You're checking them out, they're checking you out—and when your eyes meet, an explosion of excitement ripples through your body. That feeling? Consider that sexual tension.
Let's break down some of the powerful physical signs that indicate someone reciprocates your attraction to them, plus how to build sexual tension with your partner and when to leave things be.
What is sexual tension?
Sexual tension is a normal, often electric feeling that can arise between people who want to have sex with each other but can't act on it in the moment, either due to relational or environmental context, explains licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., CST. Either they're unsure how to navigate their attraction, or the opportunity to exercise it hasn't presented itself.
Whether you prefer to call it energy or tension, Balestrieri says, "The sexual vibe is alive in the ether." Plus, get this: This sexual attraction is alive to more than just you and the person reciprocating your desire—it's palpable to the people around you, too.
Notably, sexual tension is experienced between people, which is different from a one-sided attraction one person might feel toward another. Marla Renee Stewart, M.A., sexpert for Lovers sexual wellness brand and retailer, describes sexual tension as "an energetic force between two or more people who have a sexual interest in each other." If the person or people who excite you don't seem to return your lust, Stewart doesn't consider that to be sexual tension. In that case, "It's simply a crush."
Signs of sexual tension.
According to Stewart and Balestrieri, these are some potent signs of sexual tension:
- Intense or suggestive eye contact—or increased eye contact
- Increased physical contact, like finding or creating opportunities to touch, even if they're nonsexual touches
- "Accidental" touches, which can serve as a test to see if the feeling is, in fact, mutual
- Having erotic dreams or fantasizing about your crush in a sexual way
- Daydreaming about sharing time with them in a nonsexual way
- Upping your flirting game
- One or both parties may change their voice or cadence of speech
- Making increased attempts to tell jokes and be funny
- Feeling awkward around each other
- Blushing and flushed skin
- Open body language
- Leaning closer to each other
- Increase in body temperature
- Removing physical barriers between you
- Feeling giddy and laughing a lot around each other
- A feeling of "taboo" and secrecy between you
Stewart points out that the key to these signs is reciprocation.
Additionally, Balestrieri says signs of attraction aren't always just about sexual touch, language, or innuendo but rather are often exhibited through foundational flirtation. That means it can be as simple as feeling giddy or laughing more. "Flirting with someone and having your flirtations reciprocated can feel liberating and disinhibiting, and it can invite more humor or joie de vivre (buoyant enjoyment of life) in general."
Here's one more sign of sexual tension Balestrieri provides: Your chemistry is on the down-low. "Even though most people around you can spot the sexual tension, it often feels like a private game and secret for two." In fact, she says part of what makes sexual tension so hot is that, in the moment, "It's generally something that's unexpected or even a little taboo."
Is sexual tension good or bad?
"Sexual tension is a good thing when you're waiting to be sexual with someone," says Stewart. She explains that the tension gives you an opportunity to flirt, seduce, and mentally prepare yourself to be with the person who shares your sexual attraction.
An amazing aphrodisiac for people who can eventually be together, sexual tension "can help build anticipatory arousal with the right amount of sexual frustration paired with excitement," Balestrieri adds. You might even consider it an emotional edging technique, she says, "since the tease and delay can stimulate fantasy, longing, hope, curiosity, and/or adventure."
However, there are downsides to having palpable sexual chemistry with someone, particularly when the people feeling this energy know they can't or shouldn't act on it. "This leads to them being distracted by the sexual tension and even possible resentment if they're in a current partnership," Stewart says. Anything that might lead to violating a sexual boundary can hinder quality sexual tension, she adds.
When the person you experience sexual tension with is an employee, a friend of a significant other, a family member, a minor, or anyone considered inappropriate, Balestrieri says sexual tension can be a negative influence on a person's life.
Another situation that presents unfavorable aspects of sexual tension is when it's weaponized as a form of revenge against a current partner. "If your partner flirts with someone in front of you to evoke a reaction out of you—and it's not part of your consensual kink—that could be an example of sexual tension run amok," Balestrieri says.
"Wherever exploitation, betrayal, or other negative consequences, like losing a job, may live as a consequence of sexual tension realized," she says it's likely to be quite destructive.
What to do about it.
Because communication is always key, Stewart says people should address their sexual tension by talking about it. "Expressing oneself can not only help you with actualizing the sexual tension but can also help you realize if it's just a crush that should be left alone."
When sexual tension occurs between people who can flirt and want to flirt, Balestrieri suggests the people who feel palpable sexual chemistry between each other "might imagine turning the heat into something more tangible, like a date, foreplay, or a sexual experience."
On the other hand, if the sexual tension "occurs in a context that makes it negatively consequential to play out," Balestrieri says the best way to address the tension is to
- Set healthy boundaries.
- Remove yourself from the situation.
- Reaffirm yourself in other ways to help dissipate the charge that tension often kicks up in your body.
Here are a few ways to deal with sexual frustration.
How to build sexual tension.
Learning how to build sexual tension with a partner can be an exploratory experience that brings you closer as you learn more about each other's sexual desires and needs—especially as you turn up the heat by withholding the endgame. Plus, if either partner struggles with a low sex drive, building tension could be a great way to rehabilitate your libido.
Delay having sex.
To build or increase tension with someone you're with or would like to be with, Stewart recommends purposefully not having sex with your partner but rather flirting and seducing them. Work on building anticipation (a huge part of sexual tension!) by teasing your partner for one week with actions that appeal to them before you both give in to a full-blown sexual experience.
"Together, partners that understand sexual tension can use it to play and tease each other with generativity that keeps their sex life kindling," explains Balestrieri, because "the art of the well-timed tease is not to be underestimated."
Get steamy via text.
According to Balestrieri, sending suggestive messages to each other that build anticipation can be a good start. "Something like, 'I can't wait to _____ tonight'' lets your partner know you're already thinking of them, and in a sensual or provocative way."
Touch each other.
A simple yet effective way to build sexual tension is to create opportunities for lingering touch and intense and playful eye contact—or even a little role play if you and your partner are open to it. (Here are some other fun foreplay ideas for a little inspo.)
If the sexual tension gets so intense you just can't wait, then don't! "Sneak off to find a private place for a make-out session in public and invite a little taboo into the mix," Balestrieri proposes.
Use sex toys.
"If you'd like to up the tension, send your partner a sex toy in the mail or in their hand at dinner with a promise for playtime later," suggests Balestrieri. She recommends toys like Trojan's Pulse Compact Vibrating Massager that can easily be passed around discreetly, which can "send scintillating sensations throughout your body while you wait for playtime later, building sexual tension [before] you finally get to be together."
The bottom line.
Sexual tension is a natural feeling that arises within us all when we're around someone we feel an energetic sensual connection with—and we've all been there!
The key to respecting everyone involved, however, is transparency and communication. Plus, be aware of how sexual tension feels within your body to know how it may affect you, especially if you're in a monogamous partnership.
Before moving forward with someone who makes you feel horny or increases your libido, consider all the possibilities to avoid negatively affecting others or yourself.
If you've got the green light to proceed, well...what are you still reading this for?
Farrah Daniel is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She has a bachelor's degree in Digital Media Studies from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Her work has been published at The Penny Hoarder, The Write Life, and elsewhere. Daniel manages and creates content for small businesses, nonprofits, and lifestyle publications. With five years of professional writing under her belt, her diverse portfolio includes topics such as wellness, personal finance, sales and marketing, shared micromobility and equity, and more.