In I CAN'T. DON'T HATE ME., Bustle's Sex & Relationships Editor Iman Hariri-Kia gives you her unsolicited opinions on viral sex and relationships trends, free of charge. Unfollow her if you'd like.
I’m sitting in an empty subway car, my masks doubled and my sanitizer at the ready, headed toward 86th street. The sliding doors open at Union Square, and a young man walks in, taking a seat at the opposite end of the train. We’re far apart — easily more than six feet — but still, I feel flustered by his presence. He’s wearing a disposable mask and a knit beanie that covers most of his forehead, leaving only his green eyes exposed. But when he looks in my general direction and our gazes lock, I experience an involuntary sensation so intense that the year-long unshaven hairs all over my body stand up straight in anticipation.
Wait, did we just get married, have a couple of kids, and move to the suburbs together?
Folks, what you’ve just witnessed is the immense power of the eye f*ck. It’s the love child of voyeurism and fantasy, fair game to singles and couples alike. And it’s all about capturing fleeting moments of intimacy. Eye contact is so powerful that a 2020 study by the Alfred Kordelin Foundation found that it can establish a social, sexual, or emotional bond, thereby releasing a trickle of Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone” — even on Zoom calls. And amid a pandemic that left many isolated, lonely, and sexually frustrated, the eye f*ck reigns supreme as horny MVP.
Deep, longing stares are the closest many can or will get to arousal right now. For one split second, you get to imagine what it would be like to rip a random’s clothes off or sniff their hair while you’re big-spooning their body. Then the moment passes, and you return home wash your hands and avoid watching the news, the cheap thrill of the eye f*ck lingering in the back of your brain like a software update.
“I’d hold eye contact with other shoppers in the checkout line, just to feel something.”
When the pandemic started, Kacey,* 26, started having her groceries delivered. “I became starved for human connection,” she tells Bustle. “I started going in-person to Trader Joe’s once a week, partly because everyone who shops there is so hot. I’d hold eye contact with other shoppers in the checkout line, just to feel something.”
Autumn,* 25, has been quarantining with her partner for over a year, seeing each other every single day. “Don’t get me wrong; I love her so much,” she tells Bustle. “But I miss experiencing new things, together and separately. Every day, I go for a 30-minute walk around our neighborhood, and I pass a local coffee shop. The barista and I lock eyes, and it’s such a turn-on. Some days, I imagine would it would be like to have sex on the counter. Other days, I’ll fantasize about running away to Australia together. We’ve never spoken. I don’t even know her name. But it gives me something to look forward to and doesn’t count as cheating.”
And therein lies the subtle appeal: While the world remains locked down, sharing a casual, yet passionate glance with someone you may never see again or actually communicate with is a low-stakes fantasy. The ecstasy is temporary in nature because you know that it can never develop into something more. Unlike a regular hookup, the allure of an eye f*ck is that exists in a world without consequences. The risks are minimal, but the rewards are high.
But as vaccine rollout increases and states begin to open back up, the innocence of prolonged eye contact faces extinction. After all, without COVID-19 acting as a barrier, there’s nothing stopping a willing participant from acting on an eye f*ck by taking things to the next level and opening up an actual dialogue. In a post-pandemic world, fantasy can too quickly become a reality. Locking eyes will lead to many things: awkward conversations, heated embraces, loyalties tested. It will once again be thought of as a precursor to an act instead of the act itself.
Still, I will miss the simplicity and purity of a good, meaningless eye f*ck. The foreplay of an eye flutter, the climax of a clean, direct stare, and the aftermath of an averted gaze. It’s not love; after a year locked inside our homes, compulsively checking our temperatures — it’s living, baby.”
*Names have been changed. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.