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Eye Test Works as a Gaydar and More for Sex Researchers

Tim Boyer's picture

The idea that an intuitive ability referred to as “gaydar” exists in some people in picking out gays from straights has been a both a whimsical and scientific notion.

In an article published in the June 2012 issue of the New York Times’ Sunday Review, the question of whether such a thing as a gaydar—the innate ability to determine a person’s sexual orientation based on first impressions—really exists, is explained in a co-written article by Joshua A. Tabak, a doctoral candidate in social and personality psychology at the University of Washington and Vivian Zayas, an assistant professor of psychology from Cornell University.

In the article, the authors describe studies that tested the gaydar theory by having test subjects view a series of facial photographs of both men and women and make a judgment of whether the individuals in the photos are gay or straight. Each photo was viewed for only 50 milliseconds, but time enough according to the authors for the test subjects to demonstrate statistically significant results indicating the existence of such a thing as gaydar. The correct sexual orientation was chosen 60% of the time. If gaydar did not exist, the expected outcome due to chance would be 50%.

Other tests have been devised to predict sexual orientation, but were not especially accurate, nor well tolerated by test subjects. One example was connecting an electronic device to a man’s genitals to measure his sexual response while shown a variety of sexual and non-sexual images of both sexes.

Today, however, researchers report that they believe that they have found a non-invasive and accurate test for determining a person’s sexual orientation. Using a special infrared lens that measures pupil dilation, researchers were able to assess a person’s sexuality by their pupillary response while being shown erotic movies of various sexual identity types.

According to a press release issued by Cornell University:

"We wanted to find an alternative measure that would be an automatic indication of sexual orientation but without being as invasive as previous measures. Pupillary responses are exactly that," said Gerulf Rieger, lead author and Cornell postdoctoral associate, who conducted the study with Ritch C. Savin-Williams, professor of human development and director of the Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell.

"With this new technology, we are able to explore sexual orientation of people who would never participate in a study on genital arousal, such as people from traditional cultures," said Rieger. "This will give us a much better understanding how sexuality is expressed across the planet."

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Their research is published in the August 3, 2012 issue of the online journal PLoS One. In the study, the pupil dilation of 325 men and women of various sexual orientations were measured while watching erotic movies and later matched with their self-reported sexual preferences. Their results revealed both supporting and surprising findings in human sexuality.

As expected, when heterosexual males were shown erotic movies of women, their pupils widened significantly indicating sexual desire in comparison to non-widened pupils when viewing erotic movies of gay men. Heterosexual women, however, showed a pupillary response to viewing erotic movies that showed either men or women confirming the previously held view that heterosexual men and heterosexual women differ in their sexuality.

However, this sexual flexibility is not a “women-only” thing, it turns out that males who are bisexual have the same pupillary response as women do while viewing erotic movies of different types.

"We can now finally argue that a flexible sexual desire is not simply restricted to women—some men have it, too, and it is reflected in their pupils," says Savin-Williams. "In fact, not even a division into 'straight,' 'bi' and 'gay' tells the full story. Men who identity as 'mostly straight' really exist both in their identity and their pupil response; they are more aroused to males than straight men, but much less so than both bisexual and gay men," says Savin-Williams.

Their observations tell us that along a spectrum of sexual orientations of heterosexual, mostly heterosexual, bi-sexual and homosexual that their eye test may be an accurate and non-invasive way to overcome hurdles in other predictive sexual orientation tests. The authors concluded that within heterosexual men and women, their findings confirmed hypothesized sex differences in sexual response. Furthermore, their results indicate that bisexual men have bisexual dilation patterns, and homosexual women have male-typical dilation patterns.

The authors of the paper state that in future studies their eye test for determining sexual orientation will be measured simultaneously with genital responses to visual erotic stimuli to confirm the accuracy and reliability of the eye test for predicting sexual orientation.

Image Source: MorgueFile


“The Eyes Have It: Sex and Sexual Orientation Differences in Pupil Dilation Patterns” PLoS ONE 7(8): e40256. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040256; Rieger G and Savin-Williams RC (2012).

“The Science of ‘Gaydar”
The New York Times Sunday Review (June 1, 2012); Joshua A. Tabak and Vivian Zayas.