~ DECEMBER 2022 ~
Picture this: You lock eyes with a stranger at a bar and immediately feel a spark.
It’s as if the rest of the room has disappeared. When they come over to sit next to you, you find any excuse to bump your hand against theirs. Before long, your knees are brushing under the table. It’s like there’s a magnetic pull between you—a vibration you can almost see in the air. By the night’s end, you’ve exchanged contact details and promise to talk soon.
Situations like these feature prominently in the meet-cute stories of happy couples, and for good reason. But sexual tension isn’t just for first encounters—even people in long-term relationships can still enjoy that delicious butterflies-in-the-tummy feeling from their partner. Simply put, “sexual tension can be the secret ingredient that elevates an experience from good to great,” says Nazanin Moali, PhD, a certified sex therapist and host of the Sexology Podcast.
And while sexual tension can be capital “H” hot when the feeling is mutual, you might find yourself in situations where you experience sexual tension that probably shouldn’t be acted on, especially taking into account someone’s relationship status or imbalanced power dynamics.
So, how do you know if what you’re experiencing is genuine sexual tension? And how do you decide whether or not it’s appropriate to act on it? Ahead, experts explain what sexual tension is, how to tell whether it’s helpful or harmful, and what to do when you find yourself feeling a magnetic pull towards that cutie in the corner.
What is sexual tension, exactly?
“Sexual tension occurs when one or both people experience sexual attraction; however, they are not acting on fulfilling those desires,” says Moali. Basically, sexual tension is all the feelings and sensations that make up delicious anticipation.
Because sexual tension thrives in environments where desires can’t lead to actions, it’s common in settings where intimate encounters are inappropriate, such as work, school, or even Pilates class. Sometimes, this can lead to a fun flirtation that makes a long day feel shorter, but sometimes it can lead to awkward situations—or worse—if the feeling isn’t reciprocated.
But sexual tension isn’t just reserved for people who’ve never been intimate, says L. Kris Gowen, PhD, a sexuality educator and co-host of the podcast B4 U Swipe. “You can also have sexual tension between people who have been sexual with each other before and are really feeling the desire at that moment but can’t act on it,” she explains. In other words, sexual tension can occur any time immediate gratification is out of the question.
How do I know if there’s sexual tension?
As with many feelings, our bodies know what’s up before our brain catches on. At one time or another, most people have found themselves at a loss for words when an attractive person enters the room. The dry mouth, sweaty palms, and rumbling stomach are enough to make anyone feel like a teenager again, but those aren’t the only signs of sexual tension to watch out for, says Moali: “Everyone is different, but some common physiological signs of sexual tension include blushing, dilation of pupils, [and] increased blinking.”
Genital responses associated with arousal are also a good indicator. In addition to physical signs, there are mental clues as well. “Psychological signs may include [the] inability to concentrate, increased self-awareness, and becoming preoccupied with the [other] person,” explains Moali.
You might be thinking to yourself: “Well, those sound like the same traits for anxiety. How do I know which one’s which?” Anxiety and arousal have many of the same symptoms, so figuring out why your heart’s going pitter-pat can be tricky. And even if you’re feeling attraction or sexual tension, that doesn’t mean the feeling is mutual.
“The key is to reflect not only on how you feel, but also signals from the other person,” says Gowen. “Do they seem equally flirtatious back? Are they leaning into you, touching you at random times during conversation?” These signals can help determine whether you’re both on the same page—and that’s essential for figuring out what to do next.
Sexual tension is just one element of flirtation. Get to know your crush better by asking them a few questions:
When is sexual tension helpful? And when is it harmful?
When it comes to sexual tension, context matters. Consider how the opening example can turn on a dime:
Let’s say the cutie you met at the bar texts as soon as you get home. The message reads, “It was so hot flirting while my wife was right there.” Cue the record scratch. You gather your wits and answer, hopefully, “Are you in an open relationship?” The three dots appear before you even look away from your phone. “I wish,” comes the immediate response.
And just like that, all the excitement from the evening sours in your belly. Situations like this show that when all systems are a-go, sexual tension can be incredibly exhilarating. But numerous factors can complicate the situation, and take things from exciting to icky.
Nevertheless, sexual tension can be a powerful confidence booster, even if you don’t act on it. “It’s great to know you are desired by someone you find desirable,” says Gowen. And for people in relationships, it can be essential. “Sexual tension is an element that many long-term couples use to spice up their relationship,” says Moali. “Without built-up tension and the anticipation that comes with it, sex can feel monotonous. Anticipation isn’t what comes before pleasure—it’s part of the fun.”
Unfortunately, under some circumstances (like the example above), sexual tension can be, well, not-so fun. “For individuals with a history of assault, harassment, or abuse, sexual tension might trigger negative past experiences and lead them to dissociate or feel anxious [and] detached from their bodies,” says Moali.
Even without a history of abuse, sometimes sexual tension is simply unwanted. If you’re not enjoying sexual tension for any reason, don’t hesitate to set clear boundaries. “When the attraction is one-sided, it is important to be direct and honest if the person asks you out,” says Moali. “Many people avoid giving clear feedback [to protect] the other person’s emotions, but this can lead to misunderstandings and can cause emotional pain long-term.”
Once you’ve set a clear boundary, there’s no excuse for the other person to keep pushing. “If the person you are feeling the sexual tension with does not respect your boundaries, then this is no longer a situation of sexual tension—it’s a situation of lack of consent and disrespecting boundaries,” says Gowen. “Be firm with articulating your limits and seek support through a friend or by leaving the situation.”
What should I do if there’s sexual tension?
Not all sexual tension should be acted on, so the first step is taking an honest look at the situation. If the sexual tension is one-sided, there are unequal power dynamics at play, or there’s a monogamous relationship in the mix, avoiding temptation might be best. “Being in a monogamous relationship doesn’t mean you can’t experience sexual tension with someone that you are attracted to; however, it will be helpful to avoid being around them alone,” says Moali.
If you’re on the receiving end of unwanted advances, Moali suggests talking with trusted friends or colleagues, or even escalating the situation by bringing it up to HR if it happens in the workplace. Remember: “If you feel ‘frozen’ at the time of advancement, it doesn’t mean that you have consented. In stressful situations, our bodies could shut down. You can still make a report afterwards,” says Moali.
The only way to be confident sexual tension is mutual and welcome is to talk about it. And don’t worry—talking doesn’t ruin the mood. If you both feel the same way, discussing it can heighten the experience. Try asking, “Would it be okay if I flirted with you?” Hearing that will be a thrill if the other person is also on board.
And even when you’ve mutually decided to move forward and flirt, there’s no need to intensify things right away, says Gowen. “Have fun drawing out the tension and seeing how your time together unfolds. The building of tension can be fun if you play the long game.”