Sexual arousal weakens feelings of disgust in women

Sexually aroused women are less likely to feel disgust and are less likely to avoid performing disgusting tasks than their non-sexually aroused counterparts, according to a new study by Dutch clinical psychology researchers at the University of Groningen.

As pointed out by the researchers, the ability of humans to enjoy sex is somewhat paradoxical, since the stimuli involved in the act of sex (e.g. saliva, sweat, semen, and body odours) are generally perceived as disgusting when taken out of context, probably due to an evolved association of them with disease. Potential explanations proposed by the researchers are that sexual arousal temporarily reduces the disgust-eliciting properties of particular stimuli, or that sexual arousal weakens the hesitation to confront these stimuli.

To test these hypotheses, the researchers rounded up 90 heterosexual female university students and divided them into 3 groups: a sexual arousal, a non-sexual positive arousal, and a neutral control group. The participants were shown different film clips to elicit the desired mood state: the sexual arousal group watched "female-friendly erotica," the non-sexual positive arousal group watched extreme sports, and the neutral control group watched footage of a train ride.

After watching the clips, the participants were asked to perform 16 behavioural tasks, split into four "disgust types" (core, contamination, animal-reminder, and moral disgust), involving sex-related and non-sex-related stimuli, to measure the impact of sexual arousal on feelings of disgust and actual avoidance behaviour.

The tasks ranged from relatively tame (e.g. taking a sip of juice with a large insect in the cup) to moderate (e.g. lubricating a vibrator) to fairly horrific (e.g. sticking a needle into a real cow's eyeball; hugging a shirt that they were told had been worn by a paedophile during a rape (NB: the shirt was actually new and clean)). The women had to rate each task and watch additional clips in between.

The sexual arousal group not only rated the sex-related stimuli as less disgusting compared to the other groups, they also tended to rate the non-sex-related stimuli as less disgusting. Participants in the sexual arousal group also performed the highest percentage of both sex- and non-sex-related behavioural tasks.

According to the researchers, their findings suggest that high sexual arousal may facilitate common sexual behaviours in spite of the normally disgust-inducing stimuli associated with them, and furthermore that low sexual arousal might be a key factor in the maintenance of certain sexual problems or dysfunctions.

However, the authors note that their categorisation of tasks as disgusting, sex-related, and non-sex-related may not have matched the subjective notions of sexual arousal and disgust in the study participants (in other words: you never know what turns some people on).

The study, entitled "Feelings of Disgust and Disgust-Induced Avoidance Weaken following Induced Sexual Arousal in Women," was recently published in the open access journal PLoS ONE. You can access the full study here.

Carly Blair


Carly Blair



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