Have you ever thought about what it means when you “pay attention”?
It’s a phrase I’ve heard often enough. When I was a kid, teachers and my parents told to pay attention to what they said. Advice columns say that we should pay attention to our partners. But there’s something about it that never quite felt right to me. I’ve come to see that it’s because attention isn’t something that we pay.
When I pay for something, it’s because I want to receive something worth what I pay. If the shirt or plane ticket or website membership turns out to not have enough value, I feel ripped off and unsatisfied. And of course, for many people, the goal is to pay as little as possible while getting as much value as possible. That’s the point of sales, coupons, discounts, and hard negotiation. All of that seems to me to be the antithesis of what you need to create happy relationships and make sex easy.
Giving is different from paying
I find that things work much better when I give attention. When I give someone a gift, I do it freely and without strings or expectations. I do it because I enjoy the act of giving, or because I want them to have what I can offer, or because I know it will bring them happiness to have it. If I make the same offering with the hope of getting something in return, it’s not a gift, it’s a bargain. And while bargaining can have its place in relationships (like when deciding who’s going to do which household chores), it gets in the way when we’re talking about how we connect with each other.
Giving attention means that I’m focused on what you’re saying, doing, and feeling. Giving attention means trying to set aside my own reactions so I can stay present with what’s happening between us. It means actively listening to your words rather than thinking about what I want to say next. It means checking in to make sure I understand you, explaining whatever comes up for me, and being transparent about my own emotions and thought processes. Giving attention means making myself vulnerable to you and trusting you with that. And it means that I invite you to do the same.
Part of giving attention during sex is learning how to be present with whatever is going on without trying to force any particular course of action. Most people struggle with this. During sex, they’re busy thinking about what they want to have happen, or what they’re worried will happen, or how this reminds them of past experiences. Giving attention requires the ability to be present and to connect with someone from a place of loving kindness. That’s easy to say and hard for many of us to do.
Giving your attention during sex also means not getting so caught up in your fantasies that you aren’t there with yourself or your partner. One of the reasons so many people struggle with porn is that they’ve trained themselves to focus on the screen rather than what’s happening in real time. There are definitely lots of fun ways to play with fantasy or porn without having them disconnect you from your experience. But when you aren’t able to tune into your desires or your partner’s responses, it’s time to make a change.
And giving attention means making room for whatever thoughts, feelings, or words that arise without trying to control or squash them. All kinds of things can come up during sex and unfortunately, most people try to ignore them, silence them, or make them go away. But whether we give them a voice or not, they have an impact and I find that when we try to make them go away, they only shout louder. Giving attention and holding space for them gives us an opportunity to find out what they need. Not only does that support healing some of the hurts that almost everyone is carrying around, it also helps us have more embodied, present, juicy sex.
It can be hard to receive attention like that. Some people find it scary because being witnessed and seen so deeply can feel very vulnerable. That’s especially true for anyone who holds a lot of sexual shame because shame makes us want to hide. Learning how to receive attention only happens when there’s trust, consent, and safety. Making room for whatever arises means making room for the small steps and not rushing the process.
As a sexological bodyworker and somatic sex educator, I see the effect that has on people’s sexuality. I watch my clients shed old patterns, transform their sex lives, and discover how to integrate those shifts into their relationships and their lives. It’s amazing how powerful a simple act like giving attention can be.
Learning how to give attention means going against our cultural patterns that tell us to focus on a goal rather than the experience. It means finding ways to stay present in a world that barrages us with distractions. It means learning how to do one thing well instead of multitasking and doing five things badly. It requires us to develop our capacity for emotional resilience so we don’t get lost in our reactions. And it means building the skills that help us bring loving kindness into our relationships.
That’s a tall order, but the good news is that you can start right now and begin to see the benefit. Even the simple act of changing how you talk about it can help. Try using the phrase “giving attention” rather than”paying attention” and see what that does. And the next time you’re having a conversation with your partner, a friend, family member, or your date try to make your attention a gift. Explore what happens when you do. You might be surprised.