When Disgust Becomes a Sexual Turn-On
September 22, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller
“I felt disgusted, but also very satisfied.”
I just heard this line on an NPR podcast that had absolutely nothing to do with sex—but it really got me thinking because I’ve heard people say similar things about sex on several occasions. Specifically, they fantasized about or performed a sex act that definitely triggered feelings of disgust, but that also simultaneously turned them on.
To many, this might sound paradoxical. After all, disgust is an emotion that usually leads us to avoid something, right? So why does disgust sometimes produce the opposite effect in which we are attracted rather than repelled?
In thinking about this, my brain went to a lot of places—so many, in fact, that I turned off that podcast and just started writing this!
The first thing that comes to mind is that we’ve long known that there is a link between sexual arousal and disgust. Specifically, sexual arousal can reduce disgust, but disgust can also reduce sexual arousal.
For example, as I’ve written before on the blog, our disgust response tends to go down when we’re sexually aroused (see here and here). In other words, things that we might normally find to be gross become less so when we’re already turned on. This makes sense from the standpoint that sex itself can be kind of messy when we’re exchanging body fluids and so forth, so maybe it’s adaptive for us to be less triggered by disgust when we’re having sex.
But at the same time, if you’re already grossed out about something, it can be harder to get in the mood for sex. Evolutionary psychologists think this is about pathogen avoidance: specifically, if a disgust response is triggered, it should lead us to avoid sex in the interest of protecting our health and fertility (e.g., avoiding potential STDs).
While fascinating, neither of these lines of research really tell us why disgust itself sometimes becomes a turn-on. So what’s up with that? I can think of at least three possible explanations.
It might be a learned behavior
As I mentioned above, we know that disgust tends to go down to some degree when we’re aroused—but after we orgasm, that disgust response can come back pretty quickly. I mean, that’s part of the reason why people are often so quick to turn off porn after they’ve orgasmed. They start to feel grossed out by what they’re watching.
So maybe it’s the case that if your disgust response comes back really quickly while you’re still experiencing the pleasure of orgasm that some people start to learn an association between disgust and sexual pleasure.
You can think of this as a conditioning effect: feeling disgusted itself can potentially become rewarding if it’s repeatedly paired with something pleasurable and positive.
It might be more about the appeal of the taboo than anything
Another possible explanation is that disgusting things are also often taboo. We’ve all been told not to do gross things at one time or another. But when you tell people not to do something, that sometimes makes them want to do it even more.
This is a fundamental principle of human sexuality known as the Erotic Equation: attraction + obstacles = excitement. So if you have even a slight inkling to do something disgusting, being told not to do it can increase your interest in it.
As I’ve found in my own research, taboos are one of the most popular themes in our sexual fantasies. So this might not be so much about the fact that something is disgusting; rather it might be more about the fact that it’s taboo.
Sexual taboos might also be especially appealing to people high in sensation seeking tendencies, who need more potent stimuli in order to get aroused in the first place. For them, doing something taboo amps up the excitement factor.
It might be about attraction to power play
Yet another possibility is that doing something disgusting—or being made to do something disgusting by a partner—can be a form of submission, masochism, and/or humiliation.
Think of it this way: there can be a certain pain that accompanies doing something disgusting. But if you’re turned on by pain, then doing something disgusting can potentially become sexually arousing in and of itself.
So through this lens, disgusting sexual acts might sometimes be a vehicle for enacting fantasies or desires about BDSM or power play.
These are just the thoughts that come to mind off the top of my head, so it could be that there are other explanations I’m not thinking of. It’s also potentially the case that there could be more than one explanation and that disgust might become sexually arousing to different people for different reasons.
As I often like to say, human sexuality is complex! And adding further complexity to this is that disgust, in general, is a little different for everyone. For some, disgust is easily triggered across situations (they have what we call high trait-level disgust); for others, their threshold for disgust is much higher.
That said, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this. Have you ever been turned on by something that you also found to be disgusting? What is it about that disgusting thing that is/was arousing to you? Feel free to share your thoughts below!
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & 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.Read full bio >