Sensuous vs. Sensual – What is the Difference?

The words sensual and sensuous are problematic. They seem as if they should be synonyms, and in some ways, they are. The difference between them is slight, but as we shall see, very important.

One of these words is innocent, while the other could be interpreted as decidedly NSFW. You wouldn’t use it in an email to your boss, unless you and your boss are embroiled in an unethical workplace love affair (or want to start one).

Continue reading to learn the difference between these dangerous words.

What is the Difference Between Sensuous and Sensual?

In this post, I will compare sensuous vs. sensual. To give you an idea of how they look in sentences, I will provide several examples of each word in context.

I will also show you a helpful memory tool that makes choosing sensual or sensuous much easier.

When to Use Sensuous

sensuous versus sensual What does sensuous mean? The word sensuous is an adjective that means relating to the five senses. These senses, as we know, are sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

One might speak of a sensuous aroma emanating from the kitchen while dinner is cooking, or a sensuous bouquet of flowers that brightens a dreary room.

Here are a few examples,

  • Karen was stressed out from a long week of work, so she scheduled a sensuous day at the spa over the weekend.
  • Alathea stayed in bed all morning and listened to the sound of rain falling on the rooftop.
  • That said, stuffing prunes is tedious work and I advise popping one in your mouth every so often for fortification. Even uncooked, they are a deeply sensuous, decadent pleasure, bursting with liquor at first bite before yielding their hidden treasure. –The Wall Street Journal

When to Use Sensual

definition of sensuous definition of sensual definitionWhat does sensual mean? Sensual is another adjective related to the five senses. It specifically refers to gratification of the senses.

The word sensual has taken on risqué connotations. One could not write about a sensual massage without the reader wondering if it led to something more sexual.

Likewise, the phrase a sensual image doesn’t call to mind a 19th century Impressionist painting of flowers in a vase. It could describe a 19th century Impressionist painting of a woman bathing, though.

Here are some more examples,

  • Dakota and Jaden decided not to go to the party, and had a sensual evening alone in their apartment instead.
  • Albert was reprimanded for using school computers to look up sensual images on the Internet.
  • Nearly two and a half millennia ago, Aristotle triggered a revolution in happiness. At the time, Greek philosophers were trying hard to define precisely what this state of being was. Some contended that it sprang from hedonism, the pursuit of sensual pleasure. –The New Yorker

As you can see, sensual would be considered “not safe for work.”

Trick to Remember the Difference

define sensual define sensuous These two words are often misused for one another. In a more innocent world, they might be interchangeable, but the world we write in is not very innocent.

  • You should not use sensual except in the context of physical intimacy. That is how most audiences interpret the word, and there is no sense fighting it.
  • For other, less steamy contexts, use sensuous

Sensual vs. Sensuous Mnemonic: Since sensual and sexual are inextricably linked in the minds of most audience members, and they both end in -ual, you can link them together in your mind, as well.

Summary

Is it sensuous or sensual? Sensuous and sensual are adjectives that relate to the activation of the five senses.

  • Sensuous is fairly innocent; it refers to anything that is pleasant, like a delicious birthday cake or a calming sound.
  • Sensual has taken on sexual overtones, and should not be used in contexts that don’t involve intimacy.