A recent study used eye-tracking technology to understand how different groups of people pay attention to erotic images. The researchers found that heterosexual individuals looked at erotic pictures for a longer time than non-erotic ones. However, asexual individuals showed similar levels of attention to both types of images. The study was published in the Journal of Sex Research.
Attention is the cognitive process of selectively focusing awareness on specific stimuli or information while filtering out those that are irrelevant or less important. It functions like a mental spotlight that allows us to filter out unnecessary information and concentrate on what we consider to be relevant or interesting. It is extremely important in eliciting and maintaining sexual responses and behaviors.
Because of this, much can be discovered about sexual behavior by exploring what a person pays attention to. Visual attention, being focused on acquiring visual information can be assessed by recording where one’s eyes are looking and how long they stay fixated to certain points. This can be done using eye-tracking devices and appropriate software.
Such methodology allows researchers to examine both the automatic allocation of attention that happens when a new stimulus is detected (initial attention) and later voluntary attention when the person decides to pay attention to it (controlled attention).
Study author Sonia Milani and her colleagues wanted to explore how asexual and allosexual individuals (those who experience sexual attraction) direct their attention to erotic stimuli. They recruited participants and conducted the study in a laboratory using eye-tracking equipment and software. The researchers expected that allosexual individuals would pay more attention to erotic pictures, looking at them more frequently and for longer durations compared to non-erotic pictures.
Participants were 26 heterosexual men, 30 heterosexual women, 13 asexual men, 18 asexual women, and 8 asexual non-binary individuals. Their average age was around 25 years. Participants were recruited from the researchers’ university and via different advertising methods.
In the study, participants first completed an online questionnaire about their sexuality and demographic information. They were then invited to the laboratory, where they sat in front of a computer monitor with an eye tracker. The participants were shown pairs of images, one erotic and the other non-erotic. The images competed for attention, and participants had to decide how to divide their attention between them.
Each pair of images was displayed for 10 seconds, and participants were instructed to view them naturally. The erotic images depicted sexual activity, while the non-erotic images showed fully clothed individuals engaged in a non-romantic interaction.
During the presentation of the images, the researchers measured eye-tracking data. Afterward, participants rated their sexual attraction to each image on a 10-point scale. Participants also completed assessments of asexual identity and sexual distress.
The results showed that, except for asexual men, all participants directed their initial attention more quickly to erotic images than to non-erotic ones. On average, the first fixation on erotic images lasted 26 milliseconds longer than on non-erotic images.
Looking at the controlled attention, all groups of participants (heterosexual men, heterosexual women, asexual men, asexual women, and asexual non-binary individuals) paid more attention to erotic images and looked at them for longer durations. However, the difference in attention between erotic and non-erotic images was five times smaller for asexual participants compared to allosexual (or heterosexual) participants. This difference was consistent between heterosexual men and women.
“Eye-tracking findings revealed that for four out of the five groups (i.e., asexual women, asexual nonbinary individuals, heterosexual men, and heterosexual women), initial attention was captured by the erotic images, as indicated by a faster time to first fixation on erotic images relative to non-erotic images. Asexual men were the only group to show no differences in their time to first fixation across erotic and non-erotic images,” the researchers concluded.
“For controlled attention, all participants looked significantly longer at erotic images; however, that difference was approximately five times larger for allosexual than for asexual participants, indicating that the latter group distributed their visual attention more evenly across erotic and non-erotic images.”
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of the role of attention in sexual behavior. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. The study was conducted on a small number of participants who all volunteered to participate in a sexuality study. Results on other populations might not yield identical results.
The study, “Examining Visual Attention Patterns among Asexual and Heterosexual Individuals”, was authored by Sonia Milani, Jia Yu Zhang, Bozena Zdaniuk, Anthony Bogaert, Gerulf Rieger, and Lori A. Brotto.