You can feel it. But can you define it? Learn how important sexual chemistry is to your relationship.
Sexual chemistry is one of those things that you know when you feel it. It’s that desire to (consensually) make out with or rip the skivvies off any James Dean lookalike that passes by. Or, that unexpected shock and surge that hits your senses when you brush arms with a hottie sitting next to you on the subway.
But putting the all-consuming affliction into words proves challenging. (Seriously, could you define sexual chemistry right now if someone asked?) What is sexual chemistry, specifically, and what’s behind this magic, magnetic experience? Better yet, how necessary is it for a good and lasting relationship? Read on for a crib sheet on sexual chemistry, according to pros.
Sexual Chemistry, Defined
“Sexual chemistry is the very strong but ineffable feeling that you feel in your body when you’re attracted to someone,” says Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D., professor of human sexuality at New York University and creator of Uncensored with Dr. Zhana, an online event series on sex and relationships.
Typically, this attraction is physical, but it can also be intellectual or emotional. Someone who is sapiosexual (meaning they’re first and foremost sexually and emotionally attracted to intelligent people), for example, might feel sexual chemistry with someone who they deem brainy or brilliant, explains Vranglova. On the other hand, someone who is greysexual and biromantic (meaning they rarely experience sexual attraction but have the potential to experience romantic inclinations toward people of two or more genders), might feel sexual chemistry with someone they want to wine and dine.
When you feel it, though, sexual chemistry is intense, saysVranglova. “It’s intoxicating, it’s distracting, and it can become all-consuming.” Psychologist and sex therapist Megan Fleming, Ph.D., resident expert with Love Honey agrees, adding that it can be, “electric,” “hypnotic,” and “irresistible.”
What Does Sexual Chemistry Feel Like?
Usually, you might register that you have sexual chemistry with someone because of the physical symptoms you experience when you see, feel, hear, think about, or smell the person. “Belly butterflies, dilated pupils, increased heart rate, spiked blood pressure, flushed skin, and perspiration are all common physical responses to feeling sexual chemistry with someone,” says Vranglova.
Sexual chemistry can also spur the symptoms you experience when you’re turned on, such as harder nipples, increased blood flow to the genitals, swollen and/or erect external genitals, and increased vaginal lubrication, she says.
What Causes Sexual Chemistry?
Unfortunately, there’s been very little scientific research exploring the causes of sexual chemistry. ButVranglova suspects it’s a combination of a few different things, including:
- Biological factors: physical appearance, hormone levels, pheromones (chemical substances produced and released by animals, including humans, to stimulate other individuals of the same species)
- Social factors: how similar someone looks to what you’ve been taught is attractive (via cultural beauty standards)
- Developmental factors: whether someone reminds you of an earlier pleasurable experience or someone/something familiar or comforting
Is Sexual Chemistry Always Immediate?
While you might instantly feel sexual chemistry with someone — for example, the cutie who just walked into the restaurant, or the model you passed on the street — sexual chemistry can also develop over time, according to Vranglova.
Someone who is demisexual (meaning they only have the potential to experience sexual desire toward someone if an emotional relationship has been firmly established), might not experience sexual chemistry with someone until a year (or more!) into an emotionally tight relationship, she says. (Related: What’s the Deal with Asexuality?)
Other people — even if they don’t identify as demisexual — may not experience sexual chemistry with someone until further into their relationship. “Consider any couples you know who were best friends for 10 years before starting to date and have sex,” she says. “For these couples, the sexual chemistry was not instant, but built over time.”
Sexual Chemistry Can Be One-Sided
“It is absolutely possible for one person to feel like they have sexual chemistry with someone, and for that feeling not to be reciprocated,” saysVranglova. Which makes sense: Just because I get the tingles when I see Ruby Rose doesn’t mean she experiences the same sensation when she spots my author pic at the end of an article about lesbian sex.
If you’re curious whether someone you feel sexually and chemically drawn to feels the same toward you, Fleming suggests looking for hints such as sustained eye contact, shared laughter, lingering physical touch, and verbal flirts — or hey, just ask.
Yes, the best way to learn if the rush is reciprocal is to simply ask, says Jesse Kahn, L.C.S.W., C.S.T., director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC. You might say, “I find myself feeling really sexually drawn to you. Are you experiencing something similar?” or, “I noticed that we both go out of the way to touch each other more than I do with my other friends. Have you noticed that, too? Are you interested in being more than friends? Or have I misread the situation?”
Is Sexual Chemistry Necessary for a Relationship?
The short answer is nope! “We can’t make generalizations like that for all relationships,” says Kahn. “There are many people for whom sex and sexual chemistry aren’t important ingredients in order to have a successful, stable, and loving relationship,” says Vranglova.
The better question is if sexual chemistry is a must for you in your relationship(s), says Kahn. And for the record: It’s totally valid if sex and sexual chemistry are important relationship components for you.
Some questions to ask yourself as you determine whether or not sexual chemistry is important for you in a relationship:
- What are my priorities in my relationship(s)?
- What role does partnered sex play in my life? How do I feel during, after, and before having it?
- In an ideal world, how often would I be having partnered sex?
- Do I need the sex I have to be with my romantic partner(s)? Can I see myself exploring an open relationship or polyamory?
- What are my favorite ways to explore intimacy?
It’s important to note that while sexual chemistry is an essential ingredient in a relationship for some, unless a relationship is strictly sexual, sexual chemistry alone is not sufficient for a lasting, happy, and supportive relationship, says Fleming. “For a relationship to be sustainable, we usually need for it to be built on more than just sexual chemistry,” she says. (You’ll need things like communication, trust, mutual respect, and shared values, just to name a few.)
Sexual Chemistry Can Be Cultivated… to An Extent
Can sexual chemistry be erected between two people who aren’t even a little attracted to each other? Eh, probably not. But because we’re defining sexual chemistry as a feeling of attraction for someone that can be either instant or cultivated over time, it is possible to foster more sexual chemistry. Here’s how.
1. Be emotionally vulnerable.
“Self-disclosure can enhance physical attraction,” says Fleming. Sharing #deep info with your partner about your childhood, career aspirations, insecurities, and inner-most thoughts can promote a feeling of closeness that can foster greater intimacy — especially when the other person reciprocates, she says.
If bringing these things up organically feels impossible, you might use a question prompt game or conversation starters like the BestSelf Intimacy Deck (Buy It, $25, bestself.co), The Skin Deep Collection (Buy It, $29, shop.theskindeep.com), or We’re Not Really Strangers (Buy It, $12, werenotreallystrangers.com) with the person with whom you’re looking to foster chemistry.
2. Let yourself fall in love.
Can you fall in love with someone with whom the sexual chemistry is just “meh” with? Actually, yes. “There’s a belief that first comes good sex, then comes good love, but that doesn’t have to be the order of things,” says Fleming.
Due to a combination of feel-good hormones dopamine and norepinephrine (aka adrenaline), love can bring along its own “high” feeling, she says. If you shag while sipping the love-cocktail, she says, those *heart-eye* feelings can lead to better sex and boosted sexual chemistry that you may not have felt before having all those feelings. (Related: The Best Sex Apps for Improving Your Intimacy)
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Specifically, about sex! If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make sex better, it’s talking about it. Throughout sexual play invite your partner to share their preferences, and unabashedly share yours. You might say:
- “Ooh it feels so good when you [X]. Can you keep doing that?”
- “Keep doing that!!”
- “I’m not feeling ready for penetration yet, can we start with a little 69-ing?”
- “I love the way it felt when you tasted me while teasing my ass last time… are you up for doing that again?”
- “Can we add a little more lube.”
The takeaway? You can’t force sexual chemistry, especially if the other person isn’t into it. But before you write off a new app match, potential suitor, or friend because “the sexual chemistry just isn’t there,” give it a sec — there’s more to it than instant attraction, and the way it can build just might surprise you.