Is Sexual Tension Always Mutual?

Sex experts explain when sexual tension actually exists, and when it’s just wishful thinking.
sex relationships sexual tension attraction energy tips expert
It’s not that simple. Photo: Thomas Barwick, Getty

It’s tempting to think that sexual tension is always mutual. If you have the hots for someone, they must have the hots for you, too, right? Now, wouldn’t that be convenient.

For sexual tension to exist, both (or all) parties involved need to experience it, Catherine Drysdale—a sex and relationship coach and host of the podcast Your Pleasure Path—told VICE. In physics, tension is a force transmitted between two opposite ends of a rope, string, or something similar. Using that logic, sexual tension should be mutual, because it has to come from both ends. 


Unfortunately, that’s not always how the cookie crumbles.

“You can have sexual attraction without sexual tension when one person feels sexual arousal for the other person but the feeling isn’t mutual,” said Drysdale. 

Let’s break that down: What you think is sexual tension (which is mutual by definition) might just be sexual attraction (which can be one-sided)—and acting on the latter when you think it’s the former could get you into the wrong kind of sticky situations

“You could put yourself in compromising situations if you’re feeling that sexual tension is always mutual,” said Jenna Switzer, a holistic sexologist. “If that’s something you believe to be true, you’ll put yourself in situations to accommodate that sexual tension that are otherwise not appropriate or safe.” 

For example, a corporate executive who confuses sexual attraction for sexual tension might make a move on a new hire; fans might chase a band member after making eye contact at a concert, only to find themselves alone at a big after-party; you might make an unwanted move on a long-time friend and make it awkward for your entire friend group.  

“If you assume sexual tension is always mutual, it means you are automatically deciding for another individual what their feelings and intentions are with you,” said Kyle Dean Freeman, a sex empowerment coach.


That doesn’t mean that you should be ashamed of sexual attraction when it’s not mutual.

“As long as we free ourselves from thinking that the world, people, or our partners are obligated to satisfy us in some way, the more room we create for us and others to enjoy the actual experience of life itself,” said erotic love coach Yuval Mann. “In this case, to enjoy the waves of our sexual desires without needing them to be fulfilled or go anywhere necessarily.”

You don’t even have to act on that sexual attraction. You can just enjoy the feeling.

“When you have that sexual tension with someone that you’re attracted to, prior to actually being physically intimate with them… everything feels like a rush, and that’s amazing,” said Switzer. “There are so few times in life that we get to have that rush, that excitement, that sensation.”

Freeman added that sexual tension can sometimes also be a sign that people have mutual interests. That means that maybe the energy is sexual, but how you act on it doesn’t have to be sexual, too. 

Switzer explained that in Taoist and tantric philosophies, sexual energy is seen as creative energy, “so when you’re experiencing sexual tension or sexual attraction with someone, often that can be converted into a creative energy that you co-create with that person.”


In other words, you can act on sexual tension without the physical, intimate act of having sex. Instead, you can put that energy into things like dance, music, or art. 

But what if you, uh, wanted to have sex? How do you know what you’re feeling is mutual sexual tension and not one-sided sexual attraction? 

Before anything else, it’s good to take the experience of feeling sexual attraction or tension as an opportunity to check in with yourself. Sex and relationship coach Drysdale advised asking yourself questions like what you want to gain from the encounter—is it just sexual or is there romance involved? Do you want a one-time sexual release or something longer-term? Do you want what you want only from this specific person or could it be anyone else?

“Being able to have this check-in allows you to understand your motivation behind the sexual attraction, so that when you’re initiating and asking consent, you know exactly what you’re looking for,” said Drysdale.

You also need to consider what’s at stake if you were to act on the feeling. What are the risks? Would a mutual connection be upset? Could there be negative fallout between you and the other person? Ask yourself if you and the other person are prepared to take these risks.

When that’s done, the most obvious way to act on sexual tension is to ask if it’s actually there.

“Even if you believe that sexual tension is at play, and you think the feeling is mutual, it’s important to ask for verbal consent before taking any action towards this person,” said Drysdale. That can be as straightforward as saying: Hey, I’m feeling super attracted to you and I’d love to kiss you if you’re into that.


Freeman said that consent is “very sexy” for many people, and it takes the guessing game out of interactions as well as prevents people from getting hurt. 

He added that you can also gauge the other person’s interest in other ways. Making deep eye contact, coming closer while talking, biting fingers or lips, or rubbing sensual body parts (like the neck) are some examples. They may also make verbal cues, like subtle moans, compliments about your body, or flirty jokes. 

“However, some people may have a flirtatious and fun personality with many people. This does not mean they have sexual intentions with you right now or ever,” Freeman cautioned. 

It all comes down to awareness—of yourself and the other person.

“The more aware and present in the moment one is, the more they train their body and mind to notice subtleties like the other person’s energy, mood, [and] body language, all of which can indicate to you if and when and how they want you,” said Mann. “Relax into the moment, take a deep and slow breath, look them in the eyes, let go of any goals or agendas you may have, and allow the magic of the moment to unfold naturally.”

But keep in mind that making your intentions clear doesn’t oblige anybody to reciprocate them.

“The absolute most attractive stance you can embody is wanting someone without needing them. Meaning, to express your unwavering desire openly, freely, and clearly while being totally at ease with your desires not being met,” said Mann.

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