Sex and Sensory Dysfunction


Sex and Sensory Dysfunction
The ways in which we process sensory information have an unrecognized impact on our sex lives.

If you think “not tonight, dear, I have a headache” is a flimsy excuse, what would you think about “not tonight, dear, you’ve put the wrong sheets on the bed again and the refrigerator sounds terrible and you smell like you just got off an airplane and my cocoa has lumps in it and therefore I’m on overwhelm and can’t bear to be touched?”

Sensory integration dysfunction (SID), also known as sensory processing disorder (SPD), is the “walrus in the bedroom” when it comes to clinical sexology and sex therapy. I say “walrus” because people commonly talk about the “elephant in the room” when they want to refer to a commonly acknowledged but unspoken issue. But no one ever imagines there might be a walrus along with or instead of an elephant - that’s how far off the radar “adult sexual-sensory dysfunction” seems to be. (I'll call it ASSD for the purposes of this article, but this is not an accepted acronym.)


Here is a very simplified overview of sensory processing dysfunction. Think about the implications for sexual intimacy.

Human sensory systems include: tactile (touch), vestibular (balance), proprioception (body awareness), visual (sight), auditory (hearing), gustatory (taste), and olfactory (smell). Our brain helps us to either discriminate and interpret sensations correctly and/or to protect us from them.

Integration of sensory experiences is a process which involves registering or being aware of the sensation; orientation or specific focus on the sensation; interpreting the sensation; organizing a response; and then executing a response which has been appropriately regulated or moderated. Understand that we are bombarded by sensory experiences all the time, so that this is not a simple one-at-a-time process. It’s all happening at once, on many levels, many fronts.

A sensory experience evokes a reaction in a person as he or she becomes aware of it. The reaction usually results in a behavior of some kind, even if it’s just a blink or an increased heart rate. Behaviors are based not just on what a person senses, but how he or she senses it, how the nervous system reacts to it.

People may have low or high “thresholds” for different sensations and sensory experiences, and it is not usually consistent across the range of senses. You might like really spicy food (high), but prefer very quiet music (low). You can be hypersensitive and overreactive, or hyposensitive and underreactive. If you are hyposensitive in one area, you will look for more of that kind of sensation. You will be a “sensory seeker.”

Mosh pits are made for tactile sensory seekers. A hypersensitive person will be sensory avoidant. The person who flinches from an accidental touch is tactile avoidant.
Another way of putting it is that a person could be under-processing sensation,
over-processing sensation, or processing a sensation with interference (like “white noise"). In terms of treatment plans, it’s important to figure all this out.

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