Excerpt from "Sex as Improv and Creative Play"
4. Be in First-Person
Imagine watching someone dance at the wedding mentioned earlier. Imagine him being preoccupied by how his dancing looks to the photographer and the other wedding-goers. Then imagine him gradually getting into the groove, becoming less preoccupied until he loses himself in the trance of dancing. What you’ve just witnessed is the dancer transitioning into the first person. His inner monologue went from being inside the photographer’s head (“Look at him dance”) to being inside his own experience (“This feels amazing”).
We call this ‘losing ourselves,’ but it’s really more about finding ourselves.
Many people struggle to stay in first person during sex. They see themselves as if through a camera in the room. To varying degrees, they’re aware of what they look, smell, taste, sound, and feel like to others. This is especially common for people socialized as girls and for survivors of sexual violence. For obvious reasons, watching a lot of porn can also coax your reference point outside your body—the watching perspective becomes ingrained.
I call this experience “third-person sex.” It’s characterized by a prioritized identification with who’s looking at us along with hyper-vigilance about how others are experiencing us. Many people have third-person sex some or all of the time. Some switch their reference points back and forth, others have third-person sex only with certain partners, some did when they were young but no longer—and some stay in the sexual third-person for their entire lives.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with third-person sex. It can be a truly pleasurable experience. It’s also possible to be a fabulous lover from the third-person vantage point—you’re focusing on your partner’s experience, after all, and this is one of the keys to being a great lover.
Third-person sex only becomes a problem when it starts getting in the way of your own pleasure. If you don’t feel true to yourself or satisfied with what you’re experiencing, or if you can’t shift to a first-person perspective when you’d like to, then it’s something to take a closer look at.
Third-person sex can also be a problem for partners. Common complaints might sound like “We go through the motions, but you’re not really there” and “I just don’t feel like we’re connecting.”
First-person sex is very much about being present, an intangible concept that defies definition—although, as with the famous definition of pornography, you know it when you see it (or feel it). If third-person is your habitual state, the perspective likely feels totally normal, and you may not even know that there may be something to work with here. Like they say, the fish isn’t aware of the water they swim in. To shift into first person, the first thing you need to do is recognize that this alternative exists. At that point, moving your gaze from the corner of the room (or from behind your lover’s eyes) to behind your own eyes will require some practice—and, quite possibly, some unlearning. You’re learning a new habit, a habit of perspective.
Being fully present means being fully in the present, not in the past or the future. It means not planning or worrying (future), and not reliving a memory (past) as if it were happening now. Being present means tuning into your feelings and sensations at least as much as your thoughts. It means not getting caught up in interpretations of what you’re experiencing. We are the meaning-making animal—we can’t help but create stories that make sense of our experience. We can know a story for it is, though—one interpretation among many. Ground yourself in the sensory experiences that bring the story.
If, during sex, you find yourself in third person when you want to be first person, try shifting your perspective by practicing bodily awareness. Notice what your body is doing and what it’s experiencing. How are you breathing? What is its pace, depth, sound? Is it cool or warm? If your body is touching another body, what does that feel like? (Not how should it be feeling, or what do you expect it to feel like, but what do you actually feel?) Tune into the quality of any motions you or your partner makes.
Be present to your environment, too. What’s the quality of the light? What smells can you detect? As much as possible, notice what you’re sensing without overlaying any meanings or stories onto them. “The air is cold” is a first-person noticing of your sensory experience. “I should have closed the window” is a story that takes you away from your direct experience.
Keep finding your way into your body. Your senses will take you there.