Hi, Here’s How to Tell If It’s Sexual Tension

Hi, Here’s How to Tell If It’s Sexual Tension

Chilling at a restaurant bar and feeling a little nosy? Here’s a fun game for ya: Look around and try to guess what number date the couple next to you is on. Take inventory of their body language—the knees pointed directly at each other, the nervous lean-ins, the we-still-haven’t-slept-together-and-are-absolutely-dying-to handsiness. “Hmmm, second. Maybe third,” you might guess while placing your bet. And, if you’re any good at reading social cues, you probably have a decent chance of getting it right. That’s because sexual tension is palpable—a kind of horny energy that is just so apparent to any onlooker. And while it’s easy to see, it’s sometimes hard to define and even harder to know the signs when you’re the one experiencing the sexy energy exchange.

According to Rhiannon John, sexologist at BedBible, sexual tension is an essential aspect of intimacy and plays a vital role in maintaining passion and connection in relationships, which is why it’s important to understand what exactly it is you’re feeling. “Sexual tension is the electricity that arises from attraction and desire between two people. It’s the energy that sizzles between them, creating a sense of anticipation and longing that can be both pleasurable and uncomfortable,” explains John. If you’re engaging in healthy sexual situations that create tension, you’ll likely feel excited and turned on—and maybe even a little confused or anxious.

It’s contradictory, we know: While the tension can sometimes be hot and fun, it can also feel a lot like sexual frustration. That’s because your brain is literally fighting itself over your sexy feels, says marriage and family therapist Katie Miles, LMFT. Essentially, the hypothalamus (the brain’s pleasure center) wants to feel good and motivates you by releasing sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone, Miles explains. But the frontal lobe—responsible for impulse control (aka the judgment center)—basically tells your body you shouldn’t be having those feelings for whatever reason. “[Sexual frustration] is the debate between your pleasure brain wanting to get some sexual gratification and your frontal brain assessing the obstacles and risk involved,” says Miles.

However you define it, there are some pretty obvious, telltale signs of sexual tension. We’ve listed a few below, in case you want to check yourself—or the person you’re flirting with—for evidence of some good, ol’ fashioned carnal urges.

How to Tell If It’s Sexual Tension

1.Check Their Body Language…And Your Own

When there’s mutual sexual tension between two people, it can often be felt through subtle cues and signals. According to Certified Sex Therapist Desirée N. Robinson, physical touch is one of them. A gentle touch on the arm and leaning in to chat with one another are all typical signs that some sexy energy is brewing, but Robinson urges you to dig deeper into your own feelings, as well. “I also like for folks to check in with how they are engaging with someone else. Ask yourself: ‘How alive does my body feel with them?’”

2. You Feel Adrenaline to the Max

Unlike physical touch, some signs of sexual tension might go unseen. “In matters of sex, lust, and anxiety, there’s some overlap,” says Miles. “Anxiety and sexual responses can both make your heart race, increase your blood pressure, and give you that feeling of adrenaline.” This emotionally-rattling pleasure is why people sometimes confuse feelings of hate with feelings of sexual tension (the enemies-to-lovers trope, anyone?). It also explains why you might be nervous while engaging with someone you feel sexual tension with or why you might feel naturally high after being in their presence.

3. You Engage in Playful Banter

Taylor Swift was right: You should take it as a compliment if someone gets drunk and makes fun of the way you talk. According to John, engaging in playful banter or teasing is another sign of Big Sexual Energy.

4. Unwavering Attention All Around

If there’s a lot of prolonged eye contact going on, chances are there’s sexual tension in the air, says Jess McCann Ballagh, author and relationship coach. Ballagh, who believes that you need both parties to be involved to feel sexual tension, says prolonged eye contact can feel like a mini-date that no one else can see or get in on. “It feels great, and you don’t want to break away from it,” she adds.

5. Your Friends Notice the Energy

Another way of gauging sexual tension is how outsiders view you and your (maybe) partner’s interactions. “It’s nearly unavoidable for people to notice when both parties are feeling something for each other,” adds Jones. So if all your friends pull you aside after watching you interact like, “What was that?!?” then that’s another good indication that it was, in fact, sexual tension.

6. The Tension Feels Like Foreplay

According to sexologist Madalaine Munro, sexual tension is the absence of immediate gratification. And while that may sound (and can definitely be) frustrating, it also has a way of keeping us present and grounded in our bodies. “When we are present, we can be attuned to what we are really feeling in our bodies. This can amplify the pleasure that we are feeling and intensify the intimacy,” explains Munro. And when that intimacy isn’t goal-oriented, it creates so much more freedom to explore—hence why sexual tension might feel slightly like foreplay: it’s erotic. “Plus, when something’s off limits, desire can be boosted,” says Munro. “There may be an added dynamic of taboo or naughtiness that can add to a sense of danger.”

Okay, But How Do You Know If Sexual Tension is Mutual?

Honestly, it tends to be one of those “when you know, you know” kinda things. That said, any time there are heightened feelings going on, there’s aways a chance of misreading the signals. If you feel like you’re working hard to keep someone engaged, chances are they’re not feeling the same vibes.

“If you are overworking to connect with someone you feel sexual tension for, it is neither mutual nor rewarding,” says psychotherapist and certified sex therapist Desirée N. Robinson. According to Robinson, the best way to know if the sexual energy goes both ways is to pay attention to what you’re putting out, and to whether or not the other person is actively receiving and reciprocating.

Suppose you’re feeling the sexual tension with someone and think it’s something you want to explore further. In that case, Munro recommends having an honest conversation with your crush. “If we don’t communicate about possible sexual chemistry,” we can end up projecting our own feelings onto a situation, says Munro. When we’re attracted to someone, our brain (and our judgment) can get clouded with all that crushy bliss and excitement. So when the object of our sexual energy, say, accidentally brushes our hand or makes an unassuming comment, we may project our sexual desire onto them and end up misinterpreting their otherwise unhorny words or actions as signs of mutual attraction.

“We may add meaning to their actions,” says Munro. “Perhaps we tell ourselves, ‘They meant to brush past me; they are attracted to me as well,’ when we don’t know what’s going on in their world unless we have honest, open conversations,” says Munro. Sure, having a ~serious~ convo might sound like a bit of a sexual tension killer, but it doesn’t have to be serious—you can be as playful as you want while also being concise and to the point. TL;DR, the only way to know if the sexual tension is mutual is to ask ’em straight, even if it’s just a cheeky, “Hey, are you feeling me?”

What should you *do* about sexual tension?

You pretty much have two choices here, says Rachel Wright, LMFT, a sex educator for Zumio. You can either lean into the sexual tension or get some space. Naturally, this choice will largely depend on your relationship status, their relationship status, your connection, and the situation. “Because we know that the pleasure part of your brain is impulsive, emotional, reactive, and not very discerning, you’re going to want to find ways to give your frontal brain a chance to do its job,” says Miles. “Step away, take some slow deep breaths, and think it through: What is the context? Are there risks you should consider? Are there any obstacles? Is it safe? Then go from there.”

If you find yourself having sexual tension with someone you should absolutely not be having those feelings for, Miles suggests giving yourself some grace since it’s a normal bodily response. But if you’re feeling sexual tension for your current partner simply because you’re trying something new sex-wise or they look extra fine, embrace it. “[Sexual tension is] a great way to keep having the hots for each other,” Miles says. Consider it a fun lil relationship bonus!

How can you stop sexual tension?

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with sexual tension, Miles says the context of the tension will probably determine whether or not you need to stop it. If it’s between you and your hot, single co-worker, great. If it’s between you and someone completely off-limits (or if *you’re* off-limits)…not as great.

Unfortunately, by definition, tension of any kind is going to require a resolution, Jones says. So, ignoring it isn’t really an option here. Someone who wants to stop sexual tension basically has two choices: either resolve the tension by giving in to your desires or squash the tension by acknowledging it openly. Either route will ideally provide some relief.

If outright talking about it isn’t something you want to do, you can try to keep the butterflies at bay by telling yourself nothing will happen and telling the other person that nothing ever will (if it’s mutual). Bring up a new relationship around this person to see if that helps curb the feelings. While this might be an easier (and more face-saving) approach, says it won’t make the tension go away completely the way talking openly about it would.

You can also try some mental tricks to de-sexify that person in your mind. While the old adage of picturing someone in their undies to calm your nerves might work for giving a school speech or something, that’s pretty much the opposite of what you wanna do here. Instead, picture the person doing something silly or objectively not sexy, like blowing their nose, flossing, or picking their toenails, says Jess McCann Ballagh, author and relationship coach. Basically, give yourself the ick!

If it’s more of a purely physical thing and you also know you’re going to see the person later and want to try to minimize your feelings, Ballagh also suggests masturbating before you have to see them. That way you’re at least not supes pent-up.

Miles says you ultimately need to remember that sexual tension is neither good nor bad, and judging yourself won’t do you any good here. “At least half of this is largely automatic and primitive,” she says. Besides, you have your frontal brain to guide you morally and ethically, so trust it.

Sex & Relationships Editor

Carina Hsieh lives in NYC with her French Bulldog Bao Bao — follow her on Instagram and Twitter • Candace Bushnell once called her the Samantha Jones of Tinder • She enjoys hanging out in the candle aisle of TJ Maxx and getting lost in Amazon spirals. 

Headshot of Rachel Varina

Rachel Varina is a full-time freelance writer covering everything from the best vibrators (the Lelo Sona) to the best TV shows (The Vampire Diaries). She has over 10 years of editorial experience with bylines at Women’s Health, Elite Daily, Betches, and more. She lives in Tampa, Florida, but did not feed her husband to tigers. When she’s not testing out new sex toys (100+ and counting so far!), she’s likely chilling with her dogs or eating buffalo chicken dip. Ideally at the same time. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter

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Morgan is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer, covering everything from health and sex to fashion and beauty. Her work can also be seen in Bustle, Refinery29, Well+Good, and more. She’s a big fan of these things, in order: silk slip dresses, giving unsolicited life advice, working out, and Taylor Swift’s entire discography. 

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