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How Does Sex Differ from Intimacy?

How Does Sex Differ from Intimacy?Are sex and intimacy different things? Can you have one without the other? Or does one lead to another?

It seems that there are many conflicting opinions on the roles of sex and intimacy within a relationship (and out of one, too).

It is difficult to really get to the bottom of this problem because no two people have exactly the same ideas on sex. In a traditional framework, sex would come with long-term commitment, or marriage, which would be associated with the couple having an intimate connection with each other (and usually wishing to procreate).

However, in an increasingly promiscuous society, the connection between sex and intimacy can be a tenuous one.

Sex without Love

Intimacy is at the heart of a strong relationship. Intimacy is about knowing someone deeply and being able to be completely free in that person’s presence. It is an emotional state that is often reserved for just one person. Ideally, sex in a loving relationship should be the physical embodiment of intimacy. It should come from a place of love and connection. Within a relationship the two are inextricably linked: intimacy builds sex and sex builds intimacy.1

However, sex also is just a physical act. Within a relationship, sex is the most intimate act, but it can also be an act without consent, an act which is paid for, or a mere physical exchange. A one-night stand is a perfect example of sex without an intimate relationship. Both men and women can enjoy the sex of a one-night stand, but it is a physical act rather than a loving act.2 On the other hand, it can be argued that there is nothing more intimate than vulnerably offering yourself to someone in the physical act of sex, therefore connecting the two terms again, even in the case of a one-night stand.

Sex or Making Love?

This is where people often separate the terms ‘sex’ and ‘making love.’ Sex is without doubt a basic physical act, and therefore it could be argued that it is without intimacy. However, making love infers that there is intimacy and a degree of connection associated with the physical act.

But there are plenty of situations in which couples are intimate with each other without having sex. For some, medical problems can prevent sexual intercourse, and although this does take away an important part of the relationship, it does not prevent the couple from having a loving, satisfying and intimate connection. Intimacy can be cultivated in many ways, such as spending quality time together, enjoying physical, non-sexual contact, or enjoying shared interests and listening to each other. Sex is only one way in which people give and receive love, so although it is very important, it is not the only way to develop or express intimacy.

Being intimate with your partner requires you to be open and honest with him or her, and it is from this state of intimacy that great sex grows. This can sometimes be a hurdle in a relationship. Past relationships, childhood hurts and other emotional conflicts can get in the way of these connections. In these situations, either individual or marital counselling can be of benefit. Not only will resolving your issues lead to a deeper and more intimate relationship, it will lead to amazing sex, too!

How Does Sex Differ from Intimacy?


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Jonathan Lenbuck

Jonathan Lenbuck writes for the Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors Sydney website. Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors is one of Australia’s leading networks of couples counsellors, relationship therapists and sex therapists, providing support to couples across the Greater Sydney area. You can visit Jonathan’s website for more information about the sorts of issues that couples bring to relationship counselling as well as details about what happens in a counselling session.

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APA Reference
Lenbuck, J. (2018). How Does Sex Differ from Intimacy?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 26 Apr 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.