In ancient Rome, there was a firm scientific belief in the Evil Eye, a curse fired from the glare of a malevolent gazer on an unsuspecting victim leading to bad luck, injury or even death. Plutarch wrote on its biological function and process, describing deadly rays that shoot like darts at their victim. The solution? Wear a metal penis. The fascinus, or phallic talisman, was worn around the neck, hung from conquering generals’ chariots, and made into wind chimes in Pompeii, and is at the root of our English word ‘fascination’ – to capture by magic. Having a bronze winged penis to hand somehow deterred the invidia that could attack at any moment. There were even special fascini that formed a cult tended by the vestal virgins, on which depended the safety of the entire Roman state. Soldiers carried special carvings of fists wrapped around the bottom of a phallus shaft, and in the absence of a charm you could still make sexual gestures – the fig sign or manus figa where the thumb pokes suggestively out between clenched index and middle finger for example – that would keep you safe. These rituals may have been passed on from the Greeks, particularly spread by the conquests of Alexander, and represent an early example of the recurring connection between the eye and the genitalia.
The eye is not the first organ we probably connect with sex, but although it seemingly plays no key role in the reproductive act itself, it is surely a primary and principal erotic sense. We have instinctively known this for a long time. The Roman connection between eye and phallus is one example, another could be the fate of Oedipus; confronted at last with the truth of his incestuous marriage to his mother, he takes a pointed brooch from her dead body and plunges it into his eyes. Freud interpreted this as a symbolic self-castration, punishing surrogate organs of his testicles. In the Bible Lot’s wife was forbidden to merely clap eyes again upon the city doomed to destruction for the sin of anal intercourse (or so we have often desired to interpret it) – and for breaking this law was turned into a pillar of salt (a fairly compelling phallic metaphor for infertility). The controversial covering of some Muslim women’s bodies and faces is supposed to be a form of modest protection from ravaging men’s eyes, rendering their appearance to outsiders as nothing other than a pair of eyes themselves. In all of these the eye is intensely bound up in the sexually taboo, be it incest or sodomy or the subjection of the male gaze.
So powerful an erotic act was sight that for a long time indeed it was understood to be an actual discharge from the eye. Empedocles posited in the fifth century BC that the eye was invented by none other than the goddess of love, pleasure and procreation: Aphrodite. Using the four elements she designed the orb and then lit a spark of fire that would emanate from it and touch on everything that we now see. With some provisos for the limits of the eye in pitch darkness, Aphrodite allowed for us to see things by literally lighting them from within ourselves. Fittingly enough, the reflected fires of the sun on her planet, Venus, make it one of the five that can be seen with her naked eye. In erotic terms this seemed to make a lot of sense to poets, who recognized in the power of eyesight an almost tangible emanation from the pupil that struck the beheld lover:
So sweet a kiss the golden sun gives not
To those fresh morning drops upon the rose,
As thy eye-beams,
when their fresh rays have smote
The night of dew that on my cheeks down flows
Shakespeare’s King of Navarre in Love’s Labours Lost is not describing a fanciful metaphor in his mistress’ ‘eye-beams’ that kiss his tearful cheeks; her sight literally touches him in the same way that sunlight does a rose. This is the so-called ‘emission theory’ of sight, which gets elevated to new heights of erotic intercourse when poets consider how sexually complex the combined gazes of two people can be:
Our hands were firmly cemented
With a fast balm, which thence did spring;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string;
John Donne’s poem could not make sight a more physical or visceral a transaction. In no less tangible a way than physical intercourse between bodies binds them into a new, sweaty, unity: eye-beams meet and entwine and in so doing thread the lovers’ eyes together. Once again, this is not mere fancy, but rather perfectly sound Renaissance optics. If nothing else it suggests that artists and scientists were aware of the power of looks in a way we tend to forget (this poem is titled ‘Ecstasy’), and as Donne walked around London getting into all kinds of amatory trouble you can bet he appreciated men and women’s eyes in a way we can scarcely imagine.
The temptation when reviewing successive centuries of attempts to understand the mysteries of sight is to laugh at the belief that our eyes are physically sending something out into the world, but such a belief is more persistent than you’d expect. In an astonishing study as recent at 2001, research found that more than 50% of college psychology students believed in emission theory:
The authors document the strength and breadth of this phenomenon and the abject failure of traditional educational techniques to overcome this belief, and they reveal that students are leaving psychology courses with a flawed understanding of one of the most studied processes in the history of psychology – visual perception.1
The study was at a loss as to how to explain how a majority of college students, who had been educated in modern optics, could adhere to such an outdated idea and remain ‘highly resistant to common educational classroom experiences’. It also noted how previous studies by Piaget observed the prevalence of this idea in children:
[Piaget] was perhaps the first to note an odd type of misunderstanding that children have about vision. He commented on a report of a child who stated that looks can mix when they meet, and, along with other observations, Piaget suggested that children believe in emissions from the eyes during vision. […] When Piaget made his observation, he also noted that the child’s misunderstanding corresponded to the theory of the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles…
This resistance to absorbing lessons and proofs to the contrary, combined with a seemingly innate recognition in children ‘that looks can mix when they meet’ (the exact image conjured by Donne in Ecstasy) that corresponds precisely to Empedocles’ Aphrodisian eye-beams, suggests an extraordinary stubbornness not to accept what science tells us our eyes are doing, and a fundamental propensity to recognize that sight is an active force; that the evil eye can fall on us if we are not careful to defend ourselves.
But, of course, these instincts are wrong scientifically speaking. The eye receives light and colour and what we look at is entering us, even if our gaze has a particularly potent effect on others. Visual stimulation is a major erotic frontline, one that our eyes can physically attest to in changes in our eyes. In 2012 Cornell University researchers published a study2 into the degree of pupil dilation that occurred in men and women of different sexualities when presented with thirty-second erotic films. Its purpose was to discover if pupil dilation could reveal arousal in men and women, and what, if any, differences of arousal occurred when straight, bisexual or gay subjects watched their preferred gender(s), sexual activity. It argued that pupil dilation was a more reliable indicator of sexual arousal than genital, which is measured differently across the sexes and can be suppressed:
pupil dilation to stimuli indicates activation of the autonomic nervous system. This system is associated with many automatic processes such as perspiration, digestion, blood pressure, and heart rate […] It is therefore unlikely that participants suppress pupil dilation to stimuli they are sexually attracted to. Pupil dilation patterns could therefore reflect, with high sensitivity, automatic attention related to sexual attraction and sexual orientation.
Our eyes, it seems, betray our erotic stimulation more than even our genitals, expanding excitedly at the sight of sexual activity we prefer, like a blind peeled up from a window to let in more sunlight. If we like men, our eyes gorge on the sight of them engaging in sex, if women, we dilate our pupils to accommodate them masturbating, and if we like either, we open up for both. The study confirmed both a hypothesis that ‘that pupil dilation patterns are significant indicators of sexual orientation’, but also one that expected men and women to respond differently to visual sexual stimulation. Whereas men were more selective, evincing strong reactions to women if heterosexual, men if homosexual and both if bisexual, heterosexual women showed arousal at both sexes, and were more sexually stimulated by women than heterosexual men were by men. Various reasons, evolutionary and cultural, have been offered to try and interpret this, none definitively. Possibly related is the fact that dilation of the pupils is also itself a sexual visual cue for men; in a test in which men chose between faces of women of similar attractiveness, they unconsciously chose women whose pupils were more dilated. Could women be more prone to giving these cues to men in order to compete for mates attention? We don’t know, but the fact remains that the eye is a window to the libido.
No one appreciates this fact more than advertisers. The use of visual sexual stimulants to sell products does more than open our pupils that little bit more: it can distract us wholly, much in the way that phallic talismans were hoped to put off the evil eye in Rome:
Sexual information does grab attention. Sex evokes a hardwired emotional response that is linked to species survival. We can’t help that our eyes and ears are drawn to it because emotional information has a way of piercing our perceptual fields by rising above other environmental information trying to get our attention.3
Here Dr Reichart describes visual sexual cues as working on a species-survival level of urgency that pitches the subject against their primordial self. The attention-grabbing works best if the ad can then create strong associations between the brand and actually getting more sex (or ‘feeling sexier’), which converts visual attention into something that we actually remember (the goal of all advertising). Anouk Festjens describes how sexual visual cues can also change our mental state in ways that suit retailers:
Psychologists talk about the hot, emotional state versus the cold, analytical one. Sexual cues – and those related to other rewards – put us in a hot state; they increase dopamine levels and lead us to be more impatient, impulsive, and accepting of risk.4
In men various studies have found visual cues influence economic decisions, riskiness and cravings: ‘when they’re primed to think about sex, they’ll crave other kinds of rewards – money, chocolate, wine, and so on […] Indeed, we found that men’s willingness to pay for a variety of products was significantly higher after any kind of exposure to a sexual cue’. The study found this to be less true of women, who are harder to manipulate through visual cues, but are susceptible to tactile ones instead that produced the same results.
There does seem to be a body of evidence to suggest that men are more susceptible to visual stimulation than women. Or, to put it another way, men’s susceptibility to visual sexual cues helps us to understand that women’s sexuality may be more complex than men’s, or so concluded two Texas University professors in their study Why Women Have Sex:
Men’s sexual attraction tends to be based heavily on visual cues. Women’s sexual attraction tends to be far more nuanced. It’s affected by olfactory cues (how a man smells), personality of the partner (such as sense of humor and confidence), social status (how he is regarded in the eyes of his peers), other women’s judgments of how attractive he is, and many other factors, in addition to the visual cues. The qualities women find to be sexually attractive in a man also vary across the ovulatory cycle, such as a shift toward finding more masculine features (faces, bodies, and voices) attractive at ovulation.5
That men are more visually stimulated, or less distracted by other contexts, is often put down to anthropological development, summarised here by Festjens:
Evolutionary psychologists would argue that men, who have an unlimited ability to reproduce, are trained to pick their partners based on visual information – such as health, youth, and beauty – and to link their ability to attract those partners to their wealth, since that’s how women, with their limited ability to reproduce and higher parental investment, identify the best providers.
Just how powerful visual erotic activity is in the male brain is outlined in a comprehensive Dutch review of neuroimaging literature on sexual activity. It observed how in both sexes, but most strongly in men, the visual cortex was clearly engaged during genital stimulation, and continued to be so even when men’s eyes were closed. That is to say, the mind’s eye was receiving sexual images, be they fantasies or memories, in the absence of visual input and because of tactile stimulation. Like some kind of X-ray vision, sexually aroused men (and to a lesser degree women) tend to see what is happening to their bodies even when their eyes are shut.6
If there are problems with generalising about male and female susceptibility to sexual visual cues, there are nevertheless laws of unconscious attraction that transcend gender. Two of these are symmetry and averageness, to which we are all apparently drawn. These properties ‘are attractive in Western faces and have been conjectured to be biologically based, evolved standards of beauty. A hallmark of such standards is that they show little variation across cultures,’7 reported an Australian investigation into the subject. It wanted to first prove if average faces, meaning well proportioned according to typical ratios of features, were as attractive in other cultures such as Chinese and Japanese as they have been found to be in Western ones (it was) and to try to work out why. To do this they took original images of actual human faces and either mirrored them to create symmetry or ‘averaged’ them to create more perfect composites. The results were definitive. Subjects rated the attractiveness of the faces as highest for the faces that had received the most work, followed by faces that had been partially averaged (50%) and finally the lowest grade was given to the original faces. If you look at the progression from left to right of each face you can instinctively feel your eye being drawn irresistibly to the final, highest average or most symmetric face. The law seems to be much more geometric than racial, since composites made from different ethnicities still resulted in a strong preference in a particular racial group.
The reason may again be evolutionary: ‘preferences for averageness and symmetry may have evolved because these traits advertise aspects of mate quality, such as developmental stability and health’. There seems to be actual evidence to support the idea that averageness can reliably indicate health, but this is not true of symmetry. To explain the eye’s love of the symmetrical we may need to consider how the brain works: ‘evolved preferences could also reflect more general features of human information processing, such as a prototype-abstraction mechanism that helps us recognise and reason about category members’. This would explain a more general attraction to symmetry that has been documented when we judge the appearance of anything from dogs and birds to wristwatches. This implies a kind of platonic ideal is somewhere in our DNA, a recognition system built on perfect templates of average facial and body features and symmetry, and that our eye is consciously aware of the ideal, always striving for the mean.
That we derive inherent and powerful pleasure from such facial features, and that ‘computer-averaged composite faces are rated as more attractive’, is something Hollywood is capitalising on in the treatment of its most lucrative sex symbols. As bankable stars age and digital effects develop, the old Vaselined lens trick and surgical facelift are being replaced by ‘beauty work’, CG enhancement which often focuses around actors’ eyes; removing bags, animating Botoxed eyebrows, adding a teardrop, removing a blink, even enlarging eyes ‘to make them look more sympathetic’. Given that facial expressions, and eyes, are often an actor’s greatest resource and determine how we read them, the fact they are becoming so easily digitally edited suggests a new era in film is arriving, according to New York Magazine.8
Perhaps this is nothing new after all, but then again it begs the question of what do our eyes really do. Science has determined that our eye naturally seeks out beauty in the form of evenness and symmetry, forcing Hollywood to create ageless stars, that it dilates as it looks on arousing stimuli and sends out messages about our sexualities, can instigate a hot state of risk-hunger, and can see our bodily intercourse in the dark. All this begins to make the folklore of the Evil Eye, found all over the world, of the eye as a powerful tool capable of emanating dark physical power, even erotic love – a childhood myth which even the educated are loath to cast off – perhaps not so very far – fetched.
1. Fundamentally Misunderstanding Visual Perception; http://people.auc.ca/brodbeck/4007/article7.pdf
2. The Eyes Have It: Sex and Sexual Orientation Differences in Pupil Dilation Patterns http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0040256
6. Janniko R. Georgiadis, PhD* Department Neuroscience, Section Anatomy, University Medical Center Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands, www.socioaffectiveneuroscipsychol.net/index.php/snp/article/view/17337
7. Attractiveness of facial averageness and symmetry in non-Western cultures: In search of biologically based standards of beauty, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1068/p3123