Are Some Things Universally Sexually Disgusting

A black man facing the camera, eyes closed, looking disgusted.
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Ask a room full of people what disgusts them about sex and you’re bound to get a range of responses: sloppy kisses, adult babies, bad grammar during dirty talk, toe rings, etc… 

But is there a difference between something grossing us out and something that triggers an involuntary disgust in us?  

And are there some things we all find sexually disgusting?

A group of researchers, called disgustologists for reasons that will soon become clear, have been trying to figure this out.


What Is Disgust Theory?

The theory is that disgust is a hardwired, universal response in humans which evolved as a protective mechanism.  We are disgusted by things that pose a threat to our wellbeing and survival via some form of "external contamination".   

On some level this makes sense.  Why not build in a sort of alarm system for future generations so we are more likely to avoid things that could kill us?  

One group of researchers wanted to explore what this looks like in a sexual context.  After surveying a group of undergraduates about which bodily fluids they found most disgusting, the team wonder why it was that so many of the things we encounter during sex (saliva, sweat, semen, body odor to name a few) were ranked as highly disgusting.  

We need to have sex to survive.  But (according to their one small survey) we're disgusted by things we often encounter while having sex.  

The Arousal Disgust Connection

Not as catchy as the rainbow connection, but it's their theory.


The researchers hypothesize that sexual arousal reduces the disgust response enough to allow us to enjoy sex.   When we're turned on our disgust response is softened, and so we aren't disgusted by things we might otherwise be in a different context. 

They also suspect that sexual dysfunction (like vaginismus) could be a problem of too much disgust and not enough arousal.

They first tested this theory in a paper published in the online journal PLoS ONE titled "Feelings of Disgust and Disgust-Induced Avoidance Weaken following Induced Sexual Arousal in Women".   Parts of this paper are incredibly funny, parts are absolutely disgusting. 


The Experiment

To test their theory they recruited 90 heterosexual women to experiment on.  Here's where it gets funny, disgusting, or just plain weird, depending on your perspective.

Each woman was put in a room with a one way mirror (so they could be observed by the researchers but not observe the researchers observing them).  Each woman watched one of three film clips.  One clip was taken from "female friendly erotica," another was "sports/high-adrenalin arousal clip", and the third was from a film of a train ride where they see different sceneries out the window.  As they watched the film, it would stop and they would be instructed to observe and then complete a total of 16 tasks.  The tasks were meant to illicit disgust.  Here are some of the tasks they were asked to observe and then complete:

  • Take a sip of the juice from a plastic cup with a large insect in it.
  • Remove a piece of used toilet paper from the jar and put it back in place.
  • Stick your finger in a bowl of used condoms and touch each one of them.
  • In this dish is a cow's eyeball.  Stick a needle in it.  
  • See this shirt in the bag?  This shirt belongs to a paedophile, it was used during rape.  Take the shirt out of the bag and hug it.

A complete list of all sixteen tasks is available as an appendix to the paper.  Most of these tasks were, of course faked (the insect was plastic, the toilet paper had die on it, the condoms were new and they used lube to simulate ejaculate, the shirt was new, and had never been worn by anyone).  Some were real (the cow eye came from a butcher and a new one was purchased each day).

They would watch one film, be given a task, and could chose to complete them or not. They were also asked to rate their level of disgust.  Between tasks they watched more of the film.

The author's found that people who watched the erotic film rated all the tasks as less disgusting than the other groups.  They interpret this to be evidence that when we are aroused we're less disgusted by things.

They Really Did This?

They did!  Social science at work.  If you think this sounds ridiculous you aren't alone (and lots of academics would agree with you).  But this is how social scientists try and test their theories.  Whether you believe that anything done in that lab has any relevance to sexual activity outside a lab is a matter of choice, or maybe faith.  Certainly there's no way of proving it one way or the other.

The Bottom Line on Sexual Disgust

Sexual disgust and sexual arousal are undoubtedly connected to the hardwired parts of who we are:  the hormones, the brain chemistry, the blood and muscle.  Evolution plays some role here. And the authors of the above study have continued their work developing more arguments for how sexual arousal might change the way we feel about things we might initially be disgusted by. 

But we experience both in a social and cultural context, and that context isn’t just an afterthought or a screen through which we play out our hardwired destinies.  Our culture and society and the communities we grow up and live in are inseparable from who we are.

Practically speaking, we shouldn’t confuse the idea of evolutionary danger with reasons to not engage in sex today.  Even if the research is right, and we are disgusted by, say, feces, it isn’t a reason to never engage in anal sex.  After all the risk of almost every kind of sexual activity can be minimized by considering safer sex practices from a harm reduction perspective.

The disgustologists don’t seem interested in using their research to discourage individuals from exploring their sexual desires, no matter who thinks they might be disgusting.  But since we’re all primed to feel some shame about our desires, it’s a point worth remembering, and ending on.