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.

Flirt With Your Eyes

Eye contact is a critical part of how we communicate – and it can be shockingly intimate. Our eyes are one of the most expressive parts of our body- yet their value in flirting is under-appreciated. The eyes can be a potent source of non-verbal sexual communication; they can lend a sexual subtext without having to actually say a word.

To start with: just because the triangle gaze is a way of telling whether your date is interested in kissing you doesn’t mean that you can’t use it yourself to inspire dirty thoughts. Looking from one eye to the next, then to her lips, then back up to her eyes, especially while leaning in, can be a very powerful move.

Even just a look can be used to build sexual tension. You may have heard of celebrities with a “penetrating gaze” or “bedroom eyes”- a look that says they’re not only seeing through you, but they’re already picturing you naked and the insane things that the two of you are going to be doing later.

He can see the future you know. That’s what the smoldering look is all about.

There’s a lot of discussion on how to communicate sexual desire through a glance – such as visualizing what you want to do to your date while smiling and looking into their eyes –  but I’m a fan of strategic intense eye contact.

Direct eye-contact can be intimidating, even uncomfortable if you hold it for too long… unless you know what you’re doing. As a general rule, I recommend not holding someone’s eyes for longer than a few seconds to avoid creeping them out. However, once you’ve been more calibrated for how long you can hold someone’s gaze without intimidating them, you can actually use that fear response to your advantage.

You see, our brains are ultimately controlled by our body’s reactions; we react to the stimuli and backfill the reasons for it afterwards.

Staring into your date’s eyes for a fraction longer than you would normally can cause their heart to race and feel a little light-headed. This is the beginning of the body’s fear response – they’re getting ready to go into fight-or-flight mode.

However, what other emotional states does this sound like to you?


Holding the stare for just a second, then deliberately breaking it by looking up and away will prompt that shortness of breath and rapid pulse. The brain starts searching around for a reason: am I scared? What’s going on? Is there a tiger in the bushes?

Failing to find something to be scared of, it settles for the next option: you’re not scared, you’re getting turned on.

Break The Touch Barrier

I can’t say this enough times: you have to get used to touching when you’re trying to get better at dating. The power that touch has with building sexual tension cannot be understated. Physical contact is a key component to sexual tension; call it one of the benefits of those thousands of nerve-endings we have running through our skin.

Now to be sure, you need a certain level of intimacy and comfort before you can move from casual touching to more sexually charged touch – you don’t want to just reach up and stroke the neck of the woman you just met at the bar unless you’re interested in wearing an amaretto sour for the rest of the night. But when you do…

You might run your nails gently down their back before pulling back and stepping aside. Warm breath on the neck – perhaps accompanied by “you smell nice” can make the difference between a chaste kiss and being grabbed by the back of your favorite head for major make-outs. The hair can also be an incredibly charged area; stroking the hair, or even running your fingers through it and grasping it gently near the scalp can help charge things up.

One popular trick I’ve learned – and used to great success – from player friends of mine is what’s known as the “almost-kiss”.  There’re many variations of this; some people will set it up by suggesting that you try an almost-kiss, but swear that you’re not going to actually kiss because it’s just too soon. You lean in close as though for a kiss and hover close to their lips for a moment or two and then pull back – the push-pull dynamic in action, building up the sexual tension then pulling back just as you’re starting to get near the point of no return. It can take some practice – if you’re not careful, the set-up is going to sound cheesy, and not in a charming way – but it’s a powerful technique.

Don’t ignore the back or hips either. A hand on the small of the back, guiding your date through the restuaraunt or to your car can be quite the turn on, as can physically turning their hips. One of the reasons why latin dances such as salsa, cha-cha and meringue are so charged is because of the way that the leading partner guides the following partner by physically moving her hips.

Again, you want to maintain the push-pull dynamic. For every two steps forward – kissing, say – you want to pull back again. “That’s all you get for now,” you might say, after a particularly passionate kiss, pulling yourself away and keeping a physical distance between you. It may seem counter-intuitive – if you’re kissing, you would think you would want to try to move things forward, not backwards – but showing restraint, taking the tension to a crescendo and leaving it there dials the sexual tension way up. It’s a powerful move… and it’s better to leave them wanting more than pushing too far and risking blowing the whole thing.


Keep in mind: building sexual tension isn’t just a way of escalating things until your date is panting to get you into bed; a little goes a long way, especially in the early stages of dating.  You don’t always want to rev the engines to full at every available opportunity. When you’re building that valuable chemistry, you want her to feel that spark, that fission of sexual excitement that comes when we meet that somebody special.

“Oh god, you’re never going to return my calls…”

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

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