How to stop sexual tension

Deborah C. Escalante

It’s why Bridgerton Season 2 was so sexy (don’t @ me) and the leading trope behind basically every will-they-won’t-they romantic comedy. Enter: sexual tension, the cause of many lingering glances, fingertip grazes, and rip-my-clothes-off-and-take-me-now fantasies both on-screen and IRL.

According to relationship coach Carmel Jones, sex expert at The Big Fling, sexual tension is simply the feeling that something sexual needs to happen to resolve the tension between two (or more) people. It usually happens before any sexual contact is made, adds relationship therapist Rachel Wright, LMFT, sex educator for , but sometimes that sexual tension can linger for weeks or even years after contact is made.

And uh, if you’ve ever experienced sexual tension, you likely know it’s physically and emotionally exhausting (not to mention confusing, exciting, and totally consuming). 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 will motivate you by releasing sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone, Miles explains. But the frontal lobe—which is 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

Because your brain is telling you two different things, your body can feel all kinds of weird. Wright says when the sexual tension takes hold, you might find yourself acting strangely around the person you feel a draw to, whether that means shamelessly flirting or pointedly ignoring them.

All in all: If you’re experiencing sexual tension, you’re probs looking for answers that may or may not involve confessing your lust and hooking up in the shower, Riverdale style. To help you figure out WTF to do, we asked the experts to break down every single thing you need to know about sexual tension so your judgment brain and pleasure brain can finally come to an agreement.

What does sexual tension feel like?

The weird thing about sexual tension is, because your logical brain is like, This is a bad idea (ya know, in regards to whoever you want to smash but can’t), you might be unsure whether or not you’re actually feeling it. “In matters of sex, lust, and anxiety, there’s some overlap,” says Miles. “Anxiety and sexual responses both can make your heart race, increase your blood pressure, and give you that feeling of adrenaline.” This is also why people sometimes confuse feelings of hate with feelings of sexual tension (the enemies-to-lovers trope, anyone?).

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Here are a few more signs of sexual tension, according to the experts:

  • Flirting
  • Eye contact
  • Lingering touches
  • An overall feeling of secrecy
  • Sweaty palms
  • Your temperature rises or you feel flushed
  • You find yourself in close proximity to the person in group settings
  • Other people notice or comment on your tension
  • All the butterflies in your stomach
  • Your voice subtly changes pitch when you speak
  • You feel shaky
  • Your muscles tense up or you subconsciously flex
  • Your heart rate increases
  • You can’t! stop! smiling!
  • Your nipples harden
  • You feel physically turned on (your genitals get aroused and swollen and/or your vagina self-lubricates)

    Is sexual tension the same as having a crush?

    The short answer is no. “Sexual desire or lust can occur without having a deep attraction for a person,” explains Miles. For many people, a crush is a combination of sexual and romantic desire, or sometimes just romantic desire (asexual people can have crushes, too!), adds Wright.

    Since the body’s sexual response is mostly subconscious, whereas wanting to be intimately involved with someone involves more conscious motivation, Miles says a crush is different than sexual tension. So you can have a crush with or without sexual tension and vice versa.

    The clearest way to tell if you’re sexually attracted to someone is to ask yourself whether or not you physically want to have sex with them. If the answer is yes, you’re sexually attracted to them. “People in platonic relationships don’t have an urge to be close to those friends in a sexual way,” Jones says, “Nor do they feel their sexual zones intensify or activate with their platonic friends are around.”

    What should you *do* about sexual tension?

    You pretty much have two choices here, Wright says. You can either lean into the sexual tension or get some space. This choice is, naturally, going to largely depend on your relationship status, their relationship status, your connection, and ~the situation~.

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    “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 do you know when sexual tension is mutual?

    You can tell when sexual tension is mutual through prolonged eye contact, says Jess McCann Ballagh, author and relationship coach. Ballagh, who is of the mindset that you really 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.

    On the other hand, when sexual tension is more one-sided, the party that’s not feelin’ it would likely dodge eye contact to otherwise communicate that they’re not into it, says Jones.

    Another way of gauging sexual tension is by 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.

    As for whether or not sexual tension has to be mutual or if it can be one-sided, there’s no black-and-white answer. Some people believe feelings can only be classified as sexual tension if both people are feeling it, while others, like Jones, personally believe that it can be either one-sided or mutual. “When you have unrequited feelings for someone, you can still feel a need to resolve your inner tension by having a sexual moment with that crush. It still makes you nervous, clammy, and feel as if you have a secret,” says Jones.

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    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, Jones 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 Ballagh.

    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.

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