Just One Look: Hooking Up


Eye contact is one of the first components of a sexual relationship.

I watched a young couple having dinner, noting that the whole evening passed without them looking at anyone else in the room. She did a lot of "gender signaling”—she tossed back her head, and smiled and laughed a lot--acting as though she found her young man profoundly entertaining.

Just as I got ready to pay the check, a guy sitting only two tables away came up to the young couple. “Hi Michael!” he said with some excitement. “You didn’t even notice we were sitting right there!” He pointed to his wife and baby in close proximity.

It turned out that this man was Michael’s brother. For his part, Michael’s gaze was so locked into his date’s face, he was completely unaware of his family’s nearby presence! This group created quite a stir. And as I walked out, I couldn’t resist adding my two cents: “This has got be your first date!” I proclaimed.

“How did you know?” they asked with incredulity. Although this couple was totally unaware of the signals they were sending, once again the eyes had it.

Eye contact is one of the first components of a sexual relationship. It communicates the intensity of our feelings. Just watch people on a date. They will “make eyes at each other.” Often during flirtatious interactions, there is a moderate degree of eye contact while more seductive behaviors are usually characterized by more gazing--the “look of love” immortalized in Burt Bachrach’s song.

Sexual attraction is generally communicated through extended eye contact. Julius Fast claims, "Most men direct a three second-plus look at attractive women; and attractive women are usually not surprised by the duration of the look. If it is held for longer than three seconds, however, the signal that is conveyed is that of sexual interest.” Such an extended look suggests a wish for further involvement.

Additionally, flirtatious behavior for a woman can also include the demure glance downward. “Bedroom eyes,” a woman’s soft, drooping lids, are quite seductive and sidelong glances can indicate deference.

In fact, eye contact is so important, it can be the first step toward making a connection—“just one look, that’s all it took.” In the courtship ritual where the norm generally is that the man is the initiator, eye contact provides a face-saving function. It’s off-record nonverbal behavior. Ken can glance at Marla across a crowded singles bar without going on record and opening himself to her rejection. He tests the waters by looking at her. She notices. If she’s uninterested, she averts her gaze, and usually contact is ended. But if she returns his look, this indicates that she might be attracted to him. Emboldened by their mutual gaze—now seen as an invitation—Ken may initiate further interaction by moving closer and striking up a conversation. “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”

Women may rely on the man to be the sexual initiator, however they don’t take kindly to unwanted wandering eyes—a man who looks them up and down in preparation of a sexual advance. I call it elevator eyes. In a work situation, such a leer could be grounds for a sexual harassment complaint. Yet I know it is quite prevalent based on my work as an expert witness and on the countless reports I receive from women attending my seminars. “He’s not making eye contact with me,” the female participants gripe, “He’s looking at my breasts!” Women attending my seminars in the late 70s and 80s would threaten to hang notes on their blouses saying, “Don't look here; look at my face!” You will rarely hear the reverse—men protesting that women are ogling their crotches.