A virtual caress causes real sensations

A study by Sapienza University of Rome shows the ability of virtual reality to elicit authentic reactions to virtual touches in so-called 'forbidden' areas of the body. The research, coordinated by Salvatore Maria Aglioti, was carried out on two groups of men and women with different sexual orientation, evaluating the reactions induced by a virtual caress by the different groups

A study by Sapienza University of Rome shows the ability of virtual reality to elicit authentic reactions to virtual touches in so-called 'forbidden' areas of the body. The researchers, coordinated by Salvatore Maria Aglioti of the Department of Psychology in collaboration with the Italian Institute of Technology and the IRCCS Fondazione Santa Lucia, used immersive virtual reality to induce participants to feel that the virtual body they were observing was their own body. Once this sensation was induced, participants observed a male and a female avatar touching their virtual body in different places, including the most intimate parts, such as the genital area.

After each caress, the participant had to assess whether the touch was pleasant or unpleasant and how erogenous, appropriate, or stimulating it was. In addition to the subjective feelings, the physiological reactivity to the virtual caress was recorded, an implicit and uncontrollable indicator of how the body reacts to what it is experiencing.

Martina Fusaro and Matteo Lisi, the study’s lead authors, say that "The participants spoke of the illusion of becoming one with the avatar they observed and reported that the virtual touch evoked sensations similar to those elicited by real-life tactile stimulation."

It was found that all participants reported virtual touching of intimate areas as erogenous, compared to touches received on other areas of the body (more social areas, such as the hand, and more neutral areas, such as the knee). The degree of erogeneity depended on the gender of the avatar being touched: heterosexual participants found the touch of the opposite-sex avatar more erogenous, while gay and lesbian participants found the touch of the same-sex avatar more erogenous.

The touch was also considered more appropriate for heterosexual men when coming from the female avatar, whereas for heterosexual women there was no difference in appropriateness whether it came from the female or the male avatar. In a mirror image, gay men considered men's and women's touching equally appropriate, while for lesbian women touching in intimate areas was more appropriate when it came from a woman (whereas in more social and neutral areas, there was no difference between men and women touching).

The physiological reactivity results (specifically, skin conductance) indicated that the touches on the participants' bodies induced different sensations: in particular, the touch coming from the female avatar induced an increase in reactivity when delivered on the intimate areas.

'While most studies in the literature have focused on sex differences in reactions to touching', adds Matteo Lisi, 'we wanted to highlight that sexual orientation plays an equally relevant role and should always be taken into account '.

 'The results of this study,' concludes Fusaro, 'are significant because they show how it is possible, through immersive virtual reality, to induce vicarious sensations very similar to those induced by real-life situations. The paradigm developed and applied for the first time in this study, could help investigate the intimate sphere in some people who, for various reasons, prefer not to be touched (for example, some people with an autism spectrum disorder or people who have experienced physical or sexual violence)'.


Heterosexual, gay, and lesbian people’s reactivity to virtual caresses on their embodied avatars’ taboo zones - Martina Fusaro, Matteo P. Lisi, Gaetano Tieri & Salvatore Maria Aglioti - Scientific Reports (2021) DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-81168-w


Further Information

Martina Fusaro
Department of di Psychology 

Matteo Lisi
Department of di Psychology 


Friday, 19 March 2021

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