Pizza Hut has begun testing eye-tracking software with Tobii Technology to predict which pizza toppings you'll order based on what you stare at longest. The company says it has been 98 percent accurate so far.
Let me use this moment to point out that the 1981 Michael Crichton scif-fi thriller Looker starring Albert Finney and Susan Dey, featured technology similar to Pizza Hut's. An evil corporation is hiring models, scanning their images into a computer to use in limitless future commercials, and then disposing of the women. Key to the whole operation is eye-tracking software that shows the company exactly where eyes linger longest. It's supposed to somehow indicate that exactly these boobs and those long legs and that perfectly feathered hair are worth all this murder, but that aside, the concept is kind of amazing.
The idea here is that we look, therefore we want—isn't all of advertising based on this premise? But what does looking and wanting in the context of a relationship really mean? Growing up in the South, I heard from countless girls and older ladies regarding their boyfriends freedom to look, and it was often the same refrain: Oh he can loo-uk, but he knows he cayn't touuch.
I've literally never heard a man say this once about woman, that she can look at other men as long as she doesn't touch. Have you? I have, though, had thousands of debates with girlfriends and guy friends about looking at other people while in a committed relationship and what it means to look. Some people want their significant other to never look at other people when with them. Some people want their significant other to never look at other people ever.
Some women are fine with their dudes looking at other women but not on dates, because it's poor form. Some women are fine with a man agreeing a woman is pretty if the woman points it out first. But not OK if he is all the time bringing it up on his own. Some people don't care who their significant other looks at, even if they are with them, and often joins in on the critiquing or admiration of the other person being looked at.
But in my experience, that other person being looked at is always a woman. I don't know of any couples where the women looks at other men and the man joins in on the fun of talking about why he's hot or worth checking out. This doesn't mean it's not common! I've just never heard it anecdotally and would actually love to hear if it's common for you.
The reason I mention all this is: looking is one of the first boundaries we establish in relationships. It starts with a comfort level at who the other person looks at, and then perhaps moves on to a comfort level with who the other person spends time with, or flirts with, or communicates with to what degree and in what manner, especially given that social media and numerous apps designed for connection make the looking and wanting at an all-time high. You no longer have to leave your house to look all you want, at real people, not just porny fantasies. (Some people are fine with significant others going on and on about celebs who are attractive—"the unattainables"—but not real actual people in your social network.)
Back to eye-tracking software. In a way, we have it with social media, which leaves a trail of where our energy and attention are most focused and for the longest and in what ways we allow people into our worlds. It's the reason Facebook can tell you're about to break up (and according to my friends, they can tell too based on how and when you post and in what way). (I would argue another form of Looker-style eye-tracking software is your Internet history.)
There are other versions, too, such as Tinder. Even though (quite unlike staring longer at the pizza toppings you want) Tinder swiping is more about rapid-fire desire, it's still centered entirely around the gaze and its instant evaluations.
People are messy, everyone is flawed, and we all have a right to our private, daydreamy minds. But when does looking and wanting mean something, and when doesn't it?
I think most people would argue the difference is what, if anything, you do about it. Which is sort of what a recent joint survey between Men's Health and Women's Health magazines inadvertently demonstrates. They polled 1,000 men and women on what they think constitutes cheating and some other gender-based questions of desire and the Telegraph wrote about the results, asking if having a Tinder profile counts as cheating.
Percentages of Gender Who Think Thing = Cheating
While it's interesting that across the board women were more likely to find kissing, sexting and Tinder profile-having as more cheater-y than men do, I think the point here is that obviously, cheating is what you decide it is in your relationship. If you're in an open relationship, say, none of that stuff is cheating provided you've followed whatever rules you plunk down.
I've known people who think kissing does not count as cheating at all, even though, in almost any regard, kissing is somewhat of a sexual act. Sexting is a trickier issue, which I think falls more along the lines of an emotional affair. You haven't "done" anything per se, but you're certainly exchanging privileged information.
And Tinder—it all depends on the swiper. Swiping through picture after picture of potential dates or hookups on an app is a different kind of deliberate than lusting after every looker you pass on the street. (Or: isn't it?) There's always the chance you're doing it for fun. But it's really all about intent: If you have no intention of meeting any of your matches, it seems harmless enough.
Of course, what you're looking at and thinking about when you're with someone else can cross a line in and of itself, even if you do nothing. If you are too consumed by looking at and wanting other things, what's left for you to invest in what you've got?
Which means those Southern ladies were probably right—look, but don't touch. And thank god we don't have real eye-tracking software for relationships. Some things are probably better left untracked.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.