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The Crucial Difference between Intimacy and Sex

Written by
Michael Wells

The Crucial Difference between Intimacy and Sex

Written by
Michael Wells

The Crucial Difference between Intimacy and Sex

Written by
Michael Wells

Inspired by an excellent article, sent to my by a dear friend.

Have you experienced this before? 

Among my coaching clients, I often hear confusions like this...

"My girlfriend gave me a hug, so I kissed her passionately... and then she got upset, saying that
'I always turn hugs into sex...'

This is a great example that illustrates how many men & women misunderstand the difference between intimacy and sex.

And it's only the tip of the iceberg... confusion about intimacy and sex affect every relationship you have - both sexual and non-sexual relationships, with women and men, strangers, friends and family alike.

If you want better relationships with other humans, this is worth learning about.

The Difference Between Intimacy and Sex

Let's begin with some definitions...

What is Intimacy?

Intimacy is any time you are in someone's personal space, physically or emotionally. Intimate acts range from deep eye contact, to standing very close to someone, to massage, or a warm embrace... to touching, kissing and sexual intercourse.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, intimacy could be describe as any time you are at potential risk from another person- meaning they are near enough to effect harm to you. 

This is why unwanted intimacy provokes a fear response of nervousness, agitation, and cortisol. It's also why you feel weird when someone you don't trust is too close - and how close you allow them comfortably is directly related to how much you trust them.

Surgery, too, is intimate - so it's clear that intimacy has little to do with pleasure or sex.

What is Sex?

Sex is a huge topic, which embodies a huge range of physical, emotional, and spiritual experiences. Here, we want to talk about sexual v. non-sexual situations, so we're going to simplify our definition.

By a sexual situation, I mean...

  1. Any situation in which one's sexual organs or erogenous zones are directly, intentionally stimulated - usually for the purpose of pleasure.
  2. Or, any situation in which a person becomes sexually aroused, even through pure imagination.

These definitions are obviously incomplete, but for this article they are pretty solid - and sex definition part #2 will be very important later.

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Once you've thought about these definitions, stop and notice this essential point...

Sex is always intimate,
however most intimacy is not sexual.

The Psychology and Biology of Intimacy & Sex

From a psychological perspective-

  • Intimacy is about risk, and therefore demands trust.
  • Sex is about pleasure, and therefore demands attraction.

These are two very different things, and yet intimacy and sex are deeply connected, especially for women.

From a biological perspective...

For a woman, sex is riskier. She is allowing a man into her body. If he is not gentle, the sex act may be painful, and there is a risk of pregnancy - particularly with an careless lover.

For a man, sex almost never feels painful, and the consequences of pregnancy are far less scary. Men don't have to worry about the impact of pregnancy on their body, or about childbirth itself. Also, the impact on the next 20 years of their life is probably much less direct, even in modern society.

Understanding this is important

These simple perspectives go a long way to understanding ...

  • Why for most women, in most situations - trust is a fundamental part of sexual attraction and arousal.
  • Why women often prefer to defer sex until they've gotten to know the guy a bit better.
  • Why a good conversation, massage, soft music, and a bubble bath go a long way toward warming up your female partner.
  • Why women often like funny guys- humour makes you immediately feel as though someone is safe & non-threatening.
  • Why the invention of birth control and antibiotics have dramatically changed the risk perception, and sexual dynamics between men and women.

So Where Exactly Is the Line?

Imagine a spectrum of intimacy, in which you have increasing levels of closeness and risk. At the most intimate end of the spectrum, we put sexual interactions.

At different points on this spectrum, you might see...

  1. Eye contact
  2. Direct, prolonged eye contact
  3. Approaching
  4. A handshake
  5. A very prolonged handshake
  6. A hug
  7. A kiss on the cheek
  8. A massage
  9. A naked massage
  10. A kiss on the lips
  11. Caressing the erogenous zones
  12. Caressing the genitals
  13. Intercourse

( For different people, the order of this list changes depending on their level of perceived risk around each action. )

As you read through the list, you can see pretty easily that both the level of intimacy ( risk & need for trust ) and sexuality ( pleasure & need for attraction ) change dramatically.

In fact we need to consider both spectrums, and be aware of how men & women approach traveling along these two spectrums differently.

Here's an illustration of the two spectrums, and the paths men and women travel.

As intimacy approaches the rightmost, sexual end of the spectrum, the risk - and need for trust - increases far more quickly for women than it does for men. 

As a consequence, women often take a much longer path through developing trust and comfort with their partner, before they are fully aroused for sex.

On top of this, men aren't starting at zero in sexual desire. Let's be honest - we're pretty much always ready to go.

The difference in how men & women path to arousal is why foreplay is such an essential part of good sexual connection.

Of course, we're speaking very generally here. Women are just as sexual as men, and on the right day, in the right mood, with the right guy... all bets are off... probably just before the clothes go too.

How things sometimes get "creepy"

When either person... often the man... enters the realm of sexual arousal, and the other person doesn't, things feel weird fast.

You know what I'm talking about.

This is why learning how to read that line and navigate the arousal v sex line well is such a valuable still.

Learning where the line is

So what can we do with this understanding?

Both men and women can deeply benefit from learning the nuanced balance between intimacy and sex.

One of my own primary love languages is physical touch, so learning to discern where intimacy becomes sexual has been a very valuable to me. 

I've learned that walking that line requires full presence, careful attention, and active listening to oneself and one's partner.

Of course you can - and should - practice and learn this skill in your romantic life, but unless you are in a lot of different situations with a lot of different people, learning will be slow.

Fortunately, you can practice this anywhere intimacy happens.

I have several favourite ways of training myself to intuitively feel the difference between intimacy and sex, both with physical intimacy...

  • Partner dance. I never thought I could dance, but for the past 4 years I've been learning a style called zouk dance , which is absolutely beautiful. Click the link to see. This particular style is very intimate without needing to be sexual. When I'm holding a girl, those lines are clearly drawn, even though they're sometimes extremely thin. 
  • Acroyoga. This is a style of partner yoga that is the love-child of yoga and partner dance. Also beautiful, and because it incorporates acrobatics, the development of trust is central to its practice.
  • Thai yoga massage. Physically quite intimate, and yet not sexual at all when practiced properly.
  • Martial arts, and contact sports. Between men especially, this is a place men are often intimate - physically at risk with each other - and yet not sexual.

... and emotional intimacy ...

  • Eye gazing. Yes it's a thing, and it's incredible. You can probably find an event near you.
  • Deep, emotionally vulnerable discussions. When you bare it all, your relationships enter a whole new level. But the journey there is a delicate dance of vulnerability and respect.

I hope these ideas give you somewhere to start, and that you choose to build your awareness.

Summary

If you want better relationships with everyone in your life, develop your ability to distinguish between intimacy v. sex.

Learn it. Practice it continually. Invest in it. 

You'll be a better friend, a better person, and a far better lover.

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Addendum

Thanks to Drew Hume for the inspiration. His article was a solid inspiration, and is well worth the read - no matter whether you're talking about intimacy between men & women, men & men, or women & women.

And thanks to Nikki for sharing it with me!

Intimacy and Risk

Although I've never found research demonstrating this - the connection between intimacy and perceived risk seems very compelling.

The same experience can be found in emotional intimacy. It begins to feel intimate, when the emotional aspect of your conneciton with someone begins to feel risky. When someone can cause you emotional pain, you are in emotionally intimate territory.

The Economics of Sex

A great video that show how birth control has dramatically changed the face of dating and sexual relationships.

 

Intimacy with Men

Drew's article makes the excellent point that culturally, men are often afraid of intimacy with other men. The locker room is an uncomfortable place for most men, and so is getting a massage from a guy.

When you truly understand the dynamics between intimacy and sex, that fear & discomfort should probably dissappate.

I reflected on this a bit, and I notice that with men - Handshakes, high-fives, sparring, wrestling, even warm hugs - I'm totally ok with all of that. It feels very non-sexual with zero potential for confusion. And, that kind of interaction between men is a very important part of community building and trust.

But other intimate interactions, such as massage, or dancing with a guy, can feel very weird - especially if you don't know that guy well and you aren't sure on what level he's enjoying the experience.

And this is the realization I made...

I'm pretty sure that's the line of distinction for me, with anyone male or female... Intimacy is great up to the point where it sexually arouses either of you ... and at that point you either both have to want to cross that cross that line, or you have to back off.

With strangers, you may be forced to guess where that point is for the other person.

I've personally experienced this while dancing- where at some point the intimacy of a dance felt like it has crossed into a sexual-experience for the woman. I'll be honest- sometimes that's just fabulously fun...

But if you're not at all sexually attracted to that person, it's really not so great at all. Just intensely weird and uncomfortable.

Experiencing this as a man helps me understand very clearly why it's so easy for women to get creeped out, particularly by men they don't trust yet.