Sexual Attraction

Updated: MAY 13, 2024

Sexual attraction is a force that draws someone towards a person or object they are sexually interested in. People may want to have sexual contact with others they are sexually attracted to or they may be content fantasizing about that contact.  

What is Sexual Attraction?

Sexual attraction is one of the types of attraction that draws people together. This type of attraction is based on sexual connection, or an urge to be physically close to someone or something in a sexual way. Some other types of attraction include:

  • Sensual attraction: an interest in connecting with someone through non-sexual physical contact, such as cuddling.
  • Emotional attraction: an interest in connecting with someone by getting to know them better.
  • Intellectual attraction: an interest in connecting with someone based on how they think.

Sexual Attraction vs Sexual Desire

People often experience sexual attraction and sexual desire together, but they are different concepts. Sexual attraction is what makes someone interested in another person or object in a sexual way. Sexual desire is what makes someone want to physically connect with someone else, or themselves, in a sexual way.

“Attraction speaks to who or what one finds themselves drawn to. Attraction might feel like a tense energy or spark”, explained Jillian Amodio, a licensed social worker. “Sexual desire speaks to wanting to actually engage in sexual acts or intimacy with oneself, someone else, a group of people, or through the use of sex toys."

If people experience sexual attraction and desire together, they may decide to have sex. However, someone may experience sexual attraction without sexual desire. This might occur if they’re in a monogamous relationship. They could see someone they feel sexually attracted to, but not want to act on that attraction because they are monogamously committed to their partner.

Sexual Attraction vs Romantic Attraction

While sexual attraction is based on a desire for physical connection, romantic attraction is based on a desire for romantic interactions, such as going on dates or holding hands. People typically look for people they are sexually and romantically attracted to when choosing long-term partners.

Historically people believed sexual attraction and romantic attraction always went hand-in-hand. Experiencing sexual attraction without romantic attraction was considered taboo. However, today there is more openness about people experiencing and acting on sexual attraction without romantic attraction.

“In recent times, society has moved to more of a sexually empowered place. We see people embracing casual experiences with others and embracing things that are less romantic,” explained Angelika Koch, relationship and break-up expert for queer dating app Taimi. “Especially after the pandemic, there was a shift that happened all over the world. Being faced with such a life-changing experience, shifted a lot of people's views, making them want to live life to the fullest, without being tied down.”

What Makes People Sexually Attracted to Others?

People have different preferences that they look for in sexual partners, so what makes people sexually attractive to each person varies. The way someone looks or dresses, the way they carry themselves, their intelligence and humor may all influence whether someone else finds them sexually attractive or not.

Having a preference that’s based on looks can overlap with aesthetic attraction, but that’s not always the case. For example, people may tend to be sexually attracted to others with a muscular build, but some people can appreciate the beauty of a muscular build without being sexually attracted to muscular people.

People are often sexually attracted to people who are different from them. As the saying goes, opposites attract. However, similarities can also spark sexual attraction. This may be because people feel comfortable with what they know.

One example of this is genetic sexual attraction, which people who were adopted may experience when meeting members of their birth family. Genetic sexual attraction may occur between parents and their biological children or siblings. Feelings of shame and guilt often accompany this type of sexual attraction, especially if the biological relatives enter into a sexual relationship.

Then there are the factors that experts are still trying to understand.

“Pheromones play a significant role, and some scientists believe it's a biological chemistry we can't consciously influence; some people simply have that biological attraction to others,” said Magda Kay, the founder of School of Intimacy. “There's the unfortunate reality of trauma bonding — intense sexual attraction can sometimes stem from childhood wounds, leading us to be drawn to people who reflect those old traumas. Toxic relationships often have a strong sexual component rooted in trauma bonding.”

Kay adds that there can also be a biological component to who people are sexually attracted to, and who they’re not. “Evolutionary biology indicates certain physical traits signal fertility. For women, this includes curves, a youthful appearance, and shiny hair, indicating high levels of fat and hormones that suggest fertility. In men, indicators like a strong jawline, facial hair, and muscle mass suggest high testosterone levels. Women are typically more sexually attracted to traditionally ‘alpha’ males during ovulation due to biological reasons.”

Because of all these factors, people may find themselves unexpectedly sexually attracted to people who lack the qualities they usually find attractive. Other factors, such as feeling excited, being in a good mood, or making a positive impression on someone can all increase the chances that someone will find another person sexually attractive. As beauty standards evolve, people may also find they’re sexually attracted to different qualities than they may have been in the past.

Is Asexuality the Absence of Sexual Attraction?

Asexuality is a sexual orientation characterized by a lack of sexual attraction. This absence of sexual attraction makes people who identify as asexual different from people who are celibate. Celibate people are sexually attracted to others but choose not to act on it. Asexual people may choose to have sex, although they don’t experience sexual attraction, perhaps to please a partner they are romantically attracted to.


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