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, but 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 overwhelmed 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 isn't an accepted acronym.)
Here's 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're bombarded by sensory experiences all the time, so that this isn't 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 and how the nervous system reacts to it.
People may have low or high “thresholds” for different sensations and sensory experiences, and it isn't 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're 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.
Kids with sensory dysfunction issues are lucky. Or maybe I should say, “luckier” than adults. Because the kid who can’t stop running on tiptoes, or who screams at the touch of play-doh, or who can’t handle bathing, or who bumps into everything, is often noticed, and then in the best case scenario gets help from teachers and/or occupational therapists and other specialists.
The goal, of course, is to improve functioning and chances for a normal life through early intervention.
Adults with sensory dysfunction issues have to cope with the challenges of everyday life while struggling with their neurological responses to such things as ceiling fans, background noise, off-gassing synthetic carpets, too many people talking at once, uncomfortable work clothes, and so on.
They may be socially shunned as “clueless,” “weird,” “geeky,” or “overly sensitive.” They seldom get the kind of support and understanding that many children get, unless they are already receiving services and support for some other condition, such as autism or ADHD.
Then sensory integration support might be folded into the treatment plan. We can easily imagine the troubles such people might have trying to cope with the demands of a job or profession.
Now imagine that you’re a person who is “weird,” “geeky” or “overly sensitive,” but you’re lucky enough to have a long-term relationship. Chances are your partner started out as loving and understanding, thinking that once you started to relax and feel secure in the relationship, you’d be less likely to react to the “little things” that seem to drive you nuts.
But it’s been years now, and you haven’t changed. All sorts of things set you off. You’re still so nervous. Your partner has a hard time coaxing you into intimacy too, which she thinks would be helpful for both of you.
But she doesn’t know that it’s because you can’t get an erection when your teeth hurt, and the reason your teeth are hurting is because that fresh coat of yellow paint on your bedroom walls puts you so much on edge that you’re grinding your teeth just to stay in the room. She’d think you were just making excuses and overreacting again. She’d think you don’t really love her if something like a color would keep you from feeling aroused.
The marriage counselor or sex therapist you both saw said that you had to make an effort to be “less selfish” and your partner agreed. You’ve had too many fights about sex over the years, and you’re very afraid of that kind of fight, so you don’t say anything when your partner begins to stroke you, and nothing much happens, so you just pretend you’re tired, and you shut your eyes against that yellow, which still bruises your nerves even though it’s dark, and so both of you go to sleep unhappy and hurt.
If any of the above sounds familiar to you (or your partner), search for more information using the terms "sensory dysfunction," "sensory integration," and "sensory processing disorder." Then make a list of reactions and situations you've noticed, particularly ones that have disrupted your sex life.
You may want to share this information with your partner and create some strategies together. You may be able to solve some problems simply, such as using different bed linens or moving the humming computer out of the bedroom. If you're in need of professional help, try to find a sex-positive occupational therapist or one who will work in tandem with a clinical sexologist or sex therapist.
Most helping professionals haven't yet made the connection between sensory integration problems and sexual difficulties, but it's only a matter of time before they stumble over the "walrus" in the bedroom.