The Difference Between Physical Intimacy And Sexual Passion

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated February 21, 2024by 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, such as spending time with family members and friends.

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, including lower cortisol levels.

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. These connections can vary in form and expression but ultimately play a significant role in shaping our attitudes and behavior.

How are sex and intimacy different? 

According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, sexual satisfaction is an important part of sexual health, even though sex is not always a sign of intimacy. 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. This is often the view of sex that relates to organized religion; intimate touch may be reserved for long-term romantic partners or spouses.

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. For instance, some people find comfort in massage or simply spending time together. Hand-holding, eye contact, and other forms of physical affection can contribute intimacy as well. Additionally, someone may identify as asexual and not feel or express sexual attraction in romantic relationships, although they may still experience positive and intimate feelings toward their partner.

Getty/AnnaStills
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. Is physical intimacy important to a relationship? That generally depends on each partner’s needs and preferences; some people prefer more physical intimacy and sexual intimacy than others.

The following are examples of physical actions that may lead to increased physical 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 relationships and can provide health benefits, such as lower cortisol levels, pain relief, stress relief, and enhanced immune function.

Consent during intimacy and physical contact

Feeling intimacy is often achieved through sensual touching, which may require entering another’s personal space. It is important to convey your boundaries and respect others' boundaries when touching and receiving affection from others, even in long-term personal relationships. 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. In this way, a physical relationship can vary, and it's essential to be attentive and considerate of individual preferences.

The impact of physical intimacy and physical affection

.Emotional or sensual touching, such as the embrace of a loved one, may release neurotransmitters in the brain, like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. The release of these feel-good hormones can provide various benefits, such as reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and supporting pain relief. On the other hand, a lack of physical intimacy may lead to increased loneliness or sadness, emphasizing the importance of maintaining close connections with others.

What is the definition of sexual passion?

Physical intimacy and sexual passion may have similar components, as both involve showing affection physically or emotionally. However, sexual passion can exist outside of a close intimate relationship, like when somebody meets a stranger and partakes in sexual passion but does not feel 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 sexual fetishism with someone 

  • Any activity that both partners consider sex 

While sexual passion usually involves physical touch, it is not restricted to those activities. Recent evidence from university research 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, and for some, an emotional connection or spiritual intimacy may fulfill their needs.

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? Emotional intimacy and more

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, such as children or a mother, father, other caregiver in a familial setting, could struggle. Often, improving relationships involves building closeness and developing intimate feelings. While there can be an element of vulnerability and losing control as a person build intimacy in relationships, this type of human contact can be crucial for overall well-being and fulfillment.

For example, according to the American Psychological Association, people who live with an avoidant personality disorder or other socially related mental health conditions may experience fear of rejection or social withdrawal. Symptoms and behaviors related to these conditions may make it hard to connect with a partner intimately or tend to their emotional needs. Sometimes, those who have experienced unwanted sexual contact, sexual trauma, or other negative experiences may struggle to achieve intimacy with loved ones.

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 focus more on arousal. Although intimate sex can occur in relationships, it doesn’t always.

Sex often occurs outside of physically intimate connections. Many people spend time with a person for single sexual encounters 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: Physical or emotional closeness

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. 

Getty/PeopleImages

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?

iStock
Can partners achieve intimacy without sex?

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.

Takeaway

There are a few marked differences between physical intimacy and sexual passion. You can describe physical intimacy as a type of non-romantic closeness. Physical intimacy might take the form of hugging a child, holding hands while walking down the street, or cuddling up on the couch to watch a movie. It is a word that brings to mind comfort and security, rather than physical desire. 

Sexual passion, on the other hand, is more focused on sexual attraction and desire.  It is a powerful force that can drive individuals to perform certain actions and take risks. When referring to sexual passion, people are usually thinking of the world of physical intimacy in terms of sex. 

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.

Gain insight into healthy intimacy

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started