Let’s face it: Sex can be kinda gross. With all those body odors and fluids being traded back and forth, it’s no small miracle that humans voluntarily choose to copulate at all. But as scientists from the Netherlands have recently pointed out, our willingness to engage in sexual acts despite the yuck factor may be on account of a built-in psychological mechanism that temporarily reduces our feelings of disgust during sex — at least in women.
The study, which was conducted by Charmaine Borg and Peter de Jong, involved, among other things, 90 women, soft porn, vibrators, lubricants, voodoo dolls, and a glass of juice with an insect in it. Now, while this might sound like a typical Saturday night for most io9 readers, this was serious, scientific stuff. Disgust is an evolved defense mechanism that compels people to avoid things like contamination; why people don’t mind exchanging saliva, sweat, semen, and body odor, therefore, is a question that has baffled psychologists.
To figure out what’s going on, the researchers divided the women up into three groups: those who would be sexually aroused (by the “female friendly erotica”), those who were not sexually aroused, and the third being a control group. Once primed (or not), the women were given a series of behavioral tasks, like wiping their hands with a used tissue (which the participants didn’t know was fake), lubricating a vibrator, touching used condoms (faked), and taking a sip of juice with a large (also fake) insect in it. The women were also given a set of moral tasks, like stabbing a voodoo doll representing a person they hated, or hugging a shirt belonging to a known pedophile (faked).
The intention was to create a series of situations in which the researchers could measure the impact of sexual arousal on feelings of disgust and whether or not certain behaviors would be avoided altogether.
What Borg and de Jong discovered was that sexually aroused women rated the sex related tasks as being less disgusting compared to how the other women felt. And interestingly, they also exhibited a diminished disgust response to the non-sex related tasks and stimuli. In addition, the aroused group was less inclined to avoid certain behaviors outright; they successfully completed the highest percentage of tasks compared to the other groups.
The findings clearly show that there may in fact be a connection between sexual arousal and a diminished disgust response in women. It’s not clear from the study, however, if men are subject to the same effect.
In addition, the study hold implications for treating sexual dysfunction in women. It’s quite possible that women who find sex unpleasurable or gross may either not be sufficiently sexually aroused, or that their induced disgust reduction response is somehow impaired.
The study can be read in its entirety at PLOS.