What Raises—or Lowers—Your Sexual Attraction to Someone?

How a person's interest in you affects your own sexual interest in that person.

Posted Jul 31, 2018

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Source: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

You might think that you know when you feel romantic interest in a new person. It might be a powerful rush, or less so, but certainly strong enough to make you want to get to know the prospective partner and see if you are a good romantic match or not. Moreover, you might find that your romantic interest increases if you receive mixed signals about whether he or she is equally interested in you: that the uncertainty is a turn on. After all, many think that playing “hard to get” heightens romantic interest and pursuit.

But some interesting new research suggests that it doesn’t work that way.

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. The research, conducted by Israeli’s Herzliya Center and the University of Rochester, described here, discovered that when you believe a prospective partner is reciprocating interest in you, you find that partner more sexually attractive than you would if you weren’t as certain about his or her interest in you.

That is, the research shows that if you feel uncertain if a prospective partner is romantically interested in you, that partner becomes less sexually attractive to you, not more. Why might that happen? According to co-author Harry Reis, “People may protect themselves from the possibility of a painful rejection by distancing themselves from potentially rejecting partners.” That could lead to feeling less romantic interest in the person, despite what you might have felt initially. That shift of emotions protects you from anticipated pain.

Moreover, lead author Gurit Birnbaum suggests that feeling less sexual desire might protect yourself from pursuing a relationship in which the future isn’t so clear — which could be for a variety of reasons: for example, differences of values, careers, religion, geographic location, etc. It’s not uncommon that someone will reflect back on a failed encounter and then conclude that he or she never really found the person so romantically attractive to begin with.

One caution about such studies, in my view, is that the nature of the research is contrived; it's based on experimental situations that don’t reflect real-life relationships and the contexts in which they occur. The studies are described in detail here, and were published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. 

The upshot of the research findings, says Reis, is that “People experience higher levels of sexual desire when they feel confident about a partner’s interest and acceptance.”

I think that such findings are more relevant to potential new relationships than to established, ongoing ones. In an ongoing relationship, it’s more likely that feelings of interest are present and affirmed; they are secure, and that, in turn, enhances or supports continued romantic interest—at least in positive relationships. 

However, if uncertainty arises in a long-term relationship, that can become highly threatening to the continuation of the couple. That’s evident in the numbers of couples who see therapists, seek workshops for healing troubled marriages, divorce, or enter affairs.