from erotic stimulation, produce anxiety and guilt, and diminish sexual arousal and pleasure.
Similar processes appear to operate in men. Recent work from Portugal by Catia Oliveira and colleagues has provided evidence that males’ arousal is linked closely to their thinking. In their small sample, distracting thoughts were the best predictor of inhibited genital response.
Predictably, research has shown some gender differences in sexual distraction: Men tend to get distracted during sex by worries about performance; women are distracted by concerns about appearance. But both sexes worry about the potential adverse consequences of sex, such as unwanted pregnancy and hurt feelings.
While there’s still much to figure out about the specific paths of influence that connect cognition to sexual experience, one influential theory was developed in the 1980s by American researcher David Barlow. According to his model, anxiety during sex leads some people to a shift in the focus of attention from erotic cues to performance worries. This shift, in turn, compromises sexual arousal and undermines performance, resulting in lowered satisfaction. As a consequence, anxiety will increase in future sexual situations, as performance related non-erotic thoughts (NETs) become the focus of attention—a negative feedback loop more powerful than a cold shower.
Evidence has since accumulated that generally supports this model. In 2011, Canadian researchers Andrea Nelson and Christine Purdon explored the role of NETs in a community sample of 81 women and 71 men in long-term relationships. According to the authors, “experiencing more frequent NETs was associated with more sexual problems in both women and men.” Moreover, “greater difficulty in refocusing on erotic thoughts during sexual activity uniquely predicted more sexual problems.”
In a more recent study by Pascal De Sutter from the University of Louvain and colleagues, orgasmic women proved better than non-orgasmic women at focusing on their erotic thoughts and sensations in the here-and-now of the sexual encounter.
Notably, the picture emerging from the research about the importance of cognitive processes to sexual functioning aligns with other lines of mental health research. For example, the seminal work of Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and Richard Lazarus has served as the foundation for the well-accepted cognitive-behavioral approach to therapy (CBT) by showing how cognitive distortions can lead to emotional pain and ineffective behavior.
So how can we stay focused during sex, and reduce the kind of distracted thinking that gets in the way of pleasure and satisfaction?
One potentially useful move is to get educated about sex. Good sex education can help dispel many sexual myths that scare or shame us into distracting negative thoughts and replace them with facts. It stands to reason, for example, that those who understand contraceptives and accept assertive ownership of their sexual health will have less cause to worry about unwanted pregnancy during sex. Facts are superior to fears as a foundation for sexual health and satisfaction.
Another potentially useful move is to get educated about your own cognitive habits, so you may work to improve your "mental hygiene" by challenging and gradually shedding cognitive distortions (“If we don’t hit it off, it’s the end of the world”), unwarranted fears (“If I masturbate, I might go blind”), and burdensome expectations (“Every time has to be great”) regarding sex.
Another potential remedy, suggested by emerging research, relates to the concept (and practice) of mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in exploring the concept of mindfulness as a mental health tool, has defined it as “paying attention in a particular way on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”
Put differently, the principle of mindfulness holds that it’s better to tend fully to what is actually going on—the rich details of the event as it happens—without jumping forward in time to labeling, judgment, and worry, or backward to comparisons, remorse, or guilt. Research has already pointed to the benefits of mindfulness for a host of health problems.
The practice of mindfulness may be useful in improving sexual health as well. Being mindful during sex may keep you fully present in, and attentive to, the erotic moment, hence reducing the distracting cognitive noise shown to inhibit sexual arousal, pleasure, and performance.
The understanding that sex tends to work better when the partners are “in the moment” is not new. More than 40 years ago, pioneer sex researchers Masters and Johnson commented on the problem they named “spectatoring,” which referred to some people’s habit of cognitively evaluating themselves during sex, worrying about their performance. They devised their "sensate focus" exercise in part to get sexual partners, particularly men with performance anxiety, to focus on their erotic sensations in the nonjudgmental here-and-now rather than on extraneous, evaluative performance and adequacy concerns.
More recently, research has begun to explore the efficacy of mindfulness training for sexual healing. Lori Brotto and colleagues at University of British Columbia have provided preliminary evidence of the potential usefulness of mindfulness meditation for women with arousal problems, and for improving the sexual responsiveness of cancer patients.
R. Gina Silverstain of Brown University and her group have shown that mindfulness training improves women’s attentiveness and awareness of their own sexual arousal signs, while reducing anxiety and self-judgment. Compared with controls, women who received mindful meditation training became significantly faster at registering their physiological responses to sexual stimuli. Female meditators also improved their scores on attention, self-judgment, and anxiety.
At the end of the day, the narrative emerging from the literature seems to validate an intuitive yet nontrivial insight: Sex—like many other rich life pursuits such as eating, reading, traveling, and parenting—tends to go badly when you’re distracted or inattentive.