Being Mindful During Sex: Find-the-Smell Activity

Shannon Oliver-O'Neil, LCSW Therapist, Supervisor of Interns, Art Museum / Fairmount Office Manager

Posted by: Shannon Oliver-O'Neil
LCSW Therapist, Supervisor of Interns, Art Museum / Fairmount Office Manager

Many people struggle with being mindful during partnered sex. Difficulty staying engaged during sex can make sex less enjoyable, or even cause avoidance of sexual encounters. To address this issue, let’s start by breaking down some root causes and their connection to mindfulness. In her book Come as You Are,  Dr. Emily Nagoski lays out the ways our desire functions. Each of us has a spectrum of excitation and a spectrum of inhibition.These systems operate independently of each other - it’s possible to have a responsive excitation system, and unresponsive inhibition system, or doubly unresponsive systems, etc.  You can imagine them as the "gas pedal" and "brake pedal" for sexual desire. Pressing the gas pedal, or excitation system, “revs up the engine”. Pressing the brake pedal, or inhibition system, slows down your desire. If you have a responsive excitation system (aka, a heavy foot on the gas pedal), it takes fewer pieces of information for our brains to decide “oh yes, it would be nice to have sex now.” For many folks who struggle with being mindful during sex, their issue is an overly responsive inhibition system (aka, a heavy foot on the brake pedal). For these folks, it takes fewer pieces of information for their brains to decide “oh nope, now is not a great time to have sex.” A draft, or the phone ringing could mean the end of desire as the inhibition system fires up and slams on the brakes. Being more mindful can help you take your foot “off the brake”.

Many folks find that their primary sexual inhibitors come from internal stimuli (i.e. thoughts and feelings) versus external stimuli (i.e. a ringing cell phone). This means that their thoughts and feelings can cause their inhibition system to fire up, and pull them out of their desire. For these folks feeling anxious, or having thoughts about what else they should be doing, or how they should look, or what they should be doing can you take you out of the moment and inhibit their arousal. In order to help folks stay engaged during sex, it’s equally if not more important to take our feet off the brake pedal, than it is to slam our foot on the gas. Mindfulness helps with this.

Find-the-Smell is a game designed to help you be more mindful during sex. It allows you to take your foot off the brake pedal and manage your internal inhibitors. In this exercise, you’ll use smell, but it can easily be adapted to incorporate other senses. 

Choose who will be the scent-hider, and who will be the scent-seeker. 

The smell-hider should pick 3 items from your kitchen or bathroom that have strong smells (i.e., coffee beans, lavender oil, or a lemon are all great examples- things that won’t irritate the skin or your partner’s nose.) 

Rub each item onto a separate spot on your body. Try to spread them out. Example: under your chin, to the side of your right arm-pit, on the bottom of your left foot, etc. The goal is to spread the three individual scents across your body so they won’t obscure each other. You may want to wash your hands after applying to ensure the scents only land where you intend them to.

Invite your partner to explore your body with their nose. Tell them what three smells they are looking for, and see how long it takes them to find the smell. Or for added challenge, see if they can find and guess the smell!

Switch roles.


If you get the giggles or otherwise have trouble staying present during this game, that's ok! To refocus, you can try the following:

  • Take some deep breaths
  • Close your eyes, to close out any distractions and bring focus to physical sensations.
  • If your eyes were already closed, try opening them and making eye contact with your partner. Can connecting to them help bring you back to the present moment?
  • Try verbally describing the sensations you are experiencing aka narrating in real time. This might help you stay present.

When each of you has had a turn as the scent seeker, discuss the following reflection questions together. Remember to use “I-language”, and avoid blaming or shaming your partner.

    • Which role was easier for you? Why?
    • What does my skin smell like to you? What do you find comforting about it? Sexy?
    • What areas of your body, if any, felt uncomfortable being sniffed? How did you react to that discomfort?
    • What areas, if any, felt erotic when sniffed? How did you react to arousal? 
    • At what point during this game, if at all, did your mind wander away from the sensations in your body? What happened immediately before your mind started to wander? What, if anything, helped you come back to your body?

Giving your brain a task during physical intimacy can help decrease distracted-ness during sex - the energy and attention that’s usually spent wandering or feeling anxious can be channeled into the task at hand. You can create variations of this exercise using any of the five senses - hiding tastes around your body, or temperatures/textures, etc.

When you find yourself feeling distracted by internal inhibitors during sex, think back to this exercise and use your senses to keep yourself grounded and engaged during sex.

If you and your partner want more support building intimacy, or found that discussing the included reflection questions was difficult, make an appointment with a sex therapist today.