Sexuality through the Senses: 15 Ways Disordered Sensory Processing Affects Intimacy
Disordered sensory processing can affect individuals with all types of neurodivergence, including those with SPD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, as well as people on the spectrum. While disordered sensory processing impacts many aspects of life, there is one dynamic part that is not often discussed: Intimacy!
Intimacy with a partner engages multiple and conflicting sensory systems, such as tactile (touch), vision (sight), auditory (hearing), gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell), vestibular (head position in space), proprioception (body awareness), and interoception (awareness of internal body sensations). Sensory experiences evoked during intimacy can be unpredictable and varied; people may seek out certain sensations and struggle to make sense of others. It is common for an individual to be over-responsive in one system, and under-responsive in another. Individuals with disordered sensory processing may also experience deficits in praxis and postural control – this can affect their comfortability during intimacy and ability to execute certain positions. For example, praxis involves the planning and sequencing of actions that enable individuals to maneuver their body to perform appropriately timed and controlled movement. In turn, postural control can affect someone’s ability to maintain an upright seated position, as well as support their arm and leg movement. Sexual activity involves a series of movements and motions; therefore, it’s important to understand the role of sensory-motor demands.
This article will provide a foundation for understanding the relationship between sexuality and disordered sensory processing, namely sensory-over and under-responsivity. Along with tips, tricks, and coping mechanisms, you’ll learn what to keep in mind when becoming intimate with a partner who experiences disordered sensory processing.
Tactile: How can Touch affect Sexuality?
- Perhaps the most obvious way that disordered sensory processing can affect sexuality is through physical touch. Some individuals may dislike hugs and embraces. Others may seek out a lot of touch or intense touch experiences. Before engaging in intimacy, ask your partner about their desired touch (or lack thereof!). It’s also important to discover what kinds of touch your partner enjoys most – is a light, hard, or kneading touch preferable? A gentle massage using your partner’s touch of choice may help them ease into intimacy. Finally, try to touch your partner within their visual field. This will allow them to feel safe and understand what is occurring around them.
- Some individuals with disordered sensory processing may experience sensitivity to cold or warmth. This can impact the way that someone reacts to the temperature in a room or the temperature of someone’s body parts. Communicate with your partner about what temperature they are most comfortable with! Use fans, heaters, or blankets to adjust accordingly.
- Certain clothing, bedding, fabrics, and textures may cause your partner irritation. Experiment with outerwear, undergarments, and bedding to find what works best for you and your partner.
- Wetness or stickiness can feel intolerable to some individuals. During intimacy, this tactile element can come from lipstick, lip-gloss, or lubricated condoms. Luckily, this is an easy fix! Avoid wearing lip products when kissing and use non-lubricated condoms during intimacy. Alternatively, you can choose to use lubrication on the outside of the condom only!
Vision: How can Sight affect Sexuality?
- Bright lights may agitate individuals with disordered sensory processing during intimacy. Play around to find the best lighting for you and your partner. Try using candles, soft bedside lighting, or turn off the lights completely! Avoid engaging in intimacy directly in front of a window or another uncontrollable light source.
- An environment with a surplus of visual stimulation can be overwhelming and distracting. A cluttered environment can limit your partner’s ability to engage in intimacy because they are using energy to process visual inputs. For this reason, seek out clean, neutral, and minimalist spaces! In turn, assure your partner that it is okay to close their eyes during intimacy. This can help to calm their senses and allow them to focus on you, rather than the environment.
- Individuals with disordered sensory processing may have difficulty giving or maintaining eye contact during intimate moments. Visual input can be too much to handle! Remind your partner that this is A-okay.
Auditory: How can Hearing affect Sexuality?
- Background noises such as music, television, or roommates speaking next door may be distracting to individuals with disordered sensory processing. Find a quiet, private place to engage in intimacy. Avoid integrating music into the environment unless your partner suggests it!
- Loud noises from a partner (even noises of pleasure!) can startle someone with disordered sensory processing or distract them from motor planning. Ensure that your partner is comfortable with vocal engagement during intimacy. Decide which noises they like, and which ones are overwhelming or distracting!
Gustatory: How does Taste affect Sexuality?
- Certain flavours and tastes can be difficult to process. Flavour can come from lipstick, lip-gloss, breath mints, gum, or toothpaste. Choose flavours that your partner enjoys or avoid flavourful mouth products altogether.
- The thought of sharing saliva can be equally daunting for those with disordered sensory processing. If this is the case, you can consciously adjust your activity (such as kissing) to be dry and saliva-free.
Olfactory: How does Smell affect Sexuality?
- Similar to taste, strong smells can negatively affect individuals with disordered sensory processing. During intimate moments, scents of perfume, cologne, laundry detergent, or natural body odour are present. If your partner is averse to this, here are several simple solutions! Avoid strong-smelling lotions, body sprays, hair gels, deodorants and perfumes when becoming intimate with your partner. Likewise, switch to a no-scent laundry detergent. Finally, encourage the use of no-scent baby wipes or fabric cloths to clean your bodies before, during, and after intimacy.
Vestibular: How does Head Position in Space affect Sexuality?
- Some individuals with disordered sensory processing have difficulty understanding where their head is in space; they may become disoriented or sensitive to different head positions. On the other hand, they may seek out intense vestibular sensations by engaging in extreme movements and positions. While some individuals may feel more comfortable being stable and stationary, others crave motion. These factors can affect comfortability in intimate positions– communicate with your partner to discuss which positions and movements work best! Always ensure that your partner is in a stable and secure position. Remind and encourage your partner to take frequent breaks during intimacy to rebalance and re-align their body.
Proprioception: How does Awareness of Internal Body Sensations Affect Sexuality?
- Individuals with disordered sensory processing may exhibit uncoordinated movements, or struggle to comprehend how much force they are exerting with their muscles. They may also have difficulty understanding where their arms and legs are in relation to the rest of their body, or other’s bodies. This may make motor planning difficult. Before engaging in intimacy, clear the environment of anything that could be stumbled over. Move slowly and cautiously when being intimate. Give your partner the chance to establish their sense of body awareness!
Interoception: How does Awareness of Sensation Affect Sexuality?
- Individuals who struggle with interoception might have difficulty knowing when they feel hurt, tired, cold, warm, hungry, thirsty, or sexually aroused. For this reason, regular check-ins are important. Ask questions like, “are you comfortable?” and “do you want to adjust anything?”. Interoceptive awareness also impacts our ability to understand emotional regulation within ourselves and others. As individuals with disordered interoception have a hard time understanding their own body and emotional cues, they may also have difficulty reading non-verbal cues from their partners. As a partner, it is vital that you use clear and effective communication to share what is working, and what is not. If your partner is unable to verbally express their sensations, use visual cues to figure out whether your partner is hot (sweating) or cold (shivering, choosing to go under blankets).
Navigating intimacy is difficult in general – but individuals with disordered sensory processing may require extra support. A great tip is to discuss the activity before engaging in it – tell your partner what to expect! Prepare them for the sensations and motor actions that they will experience. Routine and predictability can help your partner feel comfortable. Throughout the process, give your partner space to regulate themselves and their bodies. Understanding your partner’s sensory threshold is also important for successful intimacy. A shared understanding of boundaries, likenesses, and differences will contribute to a safe and enriching intimate experience.
Katja Kathol, M.Ed Candidate and Sexual Health Consultant
As an advocate for diversity and inclusion, Katja is dedicated to enriching sexual health for equity-seeking populations through digital publishing and e-Learning. Katja works to critically examine barriers to sexual education and lead strategies that support healthy relationships and body image. To better inform her writing and practice, Katja is currently pursuing a Master of Educational Psychology at McGill University. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.