Reading faces

(There will be mansex, talked about in blunt language and with racy (though not actually X-rated) images; not suitable for kids or the sexually modest.)

From The Economist‘s 2/20/20 issue on-line, in the Science and Technology section, “Do not rely on facial expressions for how people are feeling: A smile does not always mean someone is happy” (in print on 2/22, as “Face blind: Facial expressions are not usually a reliable guide to how people feel”):

(#1) Michael Haddad illustration for the piece; interpret this!

(I have a long-standing interest in facial expressions in two contexts: during mansex, and in cruising for sex beween men. In both, I’ve noted how difficult it is to interpret the emotional content of facial expressions — whether as emotional state of the source or as emotional state perceived by an audience. Meanwhile, the expression itself just is; it’s a gesture, and that’s all. It’s just stuff, as I’m fond of saying.)

From the Economist:

Aristotle reckoned the face was a window onto a person’s mind. Cicero agreed. Two millennia on, facial expressions are still commonly thought to be a universally valid way to gauge other people’s feelings, irrespective of age, sex and culture. A raised eyebrow suggests confusion. A smile denotes happiness. A frown indicates sadness.

Or do they? An analysis of hundreds of research papers that examined the relationship between facial expressions and underlying emotions has uncovered a surprising conclusion: there is no good scientific evidence to suggest that there are such things as recognisable facial expressions for basic emotions which are universal across cultures. Just because a person is not smiling, the researchers found, does not mean that person is unhappy.

As Lisa Feldman Barrett, one of the authors of the study, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, told the AAAS meeting in Seattle, “We surprised ourselves”. Dr Feldman Barrett is a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and along with her colleagues she found that, on average, adults in urban cultures scowled when they were angry 30% of the time. Which meant that some 70% of the time they did not scowl when angry. Instead, they did something else with their faces. People also scowled when they were not angry. “They scowl when they’re concentrating, they scowl when someone tells them a bad joke, they scowl when they have gas, they scowl for lots of reasons,” says Dr Feldman Barrett.

A scowl, the researchers concluded, is certainly one expression of anger. But it is not the only way people express that emotion. The ambiguous nature of facial expressions was not restricted to anger, but seemed valid for all six of the emotional categories that they examined: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.

The piece goes on to stress the importance of other non-verbal cues (like posture, hand gestures, and the like; and especially the importance of the context in which the facial expressons occur. And it casts a deeply dubious eye on attempts to use AI programs to “read emotions”.

A particular example. (This is where the carnal guy-on-guy stuff comes. A friendly warning.)

This blog has two Pages on my postings about facial expressions in sexual interactions between men: a Page on “Facial expressions in mansex”; and a Page on “Cruising for sex”, including material on cruise faces. One example from the former, from my 11/25/17 posting “Pillowtalk”, about what I call

… the Ecstatic face, with muscles tensed, mouth wide open or clenched, and eyes shut or unfocused.

The open mouth of the Ecstatic can arise in several other ways: there’s the open mouth of surprise or astonishment, and also the open mouth of the Man in Pain. Without further evidence, it’s hard to tell one from another.

[I provide three illustrations.] The photos are all from gay porn, and all three depict fucks that are presented as deeply pleasurable to the bottoms. … What might look like pain to an outside observer, you’re experiencing as an oceanic wave of intense pleasure.

Detail from the third of these examples: Man at Work fucker, Ecstatic hole, except that the hole could easily be taken to be crying out in pain:


In a number of my gay porn examples, the facial expressions are pretty much inscrutable if you don’t have a lot of context. There are a fair number in which you’re shown what appears to be two guys having an intense friendly conversation while embracing each other, but then it turns out that they’re in mid-fuck, with one of them impaled on the other’s cock. Or you simply can’t figure out what the relationship is like, except that they are heavily into a fuck.

As it happens, one of these puzzles appeared in my e-mail today, from Lucas Entertainment, trying to make hay out of social distancing and sheltering in place during the pandemic. Headers:

Allow the Lucas Men to keep you company during this difficult time!

Don’t Be Stuck Home All Alone [instead, you should subscribe to gay porn from Lucas]

with an arresting pair of men, seen here in a cropped version (they both have excellent standard-issue PSDs (7″, give or take), so you can imagine that part):

(#3) Hole on left, fucker on right (it’s a sit-fuck, a reverse cowboy)

Damned if I know how to read those expressions, but it’s entertaining to imagine captions. Certainly a scene of some drama.

(To inject some real life into this, after some e-exchanges with a straight friend of mine, who also enjoys porn — he’s into pussy, I’m into dick, this isn’t an issue — but who finds, as do I, that the porn is hugely less satisfying at the moment. We both understand that the videos are just fodder for fantasy, when actual bodies aren’t available, and that’s fine, but now if you can’t even touch people, can’t get close enough to people to smell them, the sense of loss is so acute that it’s hard for the porn to do its job.

I suppose we’ll get used to that too. We adjust to deprivation. It’ll take a little while.)

2 Responses to “Reading faces”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    Just as a data point, I read the expression of the man on the right in #3 as apprehensive, essentially asking whether he’s doing it correctly. It strikes that, unless the porn deliberately invokes inexperienced people (which some may do–porn isn’t my thing, so I don’t know the varieties), that’s probably not what they were going for. But then I suspect I’m particularly bad at reading expressions.

  2. smouldering | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] intense attention, dominance, disdain, and more). There’s discussion of this indeterminacy in my 3/28/20 posting “Reading faces”, on how facial expressions in isolation aren’t usually reliable […]

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