Sensual vs. Sexual: What’s the Difference


Sexuality and sensuality have a lot in common — but they’re not the same thing. What is the difference between being sexual and being sensual, and how do the two relate to each other?

“Sexual” is pretty straightforward: When people talk about sexual activity, they’re usually referring to the process of physical intimacy between consenting adults. Sometimes, though, the idea of being “sensual” is lumped in with being sexual.

“I think people often use ‘sensual’ when trying to say [or imply] ‘sexual-light,’ when it would be so much more helpful to remember that ‘sensual’ simply means ‘of the senses’– sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch,” says Richard M. Siegel, PhD, a licensed mental health counselor and co-director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes in West Palm Beach, FL.

In other words, being sexual pretty much always involves being sensual — could you have sex without engaging any of your five senses? But being sensual does not have to involve being sexual. It’s much bigger than that.

You can choose to tap into your sensual self as part of a sexual encounter, as part of an intimate encounter that isn’t necessarily going to lead to sex, or just because it feels good with no thought of anything sexual at all.

“Sensuality is the basis of how we experience our bodies, other bodies, and the world around us,” says Rosara Torrisi, PhD, a certified sex therapist, founding director of The Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy, and co-host of the podcast Our Better Half about sexuality and older adults. “What I do a lot as a sex therapist is help people with their sensual self.”

“Sensuality is a way to positively inhabit the body, through pleasure and joy and fun and celebration,” she adds. “Enjoying your body can be a revolutionary act when you are not objectified or subjected to another person, and you own your pleasure and your time.”

So how can you get back in touch with your sensual self — whether or not you want that sensuality to ultimately lead to sexuality? Start by going back to basics.

“Think about what feels good to your sense of touch,” Torrisi says. “What do you like to smell? What tastes good to you? What music or other sounds do you like to listen to? What do you like to look at? Mindfulness is the crux of it. It’s about noticing what’s happening with your senses and having fun in your body.”

Some ideas to explore:

Joyful body movement. This can be dance, yoga, stretching, going on walks, jumping up and down, or playing the piano or another instrument. What are the physical sensations?

Look for beauty in your everyday world. Maybe it’s flowers in a garden, or a spectacular sunset, or art. What do you see that is visually pleasurable?

Make a meal. It doesn’t have to be a fancy gourmet dinner. Even making a simple spaghetti sauce can light up your senses of smell and taste. Notice the scent of the onions, garlic, and spices. Taste the tomato sauce. Linger with the aromas in your kitchen.

Tap into touch. Notice how different fabrics and textures like furs, feathers, wool, or suede feel.

“Try different touches, textures, scents and use them to become more aware of your body in general,” Torrisi says. Remember, this is just about noticing what feels good to you. It doesn’t have to lead to anything else.

“Sensuality is for everyone, whether you’re single, with a partner, with multiple partners, or never engaged in sexual connection at all,” Torrisi says. “Maybe your ultimate sensual pleasure is wearing cozy pajamas, sipping a cup of tea in a quiet house, and blissing out looking at your backyard. That’s sensuality too. It’s a way to positively inhabit your body.”

Although sexuality and sensuality don’t have to go together, they certainly can. And sometimes refocusing on the sensual can improve the sexual aspect of your life — especially when the body has physical limitations.

Sexuality educator Jane Fleishman, PhD, focuses on the sexual well-being of older adults in senior living communities. “They often have to redefine what sex means as their bodies age and think more about sensuality as another form of pleasure,” she says. “Arousal of sensuality may lead to a sexual interaction … or it might just be exactly what we’re looking for in itself.”

If you have a partner, you might decide together to get in touch with your sensual selves for the purposes of desire and arousal, Fleishman says.

For instance, she points to the sensual pleasure of dancing to music with the right lighting and atmosphere. “Or try ‘body mapping’– touching every part of your body to rediscover what feels good and what doesn’t,” Fleishman says. “With couples who’ve been together for a long time and for whom sex has not been good or has not been happening at all, this kind of sensual touch is a great way to reconnect.”


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