What Is Chemistry? Part One: Building Sexual Tension

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Ask anyone “What are some of the most important parts of a date?” and one of the most common answers you will get is “Chemistry”.

Of course, when you ask them to describe chemistry, you’ll hear a mix of inconclusive – and fairly unhelpful – answers: “It’s… you know. That spark.” “That intensity.” “That feeling…” “That moment when it clicks.”

You might as well ask nerds to try to explain the Force – it’s about as abstract and just as helpful.

“You want to give me a handy…”

The problem is that because we have such a hard time explaining chemistry it takes on the level of myth – chemistry is just there or it isn’t.

Which – brace yourselves, I’m about to blow your minds – is bullshit.  Chemistry is a mix of sexual tension and emotional and intellectual engagement, and it can be built, if you know how.

Sexual Tension = Frustrated Desire

One of the key components of chemistry is sexual tension. Not attraction – you can find someone attractive or even be attracted to them but not feel that “spark” – but tension. Sexual tension is desire for someone that is somehow thwarted, whether by circumstance, obstacles… or by design.

Yup – by design.

It’s a facet of our personalities that we want that which is denied to us. Ever want to make somebody want something? Tell them they can’t have it. Ever want to make them go nuts? Keep it juuuuust out of their reach. Y’see, when your desire for something is frustrated, you tend to want it more. The closer you get to actually getting it but without actually being able to achieve it causes the desire to grow. Marketers know this, which is why they practice artificial scarcity – they’ll tell you “Call now, supplies are running out!” and rub their hands with glee whenever the news outlets pick up a story on how the HOT NEW GADGET is unavailable.

Want to see it in action? Check eBay the morning after a new iPhone is released.

But we’re talking about sexual desire, not materialism, right?

Except the same principle applies: we want what we can’t have.

And we can deliberately invoke that in the people we’re dating.

I See You Shiver With Antici…

Think about roller-coasters. What makes them work isn’t the steep drops, the loops, corkscrews and hard banking turns, it’s the loooooong build-up at the beginning. It’s the building of expectations that makes the sudden drop immediately afterwards so satisfying; just launching into the ride – the way some coasters do – is less satisfying.

When people – usually guys – talk about “the thrill of the chase” in dating, they’re talking about the lead up to the “conquest”, the heady feeling of inevitability that grows like an orgasm to a crescendo just before you reach the point of no return.

Sexual tension – deliberately building and then frustrating sexual interest – is all about the lead-up.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

This is the key to sexual tension: the build up and then the release.1 It’s a game of “go away a little closer”, where you run hot and cold – you pull someone in, then push them away. You start to build the tension and then cut it off. Think of it like a pressurized tank of gas: it has an emergency release valve. If the pressure grows past a certain point, the tank ruptures; the valve is there to equalize the pressure, keeping it just below the danger zone.

“Better call Kenny Loggins…”

It’s the same with building sexual tension: keep building the tension for too long, whether through flirting or physical contact, and you’re going to redline – either you’ll creep out your date or overwhelm them. Either way, the date’s over and you’re stuck in recovery mode instead of leading towards a night of passion and several hours of squishy noises back at your place. You want to provide a takeaway in order to pull the tension back as well as keep them off balance.  The take-away actually works to your favor by creating a vacuum. The tension is even more notable by its absence, leading the other person to want to fill it. Push, then pull. Bait, then release.The uncertainty, the feeling as though you’re getting closer then having it pulled away, builds the overal desire towards its resolution.

How do you release? There are various ways, depending on what it is you’re doing.

Flirting, Fighting And Teasing

I’m a fan of playful flirting with just a hint of antagonism. Antagonistic teasing is all about the struggle for frame control and dominance: who holds the upper hand in the interaction – and by extension, the relationship? The key is that it’s for fun, verbal sparring rather than an actual fight. Power exchange and and dominance struggles can be hot – they build a tension that demands resolution2 . Witness this exchange betwen Vesper Lynd and James Bond in Casino Royale (jump to 1:04 for when the two start to fight to be on top):

Vesper and Bond are striking sparks off one another with little teasing digs paired with insight into each other’s character and ending it with a compliment about his perfect arse.

This is how teasing and antagonistic flirting works: a compliment followed by a tease, or a tease followed by a compliment. They’re both a little combative, a little dismissive and a little playfully condescending, but they never cross the line into actual insult; it’s an unspoken agreement that this is just play fighting, pushing against each other and then pulling it away with the compliment.

This falls nicely into the push-pull dynamic: the fight building tension then the release of the compliment and changing the subject – in this case, effected by a cut to a new scene.

In practice, you want to cut the conversational thread and move on to another topic – one unrelated to what you were just discussing and one that doesn’t immediately lead to another verbal fencing match. You need to space things out, to give the tension room to grow. Going from banter to banter to banter can be exhausting emotionally; you end up feeling as though you’re constantly having to be on guard rather than letting yourself relax and enjoy each other’s company.

  1. Not that kind of release. Pervert. []
  2. which is to say, bangin’. []

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