Sexual attraction vs arousal: what’s the difference?


Many terms may come up in conversations if you’re talking sex with your closest friends.  Horny, turned on, wet, hard, sex drive, desire, and mood are some examples of sexual terms. Some terms are used interchangeably like sexual attraction, sexual desire, libido, sex drive, and sexual arousal. 

It helps to know the differences in some of these terms to clarify what they are and prevent misunderstandings. Understanding sex terms help spread the correct information about sex and promote sexual health awareness.

Read on to gain a little vocabulary lesson on a few common sex terms, sexual attraction, and arousal to help understand the differences.  

What is sexual attraction?

Attraction is a feature or quality that draws interest. There are six different types of attraction that human beings experience today, and they are sexual, romantic, emotional, physical, sensual, and intellectual. 

The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill defines sexual attraction as an attraction that makes people show sexual interest in one another or makes people desire sexual contact (source). According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), though most people are attracted to the opposite sex,  others are drawn to multiple sexes, same-sex, and a small percentage aren’t sure who they’re sexually attracted to (source). People who are asexual may not experience any sexual attraction (source).

Sexual attraction is a powerful motivator for who you swipe right or left on and who you choose as a partner.  Age, physical features, income, education, intelligence, openness, emotional connection, and trust determine the level of sexual attraction. Women and men also experience sexual attraction differently. One study found that women viewed men as less attractive when they had poor morals, while moral character had little impact on male sexual attraction towards women (source). 

If you have a special person in your life to whom you’re sexually attracted, their touch, scent, voice, or even their gaze may make you feel like hitting the sheets. This is known as sexual arousal.

What’s the meaning of sexual arousal?

When you’re turned on, your body is hormonally  responding to some sort of sexual cue (source). Sometimes that sexual cue causes sexual arousal, and it can come from a thought (internal) or a touch (external).

The two parts of sexual arousal are physical arousal and mental arousal. Examples of physical arousal are getting wet, nipple hardening, or experiencing increased heart rates, which all happen in response to a sexual cue. When turned on, you’re experiencing mental arousal, which involves focus and positive sexual engagement (source). 

Men and women tend to experience physical and mental arousal differently. For example, men can experience erections without being turned on; hello, morning wood. Women may experience getting wet during sexual arousal without feeling mental arousal (source).  

Touch and vision play a significant role in sexual arousal. Men and women are both stimulated by experiencing one another’s erogenous zones, which are parts of the body that cause high levels of sexual arousal. These zones are mainly breasts, neck, nape of neck, nipples, lips, butt, ear, and inner thigh (source).  

Low arousal disorders

Though sexual arousal is a common and natural part of human biology, many people struggle with low arousal. Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (SIAD) and hyposexual desire disorders (HSDD) are classified disorders in the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) (source, source). 

Individuals with SIAD and HSDD experience low arousal or sexual interest when sexual cues are present, along with other sexual dysfunction symptoms. These disorders mainly impact women, while male hyposexual desire disorders (MHSDD) affect men (source).  

The difference between libido and arousal 

You might be wondering if arousal is the same thing as libido, and the truth is they are two different things. Arousal is a response to a sexual stimulus that causes you to experience sexual excitement, and libido is your appetite, drive, or desire for sex. 

So, while you’re in the heat of the moment and extra blood is flowing to your clitoris or penis during  arousal, it doesn’t mean that your libido (desire for sex) is high. Your libido can change from day to day without impacting your ability to get sexually aroused. 

What’s the difference between sexual attraction vs arousal?

We’re here to break down the differences between sexual attraction vs arousal. 

Sexual attraction can be a range of things like personality, income, and physical features that draw you to another person and cause you to take a sexual interest in them. This is the feeling you get if you go to a party and you notice things about a person you might like, like the color of their hair, the way they smile, or how selfless they are.  

You can be sexually attracted to someone without feeling sexually aroused. Sexual arousal is a physical or mental response to an internal or external trigger. It’s driven by hormones and can come from something thought, seen, heard, or felt. For example, a great-smelling guy may walk by you that may turn you on. You don’t have to be sexually attracted to him, but the smell triggers a hormonal response in your body to cause arousal.  


The takeaway

Now that you know the difference between sexual attraction and sexual arousal, you may be thinking more about your sex life.  You may be reflecting on what kinds of things you’re sexually attracted to and what kinds of things are turn-ons for you. It’s healthy to consider these things because they play a significant role in your sexual decisions. 

The sexual choices you make determine your sexual health. With bido, you can make healthy choices that impact your sexual health and your overall health and well-being. Visit our ingredients page to see how our bido beverages can benefit your health and sex life.

Gaby McPherson MS, RDN, LDN

Gaby is a full-time freelance writer, specializing in evidence-based health, nutrition, and wellness articles, as well as creating engaging content for health brands. Her clients have been Healthline, Ovia Health, Happiest Baby, Once Upon a Farm, EatingWell, and more. She's very passionate about reproductive and family health. When she’s not writing, Gaby spends her free time dancing to the Encanto soundtrack with her beautiful preschooler.