Sex Ed

Does Sexual Arousal Override Feelings of Disgust?

September 17, 2012 by Justin Lehmiller

“A man who will kiss a pretty girl’s lips passionately may perhaps be disgusted at the idea of using her toothbrush, though there are no grounds for supposing that his own oral cavity, for which he feels no disgust, is any cleaner than the girl’s.” – Sigmund Freud

Sweat. Saliva. Sexual fluids. Outside the context of a sexual encounter, all of these bodily secretions have a tendency to be viewed as, well, kind of gross. But during sexual activity, people don’t mind them at all and, in fact, some of us derive great pleasure from them. This begs the question of how something that normally disgusts us could be viewed so differently when we’re in bed. A new study suggests that feelings of sexual arousal may serve to override our disgust impulses.

In this research, a group of 90 sexually healthy, heterosexual women were randomly assigned to watch one of three 35-minute videos depicting either “female friendly erotica” (the sexual arousal group), outdoor sports including sky diving and mountain climbing (the general, non-sexual arousal group), or a train-ride (the no arousal control group). Afterward, participants were asked to engage in 16 seemingly disgusting tasks, some sexual and some non-sexual in nature. On a side note, this is probably where my university ethics board would start to get concerned. For instance, in one task, participants were asked to “stick your finger in the bowl of used condoms and touch each one of them.” In reality, none of the condoms inside the bowl had actually been used, but they had been stretched out and covered in lubricant to make them appear used. In another sexual task, participants were asked to put lubricant on a vibrator. One of the non-sexual tasks involved drinking juice from a cup that appeared to have a large insect inside of it. After each task, the women were asked to rate how disgusted they felt by it.

Results indicated that women in the sexual arousal group were more willing to attempt the disgusting tasks regardless of whether they were sexual or non-sexual in nature compared to women in the other groups. In addition, the sexual arousal group rated the sex-related tasks as less disgusting than the general arousal and neutral groups. A similar trend was observed for disgust ratings on the non-sexual tasks, although the sexual arousal and general arousal groups did not significantly differ in this case.

These results suggest that sexual arousal may at least partly diminish feelings of disgust, thereby allowing us to do things during sex that we might find unappealing in other contexts. Of course, this research is limited in a few ways. For one thing, they only studied heterosexual women. In addition, although sexual arousal did reduce feelings of disgust, participants still perceived most of the tasks as being reasonably disgusting (it wasn’t like they suddenly loved doing these things), which tells us that arousal does not completely override disgust. Moreover, the researchers looked only at disgust toward specific solitary activities, not disgust toward a specific sexual partner, which may be viewed very differently. Nonetheless, these results provide a fascinating basis for future research and may actually have practical implications for our understanding of sexual dysfunction (e.g., disorders involving low sexual arousal may prevent attempts at restoring sexual activity because feelings of disgust are too strong).

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To read more about this research see: Borg, C., & de Jong, P. J. (2012).Feelings of disgust and disgust-induced avoidance weaken following induced sexual arousal in women.PLoS ONE 7(9):e44111.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044111

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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