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What's More Important, Being Sexy or Being Beautiful?

Should we bring sexy back?

“I think being sexy is far more important for love and sex than beauty; and it is also quickly identifiable. If I see an unsexy, pretty man, I can appreciate the looks, but I don't feel sexually attracted to him. This happens often, not just to me, not just to women. I'd like to think of myself as both sexy and good-looking.” —A married woman

Both being sexy and being beautiful enhance romantic attraction. Which one is more dominant? And which one is more positively received? The answer is not obvious.

Being beautiful and being sexy

“Pardon the way that I stare,/There's nothing else to compare,/The sight of you leaves me weak,/There are no words left to speak.” —Frankie Valli

“There is definitely something sexy about a girl with an attitude and a pair of leather pants.” —Eliza Dushku

Source: Phovoir/Shutterstock

Beauty is characterized as pleasing the aesthetic senses, especially the sight; sexy is defined as causing feelings of sexual excitement. A colleague of mine once characterized beautiful people by saying that they are individuals who, when you walk past them in the street, you stop walking, say wow, and look back at them. Their beauty necessitates a second glance, forcing you to stop and pay attention to it. As the common expression goes, “I could not take my eyes off you, you are so beautiful.”

Being sexy is more associated with the interaction; being beautiful is more relevant to what the person is, regardless of joint interactions with someone else. The perceiver’s attitude and the possible interactions are very important. Being described as sexy can be flattering if you are attracted to the person saying it; if not, it can be perceived as an insult.

Beautiful, which has a broader meaning than sexy, is perceived as flattering if it refers not merely to physical appearance, but also has a broader meaning, indicating a kind of beauty in the inside. Telling a woman she is sexy often refers to brief interactions; she is the woman you want to spend the night with. Beautiful is broader and can indicate a more serious attitude; she is the woman you may consider marrying. Beauty is deeper than sex (or lust). Sexy is often associated with being “hot,” that is, the heat is felt by the perceiver. Being beautiful can be associated with being “cold,” which implies some distance from the perceiver.

Sexual attraction goes further than just staring—it attracts the agent to act as well. Sexual desire increases your action readiness and pushes you toward actual joint interactions. In this sense, sexy is indeed more conducive for initiating a romantic bond. People are more likely to approach a sexy person than a beautiful one. Being sexy is seen as a kind of invitation, while beauty imposes some distance.

Indeed, Roger Scruton argues, “Beauty comes from setting human life, sex included, at the distance from which it can be viewed without disgust or prurience.” He further suggests that “our attitude towards beautiful individuals sets them apart from ordinary desires and interests, in the way that sacred things are set apart—as things that can be touched and used only when all the formalities are addressed and completed” (2011: 164, 57).

Although sexuality is limited to the romantic realm, being sexy depends upon having other positive characteristics. Thus, it has been claimed that confidence, honesty, talent, brightness, and good manners are very sexy. This is in accordance with the “personality halo,” in which because of high-praiseworthy qualities, such as wisdom, caring, kindness, and social status, the person is perceived to be more appealing (Ben-Ze'ev, 2000: 406-413). Indeed, a survey of hundreds of Italian women indicates that two-thirds found greater sexual satisfaction with "powerful men in socially respected positions"—bosses are perceived to be better in bed.

Notwithstanding the above considerations, beautiful is still broader than sexy. Beauty can be attributed, and not merely related, to many realms. Thus, we speak about a beautiful personality and landscape, and not about a sexy personality or landscape. Judgments of beauty are also more consensual; evaluating a person's degree of sexiness depends more on personal and cultural differences. Because of the greater universality of beauty and its broader and greater value, most people would prefer to be assessed as beautiful rather than merely sexy. However, when restricted to the romantic realm, sexiness has a greater chance of forging an initial romantic connection.

An example from Amsterdam’s Red Light District

“Everyone wants to be sexy.” —Brad Goreski

People who consider themselves superior to you are very likely to believe that they are entitled to invest less in creating and enhancing the romantic connection and that they deserve a privileged status in the relationship; accordingly, they might not be good partners. To give one example, when I once walked (with my family) in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, I noticed that one average-looking woman was attracting more customers than her beautiful neighbor. I have explained this in light of the suitability and deservingness aspects of the erotic connection. The beautiful woman, like other beautiful people, believes that she deserves more from those whom she is with. Hence, she is likely to invest less in the relationship, believing that her partner should compensate her for being with an inferior person. The men I observed in Amsterdam’s Red Light District chose the less beautiful woman, as they assumed that she would invest more effort in pleasing them.

Thirst, sexual desire, and romantic love

“One of the best things for a woman to hear is that she is sexy.” —Scarlett Johansson

Roger Scruton compares the desire to drink a glass of water and sexual desire. He argues that in the first case, there is no particular glass of water that you want—any glass of water would do; and after you drink the water, your desire is satisfied and belongs in the past. Scruton claims that this is the normal nature of our sensuous desires: They are indeterminate, directed to a specific action, satisfied by that action, and brought to an end by it (2011: 44).

Scruton believes that sexual desire is completely different from those desires. Although I agree that sexual desire is different from the desire to drink water, I would still argue that while profound romantic love is indeed completely different from our sensuous desires, sexual desire is in between thirst and love. Scruton suggests that sexual desire is determinate: There is a particular person that you want; people are not interchangeable as objects of desire, even if they are equally attractive; and each desire is specific to its object, since it is a desire for that person as the individual that he or she is (2011: 44).

I believe that Scruton’s claims are adequate concerning profound romantic love, which is indeed about a particular person; the beloved is not interchangeable, and the loving attitude is specific to the beloved. However, sexual desire is different—being between thirst and romantic love. Sexual desire is discriminative in a way that thirst is not, but not in the way that love is. It is not merely that you can satisfy your sexual desire by replacing it with another person, but such a replacement usually increases sexual desire. The objects of sexual desire are not as indifferent to the vessel as drinking water is, but still, there are many people who can satisfy this desire. Sexual desire is directed toward a certain person, but typically due to the novelty of the partner, rather than any particular characteristics.

The impact of time on being beautiful and sexy

“I'm slightly in love with Scarlett Johansson: She's just stunning. And she's bright, which is incredibly sexy.” —Daniel Radcliffe

As long-term love is an ongoing experience, other types of activities are necessary to encourage and enhance the relationship. A crucial kind of attraction in this regard is yearning to be with each other. Such yearning makes you think about the beloved, even when they are not with you. This kind of attraction is the most fundamental in profound love. The first impressions generated by the attraction to beauty, and then by sexual desire, are not sufficient for maintaining this attraction, as both decrease with time; in this sense, their value is more superficial than the desire to be together. Time is a thief, not only of beauty, but also of sexual desire. Consequently, we should focus on the more profound aspects, which are so relevant for lasting love.

For illustrating this point, consider the following dialogue from the movie, Elegy:

George O'Hearn: Beautiful women are invisible.

David Kepesh: Invisible? What the hell does that mean? Invisible? They jump out at you. A beautiful woman, she stands out. She stands apart. You can't miss her.

George O'Hearn: But we never actually see the person. We see the beautiful shell. We're blocked by the beauty barrier. Yeah, we're so dazzled by the outside that we never make it inside.

Beauty is a marvelous asset in a romantic relationship; however, if it is not supplemented by the desire for sexual, and other, joint activities, it will be of little romantic value and remain merely in the aesthetic realm. The most crucial step for lasting, loving relationships is developing the attraction from merely the desire to have sex with your partner to the general desire to be with the partner for a significant duration.

Concluding remarks

“I think there's something incredibly sexy about a woman wearing her boyfriend's T-shirt and underwear.” —Calvin Klein

Do you wish to be regarded as beautiful or sexy? Most people would say both. However, if we must choose, it seems that since beautiful is broader and deeper than sexy, this will be the choice of most people. This could be the case in many circumstances, but not in all of them. In addition to personal and contextual circumstances that influence our choice, other relevant factors include the following: (1) the broad or narrow usage of the terms, (2) the stage of the relationship, and (3) your attitude toward the person expressing the compliments.

If the usage of the term “beautiful” were limited to physical appearance, many people would prefer to be regarded as sexy, thereby increasing the probability of more dynamic and warm interactions. Similarly, at the initial stage of the relation, when the joint activities are most crucial for creating the romantic bond, being regarded as sexy would often be preferred. If you do not find the other person attractive, you probably would not enjoy the interactions; hence, being described as sexy might even be offensive.

Understanding that sexiness stems from our behaviors allows for the possibility of making sexual desire more intense, which is valuable in romantic relationships. Improving beauty is typically not a real option. Being sexy is not fixing yourself; to be sexy is just to adopt a more involved and warm behavior.

It may, then, be the case that Justin Timberlake was onto something in declaring, “I’m bringing sexy back.”


Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. MIT Press.

Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford University Press.

Scruton, R. (2011). Beauty: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

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