December 18, 2020

Sex and Intimacy: What’s the Difference and How to Get More (or Less) of Each

Many people assume that sex and intimacy are the same. In fact, you can have one without the other! Here’s how.
Written by
Emily A. Klein
Published on
December 18, 2020
Updated on
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Intimacy and sex are often closely related; after all, sex is a very intimate act, and sharing intimacy with someone can often lead to sexual attraction. But while they often go together, they’re not the same thing: There are many types of intimacy, not all of them sexual, and many kinds of sex, which may or may not entail intimacy beyond sexual connection.

What Is Intimacy?

According to Alina Tello-Cordon, MSW, intimacy entails closeness, connection, familiarity, and trust. She tells that, while sex and intimacy are often equated with one another, there are actually many ways to be intimate: “There’s several different kinds of intimacy—sexual, physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual some folks associate intimacy with just sex but may forget there’s different ways to connect or be vulnerable.”

Can You Have Intimacy Without Sex?

Absolutely! Emotional intimacy can blossom when you make yourself vulnerable by sharing your feelings; intellectual intimacy can develop when you talk about things and ideas that really matter to you; spiritual intimacy can occur when you engage with someone in ritual, worship, or discussion of your values and beliefs; experiential intimacy can unfold when you share profound or intense experiences with someone you care about. Even physical intimacy doesn’t necessarily have to be sexual, says Tello-Cordon: “Physical intimacy can be separate from sexual intimacy. Especially if someone is on the ace spectrum, they may not be interested in sexual intimacy, but may want to be intimate in other physical ways like hugging, holding hands, or kissing.”

Can You Have Sex Without Intimacy?

While sex usually entails physical closeness, being sexual with someone doesn’t necessarily lead to intimacy. Many people desire emotional, intellectual, or spiritual intimacy along with sexual intimacy—but not everyone. “There are some folks who identify as aromantic and they don’t necessarily have the desire or the drive to have strong emotional connection [in a sexual relationship],” says Tello-Cordon. “For others, they may desire emotional connection but it’s not available to them. There can be enjoyment in sexual and physical connection without having other types of intimacy present.”

What If You Want More Intimacy… But Not More Sex?

Intimacy is often found in the context of a sexual relationship—but it can also be shared with friends and family. Spending time in authentic conversation, discussing a movie or book that moved you deeply, playing music together, cuddling, praying together, or giving and receiving massage are all nonsexual ways of experiencing intimacy. For people who would like to invite more intimacy, but not necessarily more sex, into their relationships, Tello-Cordon emphasizes communication and the development of trust: “Asking open-ended questions of the person you want to connect to, really exploring their emotions in that deep way, being curious, sharing vulnerability with each other.” Nonsexual touch can be another great way to build intimacy: Massage, hand holding, cuddling, brushing or styling someone’s hair, even roughhousing or playing sports together can all promote the closeness and connection that allows intimacy to grow.

What If You Want More Sex… But Not More Intimacy?

Whether you’re single or partnered, you may want the opportunity to explore sex without experiencing a strong emotional, intellectual, or spiritual connection. If this is the case, clear communication and boundaries are key: If you’re trying to avoid straying into other kinds of intimacy, letting your partner know from the get-go is a must. Particularly since many people are looking for an emotional connection when they have sex, it’s vital to be clear about what you are (or aren’t) seeking. If you avoid discussing emotions, interests, and beliefs with your partner, as well as keeping kissing, eye-contact, and cuddling to a minimum, chances are good that your connection can remain mostly sexual and non-intimate.

What If You Want More Intimacy in Your Sexual Relationships?

Since vulnerability and intimacy often go hand-in-hand, it’s important to be willing to open up if you desire more intimacy in your sexual relationship. Tello-Cordon recommends first checking in with yourself to determine what’s important to you and what increased intimacy would look like: “My number one tip would be asking yourself what you want out of the relationship, what you would like more of, identifying you own needs and desires and then being vulnerable enough to be honest with you partner or partners. When it comes to intimacy, it always comes down to clear, open, and direct communication, and being vulnerable.” Building intimacy with sex partners can include spending more time touching each other before, during, and after sex; slowing things down to include more foreplay and kissing; and taking the time for more conversation and shared experiences.

The bottom line

You can have intimacy without sex, and sex without intimacy. You can also experience deeply intimate sex. Whatever you desire, you deserve for your boundaries, preferences, and needs to be respected. As with all aspects of sexuality, communication is essential to make sure that you and your partner are enjoying a fully consensual, mutually satisfying, connection.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Emily A. Klein is a freelance writer with deep interests in science, culture, and health. As a student of cultural anthropology, she researched and wrote about kink, reproductive rights, cross-cultural medicine, and humans’ relationship with technology. She has designed and implemented a sexual health curriculum for adolescent girls, worked with foster youth and people experiencing housing insecurity, and volunteered as an emergency first responder. Her writing has appeared in The Establishment, Edible magazine, The Seattle Lesbian, Slog, and elsewhere.

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