Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
We’re still just getting to know each other, so let me take this opportunity to talk about a few of my favorite things. In particular, I want to talk about how some of the sexiest things that have ever happened to me are nothings.
Allow me to restate, to justify myself.
Sexual tension, attraction, simple, unfulfilled desire, is one of the sexiest things I can imagine.
It is my conviction that sexual tension comes also from conflict of some kind, either internal or external. Maybe one person is involved. Maybe one person is not attracted to the other. Maybe one person deeply dislikes the other but still finds them attractive. Maybe they are close friends and are scared of ruining a friendship or are on opposite sides of a debate. Maybe they have irreconcilable ideologies. Perhaps their families have a blood feud.
Crucial is the act of pretending or trying to believe that nothing has happened, nothing will happen, nothing is happening.
For me, tension and desire are a sweet itch. The sick, nervous rush that hums in your fingertips and nerves. The sharp awareness of every blood vessel, every capillary, every neuron and dendrite in your body. Air that has somehow become charged with electricity.
But nothing is happening. And the nothing is delicious.
Tension transforms interactions entirely. Conversations feel laden, glances take on second meanings, everything feels very cliché and shivery and exciting. Nothing is said directly. It is physical as well (and this is my very favorite kind of tension):
Imagine, for a second, that you are sitting next to a person-of-interest (who is, for the sake of this exercise, also interested in you). You are leaning into each other. Their hand grazes your arm, your waist, your hand. Your fingers graze theirs as though it were a mistake. Their fingers brush past your mouth. It is an accident. It feels like they are tracing your electrons. You prickle.
You breathe shallow. They breathe shallow. There is a static pull between you. A wonderful slushy nausea shudders through your body and through you and your veins, coiling, twisting, settling in your stomach and on your lips.
They put their arm around you. They brush your collarbone with their fingertips. Your electrons are screaming.
Nothing is happening. It is all subtext.
There’s a lot of emphasis placed on the actual physical act of sexual intercourse, but it seems to me that sometimes the prelude to the physical, corporeal doing is just as potent (if not more so). The awareness of desire and of sexual tension forcibly confronts us with a lack of certainty, paired with awareness of unspoken power dynamics and the taut ache of electricity. We are left wondering who will make a move, if a move will be made, if we are imagining everything. The pull of the other is tantalizing. The alchemy leaves us breathless and on the verge of combustion.
Unsurprisingly, the profound, magnetic draw of another person lights up our brains. Basically, when we are attracted to someone, our medial prefrontal cortexes ring with increased activity. Some studies link four specific parts of our brains to sexual attraction and to sexual tension. These four parts roughly correspond to the perceptive and cognitive aspect of arousal, emotional and motivational drives, physical and psychological readiness for sexual activity, and finally, the physiological reactions associated with sexual activity.
At the same time, when we are locked in a state of tension, of sexual desire, our bodies are (unsurprisingly) flooded with hormones. Adrenaline makes us physically tense, gets our hearts racing, dries our mouths. Dopamine is responsible for the addictive, sometimes overwhelming pleasure. Helen Fisher, in a study on desire in new couples, explains that high levels of dopamine are responsible for the “increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and exquisite delight in the smallest details” in her study’s participants.
My reasons for valuing the not-anything-ness of sexual tension (and it can be absurd, sometimes, just how not-anything it can be) go beyond the science and the physical rush I’ve been rhapsodizing about.
The consequence of this arousal, this deeply sexual pre-coital adrenaline rush is a similar arousal – awakening, almost – of the mind. I’m never more present, never more exquisitely aware than when I’m dancing the willful not-dance, almost-dance, how-far-can-I-push-this-dance of tension. I feel my body more entirely – suddenly I am acutely conscious of where my legs are, my hands, my lips. I am aware of the way my blood thrums, and of the way the tragus of my left ear dips in the middle. I am, too, burningly aware of how the other is moving, where they are, the shape of their canines.
Simultaneously, sexual tension brings floods of thoughts. It makes me strategize. I anticipate. I am filled with notions of social game theory, with payoff matrices. My imagination rears. The unacknowledged draw makes me imagine complete scenarios wherein contact of a more obviously sexual variety could feasibly develop. Tension makes you daydream about closing the distance. Tension makes you fantasize. Tension is good for the brain.
I love sex. I think it’s fun, I think it’s satisfying, I think it’s sexy, I want to be having it basically always. Consummating pent up longing can be such an unmitigated relief, and I fully acknowledge that the after is wonderful. But the before. The anticipation, the anxiety, the electricity, the uncertainty, the delicious queasiness.
In my experience, the act of sex doesn’t leave much to the imagination. It can be a seizing of vitality, absolutely, but it doesn’t leave much to the imagination. This is to say, there is no uncertainty.  Desire and tension, on the other hand, are necessarily imaginative. There are physical manifestations, yes, and cerebral counterparts, but there is no acknowledgement, or, at the very least, no consummation. This combination moves me in a way that generates vitality, that makes me feel more vital. All those sparks flying, those shivers; it’s impossible to ignore how alive you are.
 the inferior temporal cortex,
the orbitofrontal cortex,
the anterior cingulate cortex,
and the right insula, respectively.
 Not to say, of course, that fantasy and imagination aren’t part of sex. Just that sex tends to be more corporeal than cognitive.