Have you ever been on a date and just felt a spark—like a jolt of electricity coursing through your body, even if just for a moment? Maybe you're not even on a date, but are at work, or at the gym amongst strangers, or in a familiar setting among friends, and there's this one person you're drawn to in some way that can feel simultaneously exciting, confusing, and anxiety-inducing. The energy exchange can be overt or subtle, and is often described as sexual tension. Below, we explore the definition and common signs of sexual tension.
What is Sexual Tension?
"Positive sexual tension involves anticipation, excitement, motivation, spark, and risk," says Dr. Rachel Needle, a licensed psychologist based in West Palm Beach, Florida, and co-director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes, a continuing education and Ph.D. provider company that trains couples and sex therapists around the world. "Sexual tension exists when we desire someone, but are unsure what will happen or if there are circumstances getting in the way of acting on that desire, sometimes purposely." Needle adds. Furthermore, "While there is no clinical definition of sexual tension, there are clear physiological signs when sexual tension occurs," Indigo Stray Conger, licensed marriage and family therapist, AASECT certified sex therapist, and contributor for Choosing Therapy, says.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Rachel Needle is a licensed psychologist based in West Palm Beach, Florida, and co-director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes. Indigo Stray Conger is a licensed marriage and family therapist, AASECT certified sex therapist, and contributor for Choosing Therapy.
"Increased heart rate, increased body temperature, nervousness/anxiety, and a shift in vocal patterns are all common indicators that sexual tension is present," Conger explains.
People typically experience two kinds of sexual tension. Sexual tension can be positive, which is the type we described above (in which we feel a spark and desire for another person), and negative, which is when you might feel angry, sad, or anxious thinking about a sexual encounter with someone.
On that note, read on for more signs of positive sexual tension to help you decipher whether the feeling is mutual.
Constant Eye Contact
Eye contact can make you feel joy instead of fear and sadness (yes, a study proved this.) And when you’re so into each other that you can’t stop staring into each others’ eyes and you don’t feel like you need to look away (and don’t want to either), that’s when you know the chemistry is there.
A touch on the knee, brushing their hand against yours, a hand on your back… you catch the drift. It might not be a blatant arm around the shoulder or holding hands, but for a split second, you imagine what it would be like if your contact lasted longer than that. "The accidental-not-quite-an-accident touch is a sure sign that someone is attracted to you," reads a blog post about body language attraction on BetterHelp, a company that offers access to licensed therapists and other professional counselors. Personal space? Who needs that?
"Some of the signs of sexual tension people don’t typically think about include sweaty palms and finding yourself closer to that person in group settings or reasons you need to contact them more often," Needle says.
That Feeling When You’re the Only People in the Room
It can be easier to feel the energy when it’s just you two. But when you’re in a crowded room—especially doing your own thing—and you feel a pull toward that person, that’s when you know. "The build up to sexual activity through communication, flirting, or exchanged looks, can create sexual tension," Needle says.
When Your Voices Changes
It’s a scientific thing: Sexual tension can modify a person's vocal pitch. See how they speak to other people (friends, family) and then compare it to your conversations. One of the best parts? It’s something neither person can really hide.
Hesitating a bit at the end of a date means that you don’t want to go. It can be in the form of an embrace that lasts longer than normal or stalling near your doorstep after a date (remember that one scene in the movie Hitch?) If you notice that happening, you can tell you’re probably lusting. There are social norms regarding how long you hold a hug (for your friend, a certain amount of seconds; for a friend’s partner, maybe less than that, for example.) So when you go in for an embrace and no one lets go, chances are that the sexual tension is there. Bonus points if they give you a bit more of a squeeze than normal.
Hietanen JK. Affective Eye Contact: An Integrative Review. Front Psychol. 2018;9:1587. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01587
Leongomez JD, Binter J, Kubicova L, Stolarova P, Klapilova K, Havlicek J, Roberts SC. Vocal Modulation During Courtship Increases Proceptivity Even in Native Listeners. Evol Hum Behav. 2014;35(6):489-496. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2014.06.008