The Difference Between Physical Intimacy And Sexual Passion

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated January 5, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Intimate relationships may exist between two people with physical or emotional closeness. While intimate relationships often include sexual activity, they do not necessarily always include it and may center on other areas. 

Intimate relationships may maintain a critical role in the human experience because they often involve emotional connections with a partner. Studies show that social connection can benefit mental and physical health

Our ability to survive and thrive often depends on strong interpersonal connections, which can stem from romance, physical or sexual attraction, sexual activity, or emotional support.

How Are Sex And Intimacy Different? 

So, how are sex and intimacy different? What is sexuality? Can one be had without the other? Does sex lead to intimacy or vice versa? 

There are often conflicting opinions on how sex and intimacy fit inside and outside established relationships. On the one hand, sex may be associated with long-term commitment and emotional intimacy or followed by marriage or procreation. 

However, sex may not always be present in close intimate relationships, and intimacy can be practiced through various methods unrelated to sexual intercourse or activity. Additionally, someone may identify as asexual and not feel or express sexual attraction. 

Can Partners Achieve Intimacy Without Sex?

What Is The Definition Of Physical Intimacy?

Physical intimacy may be defined as sensual closeness derived through sensual or emotional physical connections. 

The following are examples of physical actions that may foster intimacy: 

  • Cuddling

  • Massaging

  • Embracing

  • Hugging

  • Nuzzling

  • Holding hands 

  • Light touch, such as stroking or back scratches

  • Kissing 

  • Non-sexual or sexual sensory play, such as using soft ropes or materials on each other

  • Sexual intercourse

  • Foreplay  

Physical intimacy does not have to include sex, though sex and its associated acts are one way you might cultivate physical intimacy. Many people desire physical intimacy, as it may be a natural part of human sexuality. 

Consent During Intimacy 

Feeling intimacy is often achieved through sensual touching, which may require entering another’s personal space. 

Communicate your boundaries and respect others’ boundaries when touching and receiving affection from others. Intimacy is partly built upon a feeling of security. Safety can mean learning about consent and not partaking in something when someone has not enthusiastically agreed. 

The Impact Of Physical Intimacy 

Emotional or sensual touching may release neurotransmitters in the brain, like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. The release of these feel-good hormones can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and support pain relief. A lack of physical intimacy may lead to increased loneliness or sadness.

What Is The Definition Of Sexual Passion?

Physical intimacy and sexual passion may have similar components. Both might involve showing affection physically or emotionally. 

However, sexual passion can exist outside of a close intimate relationship with someone. For example, someone might meet a stranger and partake in sexual passion but not feel intimate or emotionally close to them. 

Physical intimacy might be associated with longevity, while sexual passion can be fleeting. The body might experience heightened sensations during moments of physical intimacy and sexual passion. 

Examples of activities associated with sexual passion may include:

  • Masturbating

  • Oral sex

  • Penetration

  • Anal sex

  • Making out or kissing

  • Humping 

  • Fingering or hand movements

  • Partaking in consensual fetishes with someone 

  • Any activity that both partners consider sex 

While sexual passion may usually involve physical touch, it is not restricted to those activities. Recent evidence reveals that sexual passion can serve as a catalyst or blockade to effective relationship functioning. Not everyone partakes in sexual passion in their intimate relationships. 

What Is The Difference Between Sex And Intimacy?

Since both physical intimacy and sexual passion can include similar elements, it may be challenging to know the precise boundaries of each. In a relationship, you may wonder if intimacy is present or how it differs from sexual activity. 

What Is Intimacy In General? 

General intimacy may involve knowing someone profoundly and feeling completely open, free, or honest with them. It could include romantic love, loyalty, or fidelity. Some people may find intimacy easy, while others could struggle.  

For example, people who live with an avoidant personality disorder or other socially related mental health conditions may experience fear of rejection or social withdrawal. Symptoms of these conditions may make it hard to connect with a partner intimately.

How Does Sex Differ?  

Sex or sexual passion is not always associated with being close to a partner emotionally or loving someone. Sexual passion may be more rooted in arousal. Although sex can occur in intimate relationships, it doesn’t always. 

Sex often occurs outside of physically intimate connections. Many people have single sexual encounters with a person and never see them again, often referred to as “one-night stands.” Intimacy is not necessary to enjoy an experience formed from sexual passion.

Differences Between Sexual Passion And Intimacy 

There are a few examples that may show how different activities can fall into the intimacy or sexual passion categories: 

  • Telling someone you love them (intimacy) 

  • Having sex with someone you met at a club (sexual passion) 

  • Kissing a partner you’re in love with (intimacy and sexual passion) 

  • Partaking in your partner’s love language (intimacy) 

Sex in a loving or intimate relationship may combine intimacy and sexual passion. Physical intimacy may play a significant role in creating a loving connection between people in a relationship. However, emotional intimacy may also exist in a connection, with or without physical intimacy. 

People in relationships can show affection in different ways and at different frequencies. Talking with your partner about physical intimacy and sexual passion may help you understand how it plays out in your relationship. 

Can Partners Achieve Intimacy Without Sex?

What Role Does Intimacy Play In Relationships?

While people may define sexual passion and physical intimacy differently, there can be a link between the two. Intimacy often plays a vital role in sexual passion. Studies show that most people have increased sexual desire when intimacy is present. This intimacy was reported through feelings of connection to a participant’s partner, boyfriend, or girlfriend. 

In the study, regardless of the partner’s biological sex, desire increased when the feeling of intimacy did as well. While sex and intimacy can exist without each other, they can also play off each other. 

One study showed that couples who partook in kissing that they perceived to be enjoyable often had greater relationship satisfaction than those who didn’t. This study may indicate a desire for close physical intimacy and physical compatibility in many relationships. 

When Sex Isn’t A Factor

Loving and intimate couples may sometimes be unable to have sex or choose not to. 

Medical conditions can prevent a partner from engaging in sexual intercourse, prompting partners to redefine what physical intimacy looks like in their relationship. They may still feel attraction and love for each other. Additionally, medical concerns may not necessarily prevent them from expressing other forms of touch and physical intimacy. 

Many partners develop intimacy through spending quality time together, verbally expressing their love for one another, giving gifts to one another, or performing acts of service. Additionally, people with different sexualities and identities may experience varying levels of attraction, all of which are valid.

How Can Therapy Improve Physical Intimacy Or Sexual Passion?

Do you have more questions about physical intimacy or sexual passion? Do you want to improve physical intimacy or sexual passion in your relationship? Talking to a therapist may allow you to explore challenges that could negatively impact your ability to experience or show physical intimacy or sexual passion, including depression, anxiety, couple conflict, or stress. 

Therapists are often trained to support communication, conversation, and empathy, which research has shown to improve intimacy between couples. Various treatment methods are available to couples, including online therapy. In one qualitative study, two groups of couples participated in either face-to-face or online therapy. Researchers found that online-only therapy was as effective as face-to-face therapy, based on reports from couples.

Whether you see a therapist solo or with a partner, online therapy can be a convenient option for receiving advice and support. Some people may feel nervous or embarrassed to discuss issues involving affection or sex. Online therapy can help people feel more comfortable discussing these topics than they would in an in-person session. 

Therapy can be an excellent place for personal growth for individuals or couples experiencing challenges in these areas. Online platforms such as BetterHelp for individuals or ReGain for couples may connect you to a licensed professional from the comfort of your home. 


There are a few marked differences between physical intimacy and sexual passion. If you want to learn more about how these areas manifest in your relationships or find healthier relationship coping techniques, consider reaching out to a counselor to discuss your needs. 

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