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Sexual Attraction vs Romantic Attraction

January 13, 2023

You might think we should always know how we feel but it’s surprisingly easy to get confused, especially when we’re talking about someone we’re attracted to. How can we tell the difference between romantic and sexual attraction?

Knowing how you feel about someone is essential in avoiding hurt feelings. You don’t want to offer your new crush a relationship if you’re only interested in sex. Similarly, if you’re hoping for a relationship you need to be upfront about that as early as you can.

In this article, we’re going to look at the differences between romantic and sexual attraction and how you can tell which one you’re feeling.

Understanding Attraction: Types of Attraction

For physicists, attraction is the force that pulls different objects together. It’s the same in relationships. Attraction is what makes us want to be close to other people and spend time with them.

There are lots of different types of attraction. Depending on who you ask, there are three, five, seven, or even more different types1,2.

These include:

Physical attraction

physical attraction

This is the desire to touch someone else. Physical touch is really important to most of us. There’s often a strong link between physical attraction and sexual attraction, but they’re not the same.

If you have a friend who gives amazing hugs but you’re not interested in sleeping with them, that’s a perfect example of physical but not sexual attraction.

Sexual attraction

Sexual attraction is when you’re drawn to someone because you want to be sexually active with them. You don’t need to actually have sex to be sexually attracted to someone.

Emotional attraction

Sometimes, we’re attracted to who someone is. Their emotional openness, kindness, or positivity make us want to be around them. This is emotional attraction

Romantic attraction

We’re going to look at romantic attraction in more detail later in this article, so we’ll be brief here. There are a lot of similarities between romantic attraction and emotional attraction. It’s very similar to the relationship between physical and sexual attraction.

When we say that we love someone, we’re often talking about romantic attraction.

Aesthetic attraction

Aesthetic attraction is when you’re attracted to someone because they are physically beautiful. You may or may not be attracted to them in other ways as well. You can think of this as an artistic type of attraction.

Intellectual attraction

We can also be attracted to people and want to spend time with them because of their intellect. We might enjoy discussing important topics with them and feel that we learn a lot from them.

Reciprocal attraction

We might not want to admit it, but having someone attracted to us is often hugely attractive. Even if we weren’t attracted to them before, realizing that they find us irresistible can make us want to be around them more.

What Is Romantic Attraction? 9 Signs of Romantic Attraction

what is romantic attraction 9 signs of romantic attraction

So how do you know whether you’re romantically attracted to someone or not? Here are the key signs that you feel romantic attraction.

1. You think about them a lot

The first sign that you’re romantically attracted to someone is that they’re constantly on your mind. You might make a mental note to tell them about something funny that happened to you at work or wonder what they might think of something you see.

2. You want to spend your free time with them

When you’re romantically attracted to someone, you usually want to spend a lot of your free time with them. This is especially true early on in a relationship. You might start spending less time with your friends to have more time with your partner.

3. You want them to be happy

One of the biggest differences between romantic attraction vs sexual attraction is that you’re thinking about what will make them happy in the longer term, rather than just how to turn them on.

You don’t have to put their needs above your own but you do care about their well-being outside of the time you spend together. 

4. You’re willing to compromise

One big difference between romantic and sexual attraction is how far you’re willing to compromise. Generally, if you only have sexual chemistry with someone and no romantic feelings, you’re not going to make many compromises to keep them happy. 

If you find yourself looking for win-win solutions and being willing to compromise to make both of you happy, you’re probably romantically attracted to the other person.

5. You trust them

you trust them

Sexual attraction is exciting and passionate. It rarely feels calm. Romantic attraction, by contrast, usually feels safe and secure. This is because we usually need to trust someone to feel romantically attracted to them.

If your strongest feeling about someone is trust rather than lust, you probably have romantic feelings for them. 

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6. You fantasize about your shared future

Both romantic and sexual attraction can lead you to fantasize about the other person, but the content of your fantasy might be different.

If you fantasize about what kind of future life you could have with someone, you probably have romantic feelings toward them. You might imagine what your children together would look like or what kind of house you would live in. 

7. You crave cuddles, not just sex

Sex is great, but sometimes cuddling up afterward can be almost as appealing. If your dreams of the perfect evening in with your crush include basking in the post-sex glow together and gazing into each other’s eyes, you’re having romantic as well as sexual feelings toward them.

8. You might not have felt attracted from the start

If your attraction to someone builds slowly, it might be more romantic than sexual. Everyone is different, but most people find that their romantic attraction to someone builds more slowly than their sexual attraction.

This makes sense. Sexual attraction is typically based on obvious characteristics, such as physical appearance and smell3. These are immediately apparent. Romantic attraction usually includes deeper factors such as emotional compatibility, trust, and respect. These take longer to develop.

9. You go to them for comfort

One clear sign that you have romantic rather than sexual feelings for someone is that you want to turn to them for comfort. Your booty call can offer you some distraction from your problems, but you probably won’t want to bare your soul (and your deeper feelings) to them.

What Is Sexual Attraction? 6 Signs of Sexual Attraction

what is sexual attraction 6 signs of sexual attraction

1. You become physically aroused around them

One of the most obvious signs that you’re sexually attracted to someone is, predictably, that you’re sexually aroused by their presence or even the thought of them. If the sound of their voice or the feel of their breath on your neck makes you weak at the knees, you’re sexually attracted to them.

2. You fantasize about sex with them

Again, we run the risk of stating the obvious here, but your fantasies about someone you’re sexually attracted to will usually be steamy rather than snuggly. If your thoughts of them quickly turn into a wild romp in the bedroom (or outside it), you have sexual feelings for them.

You can have both sexual and romantic feelings for someone. It’s not uncommon to have mostly sexual fantasies about someone you’re interested in, even if you’re also romantically attracted to them.

3. You’re not super interested in their life

Sometimes, you don’t have romantic feelings for someone. A good sign that you’re only sexually attracted to them is that you’re not especially interested in their life outside of the bedroom.

If you’re keen to jump into the sack but not enthused to hear about their exciting holiday coming up next month, you’re sexually attracted to them but you don’t have romantic feelings.

4. You’re happy to stay in the present

One big difference between romantic attraction and sexual attraction is that your sexual attraction is focused almost entirely on the present. You’re not thinking about your future together or how your relationship might develop. Instead, you’re enjoying the sexual excitement you’re currently feeling.

5. Your attraction started quickly

Love-at-first-sight is great for the movies, but in real life we’re far more likely to experience lust at first sight. If you’re attracted to someone before you’ve got to know each other, or even before you’ve spoken to each other, you’re almost certainly having sexual rather than romantic feelings.

6. Your attraction disappears after sex

There’s often a big difference between romantic vs sexual attraction in terms of how long it lasts. Romantic attraction typically grows as we get to know someone better. Sexual attraction can often work the opposite way. 

You might be frantic for someone until you actually have sex. Once you have, it can feel like you’ve got them out of your system.

If you’re attracted to someone until you’re intimate and then you find your attraction wane, you were probably sexually attracted to them rather than romantically.

FAQs

Can sexual attraction turn into romantic attraction?

Yes. In fact, it often does. Romantic attraction can often take longer to build than sexual attraction. Being sexually attracted to someone can be the inspiration to spend more time with them, get to know them better, and gradually allow romantic attraction and even love to develop.

Can you be sexually attracted to someone but not romantically?

You can be sexually attracted to someone without being romantically attracted to them. This is sometimes known as having great physical chemistry but not being compatible. There’s nothing wrong with this and it’s ok to act on those feelings as long as you’re honest about there being no long-term future.

Can you be attracted to someone romantically but not sexually?

You can be romantically attracted to someone without being sexually attracted to them. This is often a painful situation, as most people consider physical intimacy an essential part of a long-term romantic partnership. It’s important to be (diplomatically) honest if you’re in this position.

How long does sexual attraction last?

For some people, sexual attraction is very short-lived. Other people find that their sexual and romantic attractions continue for a lifetime. If it’s purely sexual, it’ll usually end pretty fast but romantic attraction can keep it going for decades.

Is sexual attraction purely physical?

Sexual attraction is completely individual. For lots of people, sexual attraction can be purely physical. Others can’t feel sexual attraction in the absence of other types of attraction. People who need another form of attraction before they feel sexual attraction often describe themselves as demisexual.

Does everyone experience sexual and romantic attraction?

Not everyone experiences either sexual or romantic attraction. People who don’t experience sexual attraction are asexual and those who don’t feel romantic attraction are aromantic. Both asexual and aromantic people can have successful relationships if they and their partners talk openly about their needs.

Conclusion

It can sometimes be hard to know the difference between romantic attraction vs sexual attraction. Romantic attraction is usually more emotional while sexual attraction is more physical.

Did you find these signs helpful when you’re trying to work out how you feel about someone? Are there any other signs you think we’ve missed? How do you know whether your feelings are sexual or romantic? Let us know in the comments. If you know someone who struggles to understand their feelings, share this article to help them out.

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3 Sources:
  1. McCroskey, James C., and Thomas A. McCain. “The Measurement of Interpersonal Attraction.” Speech Monographs, vol. 41, no. 3, Aug. 1974, pp. 261–266, 10.1080/03637757409375845.
  2. Schaefer, Mark T., and David H. Olson. “Assessing Intimacy: The Pair Inventory*.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, vol. 7, no. 1, Jan. 1981, pp. 47–60, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1752-0606.1981.tb01351.x, 10.1111/j.1752-0606.1981.tb01351.x.
  3. Le Moëne, Olivia, and Anders Ågmo. “The Neuroendocrinology of Sexual Attraction.” Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, vol. 51, 2018, pp. 46–67, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29288076, 10.1016/j.yfrne.2017.12.006. Accessed 14 July 2019.
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