David, a 24-year-old software developer in California, becomes animated when he talks about eye contact during sex. “I really like it in all scenarios: penetration, head… Really during any sexual act,” he tells me. “I’ll ask women to look me in the eyes during head, and during sex, I’m the one holding eye contact in any position it’s possible.” He can’t quite explain the appeal, but suspects it comes from the media he’s consumed throughout his life. “It’s probably something I learned from porn, but the concept of ‘holding someone’s gaze’ has been ringing around my head since elementary school,” he continues. “I’d intentionally stare at girls until they looked back at me and hope we’d brew attraction just by looking at each other. That ‘spark’ fantasy is probably some shit from rom-coms.”
The idea that men love eye contact during sex got airtime in a recent /r/sex thread devoted entirely to the topic, which generated more than 220 comments. Some were serious and scientific in nature (“Eye contact on its own is enough to stimulate the release of oxytocin and dopamine, two very important signaling molecules in the brain for feeling warm and fuzzy”), while others ranged from faintly spiritual (“He loves your soul”) to the more profane (“Too much porn”).
None of the answers struck me as especially satisfying, though, so I sought out numerous men (around 30 in all) about whether they enjoy eye contact during sex, and if so, what makes it so mind-blowing.
A majority of them say they do love eye contact during sex, and they cite increased levels of intimacy as the major reason why. “It’s the intentional, ‘being present with you’ check-in,” explains B., a 41-year-old finance worker in Connecticut who asked to be identified by his first initial only. “That’s on top of the sexy stuff, like the proverbial ‘watch me watching you reacting to what I’m doing to you.’” Joe, a 47-year-old IT worker in Texas, wholeheartedly concurs. “Eye contact during head or sex is the best — it’s so hot and sexy,” he raves. “It’s so much more intimate, and my wife has the biggest, most beautiful blue eyes.”
A significant minority are more ambivalent about eye contact during sex, if not overtly against it. A couple of autistic men tell me that they don’t enjoy eye contact in any scenario, including in the bedroom, and Leo, a 34-year-old trans man based in London, explains that making eye contact while he receives oral sex is an experience that can induce dysphoria. “I feel icky and uncomfortable about my dick,” he says. “Although getting head feels nice, I’m still not wanting to be reminded too much about the actual anatomy going on, and eye contact amplifies those feelings.”
The duration of the eye contact seems to be an important factor, too. “Eye contact during sex or oral is super hot, but only for short durations,” says Justin, a 29-year-old stay-at-home dad in Vancouver. “You hold that shit for too long and you go from sexy to serial killer real quick.” Several men also mention that eye contact during blow jobs is a porn staple that doesn’t always translate in real life. “I like eye contact in pornography, so I assumed I’d like it during sex as well, but I’ve recently found that to be less true than I would’ve guessed,” explains Greg, a 30-year-old engineer from L.A. “I didn’t always notice this about myself, but eye contact in person is really, really hard for me.” Along those lines, Jean, a 32-year-old copywriter in Montreal, adds that wavering, self-conscious or affected eye contact isn’t especially hot for him. “Sometimes I can tell it makes [my partner] nervous,” he says. “It’s a bit like watching an introvert gut their way through a public speaking engagement.”
It turns out, too, that the science around eye contact, intimacy and oxytocin is more complicated than the Reddit comment above touting the hormone’s “warm and fuzzy” effects suggests. While it’s true that eye contact, oxytocin and warm, trusting feelings are linked, eye contact can sometimes produce feelings of mistrust, hostility and awkwardness as well. More specifically, researchers in the Netherlands studying the relationship between eye contact and oxytocin found that the hormone “does not boost trust unconditionally,” but rather that it “increases vigilance” and a “sharpening of perceived social signals.” The lay understanding of oxytocin as the “cuddle hormone,” then, is too simplistic, as is any suggestion that eye contact necessarily boosts intimacy — sometimes, in fact, it does the exact opposite.
That eye contact is so hot for some people and so discomfiting for others may have as much to do with power as it does with intimacy. Some men tell me that eye contact is an important component of their dominant/submissive relationships, and others make indirect references to power. “When a woman makes eye contact with you during head, you feel so vulnerable, and kind of exposed, too,” Joe explains. “If she’s looking in your eyes, she can see how much pleasure she’s giving you.”
David, too, relays a revealing anecdote: “I used to watch a lot of Pick-Up Artist stuff on YouTube, and of all the stupid exercises they encourage, the one I actually committed to was going around looking attractive women in the eyes and not looking away until they did. Pretty creepy I guess, but frankly, I liked getting comfortable doing it.” He goes on to explain at length how liberating he found the exercise, adding that he “didn’t used to be big on approaching women, but this eye contact felt like getting back a bit of power.”
Not that the women on the other end of his gaze found it attractive. If anything, they probably read it as disrespectful, aggressive and/or threatening. For example, autistic women (like the autistic men above) would likely find it difficult and distressing, as would women from cultures with different norms around eye contact. “In mainstream Western culture, eye contact is interpreted as attentiveness and honesty, and we’re taught that we should ‘look people in the eye’ when talking,” reads the Vermont Department of Health’s advice to health-care providers about cultural differences in non-verbal communication. “In many cultures, however, including Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American [and Pasifika], eye contact is thought to be disrespectful or rude.” It also notes that “women may especially avoid eye contact with men because it can be taken as a sign of sexual interest” — a good reminder that overt displays of sexual interest aren’t always welcome.
When these factors are taken into account, it’s easier to see why forcing sustained eye contact with strangers isn’t the best way to spark sexual attraction, and why the porn-y image of a doe-eyed woman gazing up during a blowjob isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. “I find eye contact during sex a bit weird,” Dante, a 29-year-old tech support worker in Scotland, tells me. “It’s never something I particularly desire, and I think it’s probably a domination thing for some men — that unnecessary shit some men do to feel in control.”
“I suppose looking at each other occasionally is fine,” he adds, “but locking eyes the whole time? Fuck that.”