Disgust and Sexual Arousal: Opposing Forces?
Disgust is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when most people think about sex. Nevertheless, a series of recent studies from our lab suggests that disgust might in fact be an important missing link in the understanding and treatment of sexual problems such as being unable to have sexual intercourse, experiencing pain during sex, or having little sexual desire. Disgust can be seen as a defensive emotional mechanism that causes people to avoid things that may cause infectious disease (e.g., rotten meat; faeces). In other words, disgust helps to protect humans from external contamination by bacteria and viruses. The close physical contact and exchange of bodily fluids that are implied in sexual behavior provide ample opportunity for exposure to bacteria and viruses. Sexual behavior thus represents a direct threat for the transmission of disease. The link between sex and disgust thus seems immediately obvious. Indeed the smells and bodily products -saliva, sweat, and semen- that are involved in sex are among the strongest elicitors of disgust. Moreover, body parts that are critically involved in sexual behavior such as the skin, mouth, and vagina are also a primary focus of disgust; people find it especially gruesome if something disgusting touches their skin or gets in contact with their mouth or other body openings…
Why be involved in these disgusting activities?
In light of the intimate link between disgust and sex, one may wonder how people succeed in having pleasurable sex at all. How can it be explained that sexually mature people generally show a strong appetite for sexual activities — in spite of this strong emotional barrier that works against it? Obviously sexual behavior is critical for procreation. Therefore there must be some mechanism that evolved to balance the goal of ensuring the existence of future generations with the goal of avoiding disease, a mechanism that would allow sexual behavior and at the same time minimize health risks. It has been proposed that perhaps sexual arousal could temporarily reduce the aversive properties of otherwise disgusting stimuli or behaviors. This viewpoint is nicely illustrated in a quote by Sigmund Freud:
“A man, who will kiss a pretty girl’s mouth passionately, may perhaps be disgusted by the idea of using her tooth-brush.”
Does sexual arousal reduce disgust?
To test the idea that sexual arousal might reduce disgust, a group of women without known sexual problems were presented with 16 disgusting tasks in the absence or presence of experimentally induced sexual arousal. Some tasks were sex-related, for example the women were asked to lubricate a vibrator. Other tasks were not sex-related, for example the women were asked to take a sip of juice with a large insect in the cup. To one subgroup of the women we showed a female-friendly erotic film (‘de Gast’ by Christine le Duc) to induce sexual arousal. To another subgroup we showed a video of people rafting, skydiving, and mountain climbing (experiencing a sports high or adrenaline rush). To a third subgroup we showed a neutral film consisting of a train ride going through different sceneries. By including all three subgroups we could compare the effects of sexual arousal (from seeing the erotic film), non-sexual arousal (from seeing the extreme sports film), and no arousal (from seeing the train ride film) on disgust. Supporting the view that people may be less disgusted when sexually aroused, the sexual arousal group found the sex-related stimuli less disgusting compared to the other groups. They also tended to find the non-sex-related stimuli less disgusting. Further, the sexual arousal group was less likely to avoid doing the sex-related and the non-sex-related “disgusting” behavioral tasks. These findings provide direct support for the view that sexual arousal can reduce feelings of disgust and disgust-induced avoidance behavior. Better said, these findings can help explain how we manage to engage in pleasurable sexual activity when we’re at it, even though we find aspects of it disgusting when we’re not.
How can this help people who experience problems having sex?
Our findings suggest that women who experience problems having sex might have low sexual arousal or heightened sexual disgust. This could explain why their problems persist. Something similar might be going on in men with sexual problems. If sexual disgust repeatedly outweighs sexual arousal, an individual may enter a self-perpetuating cycle in which sexual disgust becomes a chronic feature. Clearly this may contribute to low sexual desire, problems associated with low sexual arousal (e.g., erectile dysfunction in men), as well as to male or female orgasm problems. Finally, our findings suggest that reducing sexual disgust might be a relevant target for therapeutic interventions. Currently we are exploring whether strategies to reduce sensitivity to (sexual) disgust might indeed improve the efficacy of traditional treatments for people experiencing problems with sexual intercourse.
Relevant Publications and Links
de Jong, P.J., van Overveld, M., & Borg, C. (2013). Giving in to arousal or staying stuck in disgust. Disgust-based mechanisms in sex and sexual dysfunction. Annual Review of Sex Research, 50, 247-262.