Do Asexual Individuals Look Differently at Sexual Images?
In new data, eye gaze patterns may distinguish asexual people from others.
Posted June 19, 2022 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- Visual attention appears to be a key indicator of sexual attraction.
- Asexual individuals tend to divide their attention equally between sexual and non-sexual stimuli when given the choice.
- Allosexual individuals appear to attend to and maintain focus on erotic stimuli, even when alternatives are present.
Within the field of sexuality studies, there is an increasing amount of attention being paid to people who self-identify as being asexual. According to most common definitions, asexuality can be said to indicate a lack of sexual attraction to other people. This is the opposite of "allosexual," which refers to a state of being sexually aroused by other people. The lack of sexual attraction among asexual individuals may be accompanied by a lack of romantic attractions, too, though some people who report asexuality suggest that they feel emotionally bonded to others in a way that might be labeled as romance.
The psychological underpinnings of asexuality are relatively unclear. Evolutionarily speaking, asexuality represents a deviation from the norm within our sexually-reproducing species, with this form of sexuality being reported by around 1 percent of the population. As such, psychologists and sex scientists are beginning to study this phenomenon in more detail, and in ever-increasing numbers. One new study, led by Sonia Milani—a graduate student at the University of British Columbia (Canada)—explores the role of visual attention.
Attention and Sexual Attraction
A fundamental aspect of our sexual selves is rooted in the attention that we pay to different stimuli within our environment. That is, we tend to pay more attention to things that we find sexually attractive. Lori Brotto, senior researcher and the director of UBC's Sexual Health Laboratory, explained, "We were interested in this topic because extensive research has been conducted to elucidate the relationship between attention and sexual response. These studies have included different sexual orientation groups, however asexually-identifying individuals have never been included. Not only is examining an understudied population important for refining existing knowledge gaps, but asexuality research also highlights the variability of human sexuality in general and thus, enables a greater understanding of sexual attraction/orientation as a whole."
The premise of the team's work was relatively simple. They brought 95 participants into the laboratory to complete an eye-tracking experiment. This group consisted of 26 heterosexual men, 30 heterosexual women, 13 asexual men, 18 asexual women, and eight asexual nonbinary individuals. Once in the lab, the researcher had participants take part in a "forced-attention" task, which involved them viewing two images side by side. To compare levels of attention paid to sexual and non-sexual stimuli, each pair contained one erotic and one non-erotic image and were presented for 10 seconds each.
In conducting the study in this way, the researchers set out to explore where participants' attention was immediately drawn, and where participants purposively looked during the 10-second viewing window. Comparisons of the attention paid to erotic (sexual) and non-erotic (non-sexual) stimuli were also possible. To ensure that participants were not avoiding attending to particular pictures, the researchers also asked each participant to rate how attractive they found each image.
Immediate and Controlled Attention in Asexuality
Within eye-tracking research, scientists can study both immediate attention and controlled attention. Immediate attention is non-conscious, and is measured through "first fixations." This means investigating where eye gaze is immediately drawn before an individual brings their visual attention under conscious control. In contrast, controlled attention refers to what we choose to look at, how we consciously control our visual attention, and what we actively seek out and avoid.
Speaking of the team's results, Brotto elaborated:
In general, erotic stimuli are more salient than non-erotic stimuli and attract visual attention. Notably, attention patterns to erotic stimuli are consistent with self-reported sexual attraction – individual’s look more at stimuli that they are interested in and attracted to. Asexuals in our study showed equal attention (as measured by controlled attention) to erotic and non-erotic images, whereas heterosexual participants showed more attention to erotic images.
This overall level of controlled attention was mirrored in the data related to "total fixations," too. This means that asexual individuals tended to shift their attention between sexual and non-sexual images to give each type of image an equal number of viewings. In contrast, heterosexual participants in the sample were more likely to attend to sexual stimuli and maintain their attention there. As Milani and colleagues state in their paper, this is hardly surprising. This is because, "erotic images likely communicate incentivized sexual information to allosexual individuals, and thus, capture and sustain their attention. Although erotic images also captured and sustained attention in asexual individuals, erotic images may lack incentivization to the same degree for asexual individuals."
Although this study begins to look at asexuality in a more scientific manner, Brotto says that much more work is needed. "Although we aimed to refine our research methodology as much as possible (e.g., consulting with an advisory board of asexual people), our research was not without limitations, as indicated in the paper. There are still a lot of gaps in our knowledge—we are merely scratching the surface. With the recent shift that encourages and promotes research practices that are more inclusive, we hope researchers broaden their scope and strive for equity, diversity, and inclusion in their research practices."
Nonetheless, the data presented in this new research does seem to indicate that self-reported asexual individuals are less attracted to erotic stimuli than their allosexual counterparts, and that this is also reflected in eye gaze patterns, which are indicative of less controllable behaviors.
Milani, S., Zhangm J. Y., Zdaniuk, B., Bogaert, A, Rieger, G., & Brotto, L. A. (2022). Examining visual attention patterns among asexual and heterosexual individuals. The Journal of Sex Research. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2022.2078768