Warning: This post is long, deals with mature topics of a sexual nature, contains a little swearing, and may also be a potential trigger for some abuse survivors. Additionally, it was written from the perspective of a cisgender, heterosexual woman relating to cisgender, heterosexual men. I apologize in advance for my inability to be more inclusive on this particular subject. Please feel free to contact me if you have suggestions on how to correct any inadvertent cissexist language.
You know the feeling. You’re being watched. You know someone’s eyes are on you because you can literally feel them. Everyone has had this experience at some point.
The eyes are central to communication. They give us important cues about other people’s intentions and emotions. And, as it turns out, human brains are hard-wired to actually detect another person’s gaze. Studies have recorded that certain brain cells fire when someone looks directly at you (even if you cannot see the person).
In addition, our eyes have evolved to have a much greater contrast between the sclera (the white part) and the iris (the colored part), which makes it easier to tell where a person is looking. It also makes our eyes much more expressive. Such features would be a disadvantage in many other species, most notably in predators. However, human survival relies on cooperation and communication; therefore, it is to our advantage to communicate certain things to others through our eyes. Simply put, sometimes you can convey more information with just one look than you can with your entire vocabulary.
Knowing someone is looking at you gives you the opportunity to determine their intentions towards you. Are they friendly? Are they dangerous? Do they want to take what you have? Do they want to share what they have? Are they “throwing sex daggers out of their eyes” at you? (Gratuitous Gilmore Girls reference)
If you are a woman, chances are you are even more attuned to other people’s gazes. After all, we have a lot more to figure out, specifically if the gaze is coming from a man who might be sexually interested in us.
First, let’s assume you are also attracted to said man, he isn’t giving you any weird or creepy vibes so his attention is welcomed, and you lock eyes. What happens next? To get a little science-y on you for a minute, it sets off a chain of chemical reactions in your brain. You can’t control this. Before you even have time to form a conscious thought, your brain has sized the other person up and basically decided if they are a biologically viable candidate for you to…well, mate with. But I digress. This could become another article altogether. Let’s just say, “it could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship,” and leave it that, at least for now.
What happens if you are not attracted to the person gazing upon you? Hopefully nothing. You take notice, maybe even feel a little flattered (you’ve still got “it”), and you both move on with your lives. No harm, no foul.
But, what if the gaze makes you uneasy? What does it mean when you feel violated simply because of the way a man is looking at you? To be blunt, it’s probably because his thoughts are sexually aggressive and he’s “throwing sex daggers” at you with his eyes.
Can someone you are mutually attracted to throw them at you? Sure. Being attracted to someone does not automatically exempt them from being a predator. (Wouldn’t that make dating, and life in general, a whole hell of a lot easier, though?) If you’re actually attracted to a predator, you are more likely to ignore or explain away your discomfort to your own detriment.
The word “daggers” implies, at the very least, that the man wielding them is penetrating you with his eyes, so to speak. And he’s probably not having a “run-of-the-mill” fantasy about you either. More than likely, he is imagining dominating you.
“Sex daggers” are not to be confused with “fuck me eyes” which tell someone they can “have you” if they want you, and can be achieved by both men and women. When you gaze back into them, they are not sexually aggressive or threatening in any way, and they definitely do not appear to have thoughts of domination behind them. If anything, they signal a sort of submission to you. They are meant to say, “take me, I’m yours” (or something). “Sex daggers” (the way I’m talking about) are strictly thrown by male predators, and it’s imperative to remember that not all men do this. If a man makes you feel violated solely by the way he looks at you, listen to your instincts. They are there to protect you. (I am learning to take my own advice, but more on that in a bit.) This is where it can become complicated and confusing if you are like me, even more so when you are also a highly sensitive person. (I’ll touch on the complications later.)
What does it mean to be a “highly sensitive person” (or HSP)?
According to Dr. Elaine Aron, “the highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.
But the key quality is that, compared to the 80% without the trait, they process everything around them much more—reflect on it, elaborate on it, make associations. When this processing is not fully conscious, it surfaces as intuition. This represents a survival strategy found in a [sic] many species, always in a minority of its members.”
If you are the kind of person who likes self-tests, you can take this one (and probably others) to find out if you might be (online tests are not conclusive) a highly sensitive person, but my guess is you already know if you are. 😉 (My total was 19 in case you’re wondering.)
Some who are considered highly sensitive also identify as “empaths” or “empathic” and tend to be “tuned in” to the emotions of those around them. When they say they can “feel your pain,” they really mean it. These are the people who tend to go out of their way to make others more comfortable. I am this way, and I don’t mind admitting that it’s a little self serving. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable either, but let’s be real for a minute. If you’re uncomfortable, I’m uncomfortable. I’m going to do my best to alleviate the discomfort for us both.
If you feel like we’ve suddenly entered “hooey” or “supernatural” territory, I assure you we have not. Everything discussed so far can be explained scientifically. All animals rely on instinct for survival and, I hate to break it to you, but Bloodhound Gang was right: “You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals.” We can’t escape biology.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on this, but I understand it well enough to feel confident saying that anything people tend to view as “intuition” or even “psychic ability” can likely be chalked up to firing brain cells and chemical reactions all going on undetected, (as well as other things I don’t understand well enough to try to explain, but you can google it if you’re bored later), and probably a host of other things we have yet to discover and make sense of. All I can say is, nothing that occurs naturally should be considered supernatural or unnatural.
What makes someone an HSP?
Again, I am not an expert. I’m merely someone with an intense interest in understanding pretty much everything (including myself), and a compulsion to gain as much knowledge on any given subject as my brain can hold. (Evidently, some of it is stickier.) I’m pretty sure this is where a “nature versus nurture” debate could begin, but that’s yet another article.
I can tell you what I believe the contributing factors were in my case. Aside from perhaps having a personality that is conducive to hyper sensitivity and empathy, I was conditioned to be this way from birth due to narcissistic and other forms of abuse. It is a survival mechanism.
You may have learned that 7% of communication is verbal, while the other 93% is made up of vocal variety (tone of voice) and nonverbal cues, such as eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and even things you can’t consciously detect, like pheromones. I don’t necessarily put much weight behind the percentages because I think it’s nearly impossible to measure such things accurately. Improvable statistics aside, however, let’s look at it logically. Is it easy to lie with words? Generally, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. Is it easy to control your body language? Not so much for most people. This is probably because the majority of it goes on “behind the scenes” so we don’t even realize what we’re doing. I pay more attention to people’s actions than their words for this reason. For example, when someone tells you they don’t mean to hurt you, yet they keep doing things they know are painful to you, they are lying. Believe their behavior, not their words.
When you grow up in an abusive environment, particularly if you have a decidedly volatile authority figure, it is in your best interest to learn that person and assess their mood based on their demeanor as quickly as possible to keep yourself safe. When you never know what will set them off, you have to get good at figuring out their moods, and more importantly, their mood swings. If they are already in a bad mood, you avoid them because they will take it out on you. Unfortunately, you can’t always prevent it, though. Some severely toxic people will quite literally be fine one moment, then a raving lunatic the next, for no apparent reason. It is due to their own warped perception and disordered thinking, which is a serious oversimplification, but you get the idea. Circumstances like these programmed me to evaluate other people’s moods within seconds and adjust my behavior accordingly.
Another contribution to my high sensitivity, specifically in regards to sexual energy, is having been sexualized at a very young age. I am not in a place where I’m ready to publicly write about this in depth, but here is what I’m comfortable saying for now. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t acutely aware of my own sexuality and the “power” it possessed. In fact, I was conditioned to believe that was the only thing even remotely “special” about me before I ever hit kindergarten. I was raised on the belief that women are secondary to men, irrational, quite often stupid, and really only good for one thing. Further, if someone “couldn’t resist” me, it was my own fault for being too sexual. (Small children don’t sexualize themselves. Adults do that to them.) I think you probably get enough of the gist without requiring any more details.
Why does everything have to be so complicated?
Remember a long time ago, when I said I would explain the complications for people like me later? You finally made it to later. Because of my childhood, as well as sexual assaults and a rape during my teens and early adulthood, I am much more sensitive to other people’s sexual energy if it is directed at me in particular. It’s probably supposed to protect me. Unfortunately, it all feels like a violation. Even if it’s a totally innocent, involuntary chemical reaction. And it doesn’t even matter if I find the man attractive either. I could be totally digging his treats, but if I get the impression he’s thinking about how I fuck, I’m out. I can’t deal. I don’t want to feel objectified in any way, by anyone, even if I like the person. I know this is not a healthy reaction to have to a healthy sexual interest, though, so I’ve been working through it.
Here’s a little confession I hadn’t told anyone until recently: I’ve never seen another human being and thought, “break me off a piece of that” (or whatever people think when they find someone attractive). In other words, the mere sight of someone has never triggered me to have a sexual thought or even just a feeling. (From what I understand, most people experience this naturally due to the rush of chemicals that occurs when they see someone they like. And now I sound like a total alien, but oh well.) I have the same response to every attractive person I see, regardless of gender. I think some variation of, “now that’s a symmetrical face,” or “wow, isn’t he aesthetically pleasing?” Yeah, I’m just that much of a nerd I guess. Of course, that’s not to say that I’ve never experienced sexual attraction for someone before, but I’ve never experienced it first. The other person has to show an interest in me to begin with…to get my neurons firing or something? (Still not an expert.)
Plus, because of my past experiences, I have a lot of trouble trusting men. Sorry, fellas. Logically, I know you’re not all bad, but I guess I feel safer assuming you are, if I don’t know you. I’m working on that, too, along with everything else.
What’s my point? I am constantly at war with what I’m perceiving and what I think about myself. So, when I get the feeling someone is into me, I automatically talk myself out of it for all of the reasons laid out above. Additionally, narcissistic abuse causes you to second guess yourself on everything. With gaslighting as its backbone, it manufactures self-doubt in its victims. It makes you believe your memory is wrong or that you’re overreacting. When this is a constant in your life from day one, it takes an unimaginable amount of strength and tenacity to rewire the circuitry of your brain, if you can even recognize the necessity for it in the first place. Then there’s the tiny matter of always being excruciatingly uncomfortable with any kind of attention (you don’t want attention from narcissists), but especially that kind. All of this makes determining a man’s intentions towards me almost impossible, and that combined with everything else is why I can’t bring myself to trust them. See? I’ve done a lot of work so far, but there’s so much more ahead of me. It’s daunting to think about it all, so I have to take it one step at a time.
This brings me to the same conclusion my last article did. It is crucial for me to be single and focused on healing myself for a long while. I don’t just have baggage. I have a complete set of beat-up, mismatched luggage that carries way more than you would think… No. Scratch that. I don’t have luggage. I have an entire bag of holding.
I, like everyone else, am a work in progress. I just happen to have been saddled with a lot more work than most. Though it is mind-numbingly frightening at times, I am genuinely grateful for this journey. I don’t know where it will lead me yet, but by the time I get there, my bag of holding will be full of invaluable lessons learned and tools I can use to help others transform their lives for the better.