Santa Lucia - Neurosciences and Rehabilitation Sapienza University of Rome

Q J Exp Psychol (Hove). 2021 Jul 9;17470218211031557. doi: 10.1177/17470218211031557

Wearing same- and opposite-sex virtual bodies and seeing them caressed in intimate areas

Immersive virtual reality enables people to undergo the experience of owning an artificial body and vicariously feeling tactile stimuli delivered to it. However, it is currently unknown how such experiences are modified by the sexual congruency between the human and the artificial agent. In two studies, heterosexual men (Experiment 1) and women (Experiment 2) embodied same-sex and opposite-sex avatars and were asked to evaluate the experience (e.g., pleasantness, erogeneity) of being touched on social or intimate areas of their virtual body by a male or female avatar. Electrocardiogram and galvanic skin response were also recorded. Moreover, participants' implicit and explicit gender biases were examined via a gender-potency implicit association test and the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory. When embodying a same-sex avatar, men and women rated caresses on intimate areas from an avatar of the opposite sex as more pleasant and erogenous. Conversely, body swap-that is, wearing an opposite-sex avatar-enhanced participants' perceptions of pleasantness and erogeneity for caresses on intimate areas from a same-sex toucher. This effect was stronger in men than in women. Furthermore, physiological correlates of enhanced processing of arousing stimuli predicted behavioural outcomes during the body swap illusion. Wearing an opposite-sex avatar affects one's own body representations and may have important implications on people's attitudes and implicit reactivity to touch-mediated interactions. Men seem more susceptible to this type of body swap illusion. Our paradigm may induce profound changes of cross-sex perspective-taking and provide novel tools for promoting empathy and comprehension of sex-related diversity.

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