The Journal of Sex Research has a fascinating article on the role of attention in sexual arousal and how we use our mental focus to explore and control excitement during sex.
We can see from our everyday lives that attention is important for sex. We can distract ourselves to avoid sexual arousal when our mind has wandered onto sexual topics and we don’t want to get aroused, or we want to prolong sexual enjoyment without getting over-aroused.
We also can do the reverse and focus strongly on sexual fantasises or our partner to dispel other thoughts and lose ourselves in the sexual moment.
However, the article looks at the scientific research on attention during sex and discusses how this can help us understand and treat sexual problems.
The drug industry has a lot invested in telling people that sexual difficulties are almost entirely due to problems with the genitals.
For example, the website for Viagra promotes the line that erectile dysfunction is a problem with your cock, saying that “It happens when not enough blood flows to the penis”.
Which is a bit like saying poverty is when not enough money gets to poor people. It describes the outcome but not the cause.
The article makes clear that many sexual problems can be best understood in terms of how the mind is working and many sexual problems can be equally well treated with psychological methods.
In other words, it’s often not that the genitals are ‘not working’, but that we’ve got into a situation where it’s hard to achieve the necessary level of sexual arousal because of, for example, distraction, anxiety or low self-confidence which cause a negative feedback loop that takes our focus away from making love and onto other non-arousing things.
Based on such findings, Barlow (1986) posited a model of erectile dysfunction, central to which is the idea that increased autonomic arousal results in a narrowing of attentional focus (Wiegel, Scepkowski, & Barlow, 2007). The model outlines a process whereby a male focuses his attention on either erotic cues or nonerotic, self-evaluative cues (e.g., fears over performance). In both cases, autonomic arousal (due to sexual arousal in functional men and anxiety in dysfunctional men) creates a feedback loop, further narrowing the man’s attentional focus on the information to which he is already attending.
In sexually functional men, attention becomes increasingly focused on erotic information, creating a positive feedback loop. This feedback loop facilitates sexual response and erection, which in turn leads to approach behavior. In the case of sexually dysfunctional men, attention becomes more focused on nonsexual, task-irrelevant material, creating a negative feedback loop.
In clinical psychology, many problems, particularly with anxiety, are understood as malfunctioning feedback loops, where the person’s attempt to control their anxiety actually serve to maintain it in the long-term.
Interestingly, the article touches on the use of mindfulness meditation, known to cause attention changes and anxiety reduction, in the treatment of sexual problems.