Attuned Sex

There’s something I’ve noticed about dogs and cats. Some animals don’t really care if you’re not paying close attention to what you’re doing while you pet them. I’ve known many cats and dogs that enjoy it if I make the scritchy motion with my hand while they move around to get it where they want. Along the cheeks, under the chin, between the ears- these critters enjoy the physical sensation and they prefer to be in control of where they feel it. That makes it super easy to pet them while watching a movie or reading a book since I don’t even need to be looking at them.

happy dog receiving attuned attention

I’ve known other animals that only really want to be touched with attunement. It’s not that they passively sit there without any reactions or signs of enjoyment. They’re definitely active participants in the experience, but they need to feel that I’m giving attention to what I’m doing. They make it clear that they want touch that’s attuned to them. It rarely works to try to pet them while reading a book because as soon as I start to focus on my reading, the cat or dog will get up and walk away.

It’s not that one of these kinds of touch is better than the other. They offer different experiences, and different animals (and people!) have their preferences. And it has me thinking about what attuned touch is. I’ve been hearing from quite a few people lately that they long to experience attuned touch, and I find that it’s both more simple and more complex than folks often realize.

What is attunement?

I’ve read a lot of different descriptions of attunement, but the one that feels most accurate to me is that attunement is like partner dancing. Whether you’ve ever done ballroom dance (or something like it) or not, you’re probably aware that one person is the lead and the other is the follow. When it’s done well, both people are actively engaged with each other and they’re both responding to the other. It’s not that one person is in charge and they drag the other person around the floor. They’re both creating the experience by tracking each other and using that information to adapt their movement from moment to moment.

Dance isn’t the only place that can happen. Attunement can be part of an activity as simple as playing catch with someone else. If you’re paying attention to the other person and adjusting how hard you throw the ball based on your observations, that’s a kind of attunement, too. Attunement is also part of having a great conversation, playing musical instruments or singing together, and even playing a team sport. If you watch skilled musicians or athletes playing together, it often seems like they can read each other’s minds without even looking at each other. That’s a form of attunement.

At its core, attunement is pretty simple, and that doesn’t make it easy or intuitive. So let’s take a look at some of the pieces to the puzzle.


The most important and foundational piece of attunement is being present. That means being focused and engaged with what you’re doing and where you are, in the moment-to-moment experience. It might not sound like much, but it it’s essential.

Living in the modern world, we’re surrounded by thousands of things trying to get our attention. We need to work, take care of ourselves, take care of our family and pets, manage our households and our lives. And while all of that has been true for everyone that has ever lived, we also get bombarded with phone notifications, a constant barrage of news and events to try to sort out, advertising and media that grab our awareness, and the ongoing stress of 21st century life. All of those pings and pulls on our attention make it harder to be present because they never end and they’re designed to feel important, whether they are or not. We’re facing more distractions and demands on our attention than ever before. (Pro tip: turn off any non-essential notifications on your apps. I promise that most of them aren’t nearly as important as they feel.)

Even before this modern era, people have always struggled with being present because we’re prone to “monkey mind.” Meditation and related practices have existed for so long precisely because stillness and presence don’t come naturally to us. We need to practice them. But if that was true even before the industrial and silicon revolutions, how much more relevant is it for us today with all these distractions that didn’t even exist 20 years ago?

Presence is the foundation of attunement because attunement only works to the degree that we can be present with what is happening in each shifting moment. At first, it takes a lot of effort, just like a beginning dancer can’t hold a conversation when they’re busy paying attention to their footwork and a novice musician will focus on playing the right notes rather than responding to a bandmate’s improvisation. You need a certain baseline of skill to be able to bring some of your attention to the other person. But even when you have the muscle memory to allow yourself to dance and talk at the same time, if you get too distracted (i.e. not present enough), your partner will feel it and the experience won’t be as fun or graceful for either of you.

In a sexual situation, if you’re too distracted by other concerns to be present, there’s nothing solid enough to support real attunement. In my coaching work, I often hear about partners going through the motions while being mentally or emotionally somewhere else. What I’ve found is that it’s pretty easy to talk about sexual practices that distill everything down to a “touch here in this way” approach, but the best sexual technique in the world will still fall flat if there’s no presence.

I know that there are many reasons we find it difficult to be present, and I acknowledge that there’s a certain amount of privilege inherent in talking about it. It takes resources and energy to find the tools and develop a practice, and that’s especially hard to do for folks facing stress or economic insecurity, as so many of us are these days. It reminds of a quote from Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” Even a small shift like practicing some calming breathwork can have a big effect over time.


The thing is, getting present within yourself is just the first step. To truly attune, we also need to extend a portion of our attention to the other person and “read the room.” We need to be able to observe their words, their actions, their body language & posture, and the tone and emotional prosody of their voice. As we get to know someone more deeply, we can shift from applying generalizations about these things (e.g. “breaking eye contact can be a sign of embarrassment”) to understanding this specific person (such as “they like to take a break from eye contact to lower the intensity of their experience”).

Learning to attend to these cues can often seem overwhelming, especially since someone could do the same behavior but for very different reasons in different situations. Factor in the cultural differences that influence how we move through the world and it can feel impossible to keep track of it all. The key here is to bring curiosity and non-judgement to your interactions. If you can do that, you can ask the other person to help you understand what their behavior means to them, and you can learn how to interpret it more easily. You might not need to do that in all of your interpersonal relationships, but if you can do it with your romantic/sexual partners and with your immediate circle, the quality of your relationships will almost certainly improve. They’ll feel seen by you, and you’ll have more confidence in your ability to understand their actions.

There are a lot of reasons this can be tricky. People who are on the autism spectrum often have difficulty interpreting non-verbal cues in the ways that allistic (non-autistic) people generally do. Some folks who have experienced ongoing abuse and trauma might interpret other people’s behavior as threatening and dangerous, even when it isn’t. Cisgender men and other folks assumed male at birth often struggle to interpret emotions because we get shamed, abused, and traumatized for feeling them (other than anger), which puts severe limits on our ability develop emotional skills or tools. People who are constantly stressed have less bandwidth to offer attention to someone else. Some of these challenges can be resolved or healed, and some of them have to be accepted and worked with. But either way, anything you can do to notice and observe the other person’s behavior can help you bring deeper attention to them.


If you’re present in yourself and paying attention to the other person, that still isn’t enough to create attunement because you need to show the other person that your attention is on them. You can do that through words or through actions, and you do it by meeting them where they are. If they want a slower dance, you ease your pace down to match them. If they want something at a quicker speed, you match them my speeding up. This responsiveness is constantly shifting as the relationship between the two of you develops. For example, you might start off dancing at a slower pace while the two of you get to know each other, and then speed up as you connect more.

This is a place I see a lot people get stuck when it comes to sex because there’s a balancing act between having your own experience and responding to the other person. If you’re entirely focused on yourself, there’s no attunement, but if you’re entirely focused on the other person, there’s no room for them to attune to you. It can be hard enough to hold onto both of those pieces in a conversation, so it’s even harder when you’re having sex.

But the thing is- it’s the responsiveness that tells the other person that you’re attuning to them. Your actions are how you demonstrate that you’re present and giving them your attention. There’s no other way for them to truly feel like you’re attuning to them. Actions truly speak louder than words, intentions, or desires. Being able to hold your awareness of your own experience and the other person’s is a skill that’ll improve your sex life more than anything else will.

This is more important than any sexual technique

Let me be clear about something important. Knowing different ways to give and receive pleasurable touch is an incredibly important part of attuned sex. It’s impossible to be responsive to your partner if you lack erotic touch skills. I think that’s one reason there are so many books and guides offering sexual skills (including my own book, The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure). Plus, it’s pretty easy to write or teach about a technique because you don’t need to get into any of the complicated and messy emotional stuff. But I’ve spoken with lots of people and the vast majority of them say that while technique without attunement might be fun for a casual sexual encounter, it’s not enough to sustain a happy and ongoing erotic relationship.

a diverse group of people at a dinner party

In a lot of ways, this is similar to being an accomplished cook versus a great host. In this comparison, cooking skills are like sexual technique skills, and being an attentive host is a kind of attunement. You could be an amazing chef who can make all sorts of complicated and delicious recipes, but being a host for a dinner party is an entirely different skill set. Hosting involves things like helping guests feel welcome, keeping the conversational ball rolling, knowing when to refresh drinks or offer dessert, and tracking your guests to make sure they’re enjoying themselves. All of that requires attunement. Of course, you also want the food to be delicious, but a party with a great host who orders delivery will be more fun than a party with amazing food but an inattentive or unresponsive host.

Attunement is a practice

Presence, attention, and responsiveness are all skills that take time to build and practice, and there are a lot of reasons they can be challenging to cultivate. I find that when someone commits to developing their ability to attune, it can call into question all sorts of experiences such as events that happened in previous relationships, experiences with misattunement in their family of origin, any trauma they’ve been through, and even how they engage with their kids. Sometimes, developing the capacity to attune with a partner can come into conflict with the coping strategies that you’ve built to navigate difficult work or life circumstances. If you’re stressed out all the time, finding the presence that supports attunement can highlight how difficult your life is. I think it’s important to acknowledge that because sometimes, attunement can’t happen without making significant changes and that isn’t always available.

two people facing with their backs to each other, not talking

It’s also incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to attune with someone if you’re feeling resentment towards them. In my view, resentment is anger that hasn’t been expressed, and it’s often an indicator that there’s been a rupture in the relationship that hasn’t yet been repaired. If there are layers of unresolved rupture and there’s been a build up of resentment, the foundation for attunement is shaky because the hurt and anger is taking up that space. This is why I view resentment as the biggest relationship killer, and it’s why we need to learn how to navigate conflict and repair. Without that capacity, there’s no easy way to come back into attunement.

I’ve heard it said often enough that how we do one thing is how we do everything. I find that’s especially true for sex since our erotic selves are connected to our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual selves. If you want to learn how to attune better during sex, you might find yourself looking at how you attune in the rest of your life. Can you give your attention to your partner, your kids and family, your friends and coworkers? Can you focus on the person in front of you, rather than looking at your phone or thinking about your to-do list? Do you feel like you can respond to them as the conversation moves and flows? If not, I would suggest working on those pieces before trying to apply them to sex.

Two useful tools

If you find it challenging to be present in the moment, I have two suggestions for you. First, develop a breathwork practice. You can do it in less than a minute per day, and the benefits will show up pretty quickly. Breathwork is one of the most effective ways to work with the nervous system to build resilience and find presence.

Second, consider learning to meditate. Being able to be present within yourself is essential if you want to attune to someone else, and meditation is the most effective ways to do that, in my experience. If you don’t think you have time, consider the suggestion that “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes everyday — unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” If you truly don’t have 20 minutes to spare, you probably need to carve out even more time to slow down.

Note: People who are regularly in nervous system dysregulation, triggers, or trauma reactions sometimes find that meditation stirs up those feelings more than it helps settle them. That makes sense to me- feeling what your system is experiencing is comfortable only to the degree that you feel safe. I highly recommend the book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing by David Treleaven for guidance on how to navigate the challenges that can arise for trauma survivors.

Learning how to attune isn’t complicated, but simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. As a somatic sex educator and relationship coach, I want to help you find new tools to create the relationships that support you and make you thrive. I offer in-person sessions in Seattle, as well as coaching over video. Get in touch with me to schedule a free Get Acquainted video call. Let’s talk about what’s going on for you and how I can help you make sex easy.