What does 'sexy' mean?


The word 'sexy' gets used fairly loosely these days. What does it really mean? Does it mean the same thing as 'sexual'?

(Since writing this article I've given a lot more thought to this question, so you might like to check out Beautiful, or Sexy? It might have more of what you're looking for.)


If you're talking about attraction pretty soon you'll have to talk about the concept of 'sexy'. What does the word mean? Well, it depends. It gets used so broadly you can start to wonder - even though you know basically what people mean. The word 'sexy' gets used to describe either men or women, but it will be simpler to begin with how it is used to describe women. Let's look at six things that 'sexy' means.

You can also find a list of related articles at Making Sense of 'Sexy'

1. Sexy means ... more attractive

What words do people use to describe an attractive woman? In no particular order you might hear a woman described as simply 'attractive', or 'beautiful', or 'stunning', or 'hot', or 'good looking', or 'nice looking', or indeed 'sexy'. By association people might also use those words to describe the outfit a woman is wearing. So it is not only used directly about the person. But the word 'sexy' has also taken on a life of its own, so you sometimes hear things like, 'that's a sexy car', or 'that's not a sexy topic'. It often gets used in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with sex at all, to the point that it gets a bit ridiculous. But we can see how this usage happened. People took one aspect of the meaning of 'sexy' and extended it to other things. That aspect is the degree of attraction. So sometimes people use the word sexy simply to mean more attractive, without it necessarily implying more 'sexual meaning'.

2. Sexy means ... a special kind of attraction

Usually though, the word 'sexy' is used to mean an additional quality of attraction, a different kind of attraction. So you could describe a woman as 'beautiful' without meaning 'sexy'. This is not about degree of attractiveness but about the kind of attractiveness. A woman might be exceptionally beautiful but present herself in a way that people would not describe as 'sexy'. Another woman might be more plain looking but present herself in a way that people would describe as 'sexy'. When used of a woman, 'sexy' usually means something about her manner of presentation that is the kind of thing that would have a distinctive appeal to men.

3. Sexy means ... growing up

The concept of 'sexy' only becomes relevant with puberty, once the sexual dimension of the body becomes an overt rather than a latent reality. Girls who once dressed in a way that evoked what we might call 'simple beauty', uncomplicated by anything sexual, now begin to explore the implications of their new kind of attractiveness to the other sex. Some girls want to begin immediately exploring these possibilities while others would prefer to wait and take things more slowly. There is no real downside to taking things slowly, but plenty of pitfalls in wanting to be too sexy too soon. Ideally there would be a gradual process in which a girl could slowly integrate this new kind of attractiveness so that by young adulthood she would feel comfortable with some degree of 'sexiness' as an additional flavour added to her usual repertoire of 'simple beauty'. In popular culture there is a well known phenomenon where a girl comes to fame as an actress or singer, presenting a 'clean cut' non-sexual persona then all of a sudden re-launches her image with an overtly 'sexy' presentation. It is obviously done that way for marketing reasons, but how healthy is it for the young woman, and for her young female fans?

4. Sexy means ... the stakes are higher

'Sexy' is not just a word. It is a reality, and sexual attraction is a powerful thing. Sexual attractiveness can be either accentuated or diminished depending on how you present yourself. And obviously it is not only a question of attraction but of action. The stakes are higher because attraction is 'movement towards' another. But such movement has a logical destination - contact. If this contact is of a sexual nature then it has great consequences. Attraction can be of a more diffuse and general kind, but as it becomes more sexual it gets stronger. So as the stakes get higher more care is needed. You can't afford to have the attitude 'the more sexy the better'. In general 'sexiness' is best thought as being like spice, and in fact this is a commonly used metaphor. However it is easy to forget that spice is only meant to be used in small proportions. A small dash adds a little 'lift' or piquancy to a dish. But too much leads to heartburn. You wouldn't sit down and eat a bowlful of curry powder.

5. Sexy means ... different things to men and women

Men and women don't necessarily have the same idea of what 'sexy' means. I'm not talking here about what women mean by a 'sexy man'. I'm referring to what men mean by a sexy woman, and what women mean by a sexy woman. Women have a vested interest in not being too sexy in the direct way men might want. So women will tend to use the word 'sexy' more broadly, and include things men would not really think of as sexy. I'm not saying here that men simplistically want women to be more sexy. But their perceptions of sexiness tend to have a greater particularity. So men will tend to pay more attention to the body itself, even in a lot of detail, while women will tend to think more diffusely in terms of dress and adornment. This can lead to a certain mismatch going towards two extremes. On the one hand, women can dress in a way men feel to be highly sexual, but the women don't realise quite how they're being perceived. On the other hand women can think they're being sexy when men don't think they are. So it is easy to overshoot the mark in either direction.

6. Sexy means ... something different from 'sexual'

One of the reasons there is a mismatch in perceptions between men and women is also that we tend to use the word 'sexy' too broadly. The origin of the word itself suggests 'sexual' but in practice there is a further distinction which gets lost in translation, as it were. We often just don't use words in a precise way, and this can make it hard even to clarify different realities. The problem is this - the word 'sexy' gets used to mean two quite different realities.

The first is simpler to identify. It is the overtly sexual meaning. It is easier to identify because it is measured against the reality of men's sexual arousal. So 'sexy' can be used to refer to the way a woman can dress and act so as to make it probable that men will feel sexually aroused.

The second is harder to define, but it can be identified by a different intention. It's intention is not to provoke a sexual response but to draw men's attention to the distinctive attractiveness of the feminine in a way that remains in the realm of the emotional rather than having a physical effect.

It seems that in practice this second meaning is what women nearly always mean when they say 'sexy', and that in general men mostly do too. However, it's less clear with men because women often don't have a clear enough idea of what affects men to know where to draw the line. Sometimes you'll see women taken aback at the suggestion that what they are doing would be perceived by men as sexual. Not only that, men would often not make any protest, but keep quiet and enjoy what they perceive as an overly sexual presentation, but being somewhat furtive about it. This means women don't get precise feedback as to what men are really feeling.


This has only been a brief introduction to this topic, yet already so many more questions spring to mind. As we go along we'll explore these things further and try to get a clearer handle on them. Just to throw out a few teasers. For the men: Can you think of an example of what you would call a 'nicely sexy' look for a woman, that you would experience as 'attracting your favourable attention' but not being 'sexual' as such. For the women: What are some things you choose not to do because you think they would be considered 'sexual' rather than 'sexy'?