Embodying an artificial agent through immersive virtual reality (IVR) may lead to feeling vicariously somatosensory stimuli on one’s body which are in fact never delivered. To explore whether vicarious touch in IVR reflects the basic individual and social features of real-life interpersonal interactions we tested heterosexual men/women and gay men/lesbian women reacting subjectively and physiologically to the observation of a gender-matched virtual body being touched on intimate taboo zones (like genitalia) by male and female avatars. All participants rated as most erogenous caresses on their embodied avatar taboo zones. Crucially, heterosexual men/women and gay men/lesbian women rated as most erogenous taboo touches delivered by their opposite and same gender avatar, respectively. Skin conductance was maximal when taboo touches were delivered by female avatars. Our study shows that IVR may trigger realistic experiences and ultimately allow the direct exploration of sensitive societal and individual issues that can otherwise be explored only through imagination.
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