Sexual Tension

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Sexual Tension

Sexual tension refers to often hidden or suppressed feelings of anticipation, excitement, attraction, and desire that may occur in relation to another person. Sexual tension characterizes and is a necessary part of sexual flirtations, courtships, and sexual foreplay. In the context of the sexual, the term tension refers to sets of unresolved, sometimes unidentified, feelings of excitement, which are disguised by an appearance of outward calm or even disdain. Sexual tension is an intrinsic part of traditions of European and North American narrative, appearing as a feature in the plots of many novels, films, and television shows and often drawn out to pique and retain viewer interest.

Part of the tension of sexual tension comes from the difference between what the parties feel and what they reveal. This produces a series of practices, such as verbal sparring, disagreement, flirtation, and touching, that the parties and witnesses to the tension translate as sexual interest. The parties themselves often deny this tension for a period of time, as the sexual tension produced by not identifying the interest as sexual is often pleasurable. Another part of the tension of sexual tension is whether or when sexual interest will become overt. In this context tension refers to the sense that a state of affairs is stretched to the limit; that an apparent balance will soon explode. Sexual tension exists as parties wait to see how long it will take for what appears to be calm disinterest to become violent passion.

Sexual tension may comprise the first stages of a sexual relation, provide pleasure in an indefinite extension, or remain permanently unresolved. Outward manifestations of sexual tension may assume various forms, from one person ignoring the other, to longing glances from afar, to friendly flirtation, to arguments and hostility. As noted previously many of these expressions of sexual tension are familiar clues to the incipient romance of characters in novels, plays, and films. The way that characters look at one another is one cue for sexual tension in film; disagreement and annoyance often foreshadows intimate involvement.

Sexual tension is often palpable both to the parties involved and to those around them. The feeling of tension perceived by others may be the result of the parties' communicating excitement through agitation, excessive talking or movement, paying persistent or obsessive attention to the other person while denying an interest, and engaging in unnecessary or illogical behaviors designed to enable contact. In addition, both parties and witnesses may pick up even more subtle physiological and chemical clues, such as pheromones, adrenalin, and general agitation and nervousness.

Generally in Europe and North America the accepted course of sexual relations involves an initial period of sexual tension, during which flirtation and delayed physical contact increase desire and intensify sexual feelings when they are eventually released. This first stage, however, need not be acted upon, particularly if one of the parties is in a position of disadvantage, as happens in relations between students and teachers, or in the case of good friends who prefer not to alter their friendship by becoming sexually intimate.

see also Foreplay.


Givens, David. 2006. Love Signals: A Practical Field Guide to the Body Language of Courtship. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Lloyd-Elliot, Martin. 1996. Secrets of Sexual Body Language. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press.

                                                    Judith Roof