Sexual Chemistry: Striking and Maintaining the Spark by Betty Butch

Scientists, philosophers, and that guy who keeps DMing you “hi” and nothing else, have been pondering the nature of sexual attraction since forever. What draws us to potential partners, fuck buddies, and disastrous summer flings? Are we ruled by the chemicals in our brain, or by the fickle hand of fate? Did you get ghosted because you’re a Gemini? 

According to The Strange Science of Sexual Attraction, everything from how someone smells to whether or not you’re on birth control can influence who you’re drawn to sexually. And the weird doesn’t stop there! Red clothes, alcohol, and changing seasons made it on Dr. Justin Lehmiller’s list of things that can impact attraction. Referencing a 2014 study, Bustle points out that, “The hungrier a heterosexual man is, the more likely he is to be sexually attracted to women of more diverse shapes and sizes.” 

So, basically… who the hell knows why we’re attracted to who we’re attracted to. Maybe it’s science, maybe it’s craving burritos! The only thing we know for sure is that I married a Gemini, and yes, you were definitely ghosted for that reason. But don’t worry, there are plenty of fish out there! Salmon, for example, like to swim upstream, which  is a lot like being with a Gemini. 

What is sexual chemistry?

“Sexual chemistry is what draws you in to someone,” writes Brittney Morgan for Elite Daily. 

Sexual chemistry is often described as an inexplicable spark. It’s the sexy, adult version of butterflies in your stomach, the persistent urge to be ever-closer and intimate. It’s what makes you shiver just from brushing hands or makes your lips buzz after the chastest of kisses. It’s why you were willing to keep dating the dude who refused to buy a bedframe. It’s the gasoline that will eventually feed the flame – and it’s as big of a mystery as attraction itself. 

Or is it? 

“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,” Dr Nerdlove writes in What Is Chemistry? He goes on to dismiss this mythologizing as “bullshit.” Chemistry, he argues, isn’t a mysterious force, but rather a combination of intellectual engagement and sexual tension. “Not attraction – you can find someone attractive or even be attracted to them but not feel that “spark” – but tension.”

Intellectual Engagement 

Sometimes, chasing that spark is all about sparking the right kind of conversation. If the 

person you’re talking to is new to you, there’s limitless unexplored territory – finding common ground is great place to start. “We like people we have things in common with; we feel instinctively that they understand us […] Commonalities help build rapport and comfort – critical qualities when building chemistry,” Dr. Nerdlove notes in his piece What Is Chemistry? Part Two

But if you’re trying to reinvigorate an existing relationship, you might be feeling like you already know everything there is to know. While I’d argue that this is untrue (just last week I learned that my partner of 13 years also wanted to bang Raphael the most), there’s another option: create new common ground. Try out something you’ve never done before, and do it together. Something as exciting as taking a trip or as mundane as bingeing a new show can grease the wheels of conversation – and connection.

If you’re struggling to find a good conversational thread to pull, you could try 36 questions to fall in love or any of the other myriad of prompt lists online. (Failing that, there’s always Truth or Dare!) 

But communication is more than just talking. To actually engage with someone, you have to be legitimately invested in what they have to say, and you have to be willing to share. Sharing is caring – don’t shirk the labor of intimacy by sticking to one-sided conversations. Be present and be vulnerable. 

If you’re still warming up to that level of intimacy, there are other ways to build an emotional rapport. Playing games (video games, board games, sports), enjoying dates in a more intimate setting (cooking at home, going for a hike, reading together), and making art (take a sculpting class, share an adult coloring book, painting) are just a few examples of activities that can inspire closeness without going all-in.

Sexual Tension 

Sparks? How about some smolder? The most obvious way to build up a sexual connection is by flirting. Flirtation can be light or lingering touches, prolonged eye contact (or in my case, counting eyelashes while pondering the nature of neurotypical romance), light-hearted teasing (not “negging”), and being intentional about closeness. That last one is my favorite, because I’m tall and toppy and I enjoy looming in someone’s space – when I’m welcomed, anyway. 

Like love languages, flirting languages can vary from person to person and it’s important to pick up on what your special person is actually into. A great way to suss this out is by trying a method while asking them, “How do you feel when I do [action]?” with enticingly half-lidded eyes. This gives them an easy out if they’re not into it, and builds the tension if they are. 

Flirting with a long-time partner can be a little more difficult, in part because of the erosion of the so-called honeymoon phase. One method of combating this sexual staleness is by bringing up the past. Ever seen a movie where a song comes on the radio, and an old couple will reach for each other and dance? Stirring up nostalgic butterflies can bring back good memories – thus inspiring new ones. 

There’s also the second most obvious way to build up a sexual rapport: sex! Discuss sexual interests and fantasies; if you need prompting, try some adult games. In a piece on Negotiating Kinky Play, I wrote, “games like Ready, Kink, Go!, and Yes/No/Maybe Lists like this one by Bex Caputo, are effective because they start the vulnerable conversations necessary to discover what you’re each curious about – and finding common ground therein.” Engage in thorough makeouts, heavy petting, and deliciously detailed sexting. 

And the sexiest way to build up sexual tension? Having sex. When you’re already both well-aware of the physicality between you – and the possibilities it holds – you’ll be able to use that specific, intimate knowledge for targeted flirtation. Did you go down on them last week? Smile and lick your lips after you take a drink, or casually mouth at the pad of your thumb. They’ll remember what you’re remembering.

Maintaining the Momentum

Sexual chemistry – that is, the combination of intellectual engagement and sexual tension – will naturally ebb in flow in the same way every kind of intimacy does. Unless you’re with a Gemini, which is like getting into a whole new relationship with a stranger whenever their mood fluctuates. Permanent NRE!

Retaining that chemistry takes active, consistent investment. “An interrelated series of six studies found that when you feel uncertain about a potential partner’s sexual interest in you, then that partner actually becomes less sexually appealing to you,” notes Psychology Today. This means that if you want to be into and stay into each other, you’ve got to keep expressing it

The best way to keep your sexual chemistry renewed and refreshed is, in my opinion, remaining vulnerable. Be willing to start a new conversation, flirt with feigned confidence, and be open about wanting your partner and hoping they want you in return – because while the science of chemistry and attraction is zany at best, your feelings? Don’t have to be a mystery at all.

Betty Butch is a queer, sex-positive blogger who reviews pleasure products and writes about identity and kink at You can find her on Twitter via @betty_butch.

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