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Does feeling hot-and-bothered make us more tolerant of disgusting things?

Lia Grainger
Shine On
September 14, 2012

Sex is inherently kind of gross, right?

Well, at least that's the presumption behind a new (and less than scientific) study suggesting women find disgusting things a little less disgusting when they are turned on.

According to the study, "saliva, sweat, semen and body odours are among the strongest disgust elicitors", and yet — wait a minute! All of these things are present in spades during sexual intercourse, so how is it that so many people are having such a good time engaging in such a yucky, dirty activity?

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A group of psychologists in the Netherlands devised a pretty ridiculous experiment in the hopes of finding out. Their questionable scientific method: get a bunch of women to do 16 different "disgusting" things — touch a piece of tissue covered in poo, stick their hand in a bowl of used condoms, or lube up a vibrator, for example. They then showed the ladies a sexy movie (de Gast by Christine le Duc) and had them do all the tasks again. Each time they performed a task, both aroused and unaroused, they rated its grossness on a scale of zero to 100.

And wouldn't you know it, those ladies were able to tolerate the sex-related gross activities much better when they were sexually aroused. From these findings, the team concluded that getting turned on inhibits feelings of disgust, making that horrible thing we call sex possible...even pleasurable. Gasp!

Okay, so what do we do with this information? First, we should examine the many assumptions present in this experiment, starting with the idea that sex is inherently yucky. The Atlantic Blog summarized it thusly.

"The theory is that, because sex can be in some ways gross, but we still need to do it, this adaptive perception has helped us thrive as a species."

But is it not possible that finding things like sweat, body odour and semen disgusting is a socially learned reaction? Is there anything that is really objectively disgusting?

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Naomi McAuliffe of the Guardian thinks not.

"Assuming that everyone finds saliva, sweat, and semen disgusting is not only conjecture, it also overlooks some really fringe stuff that people are into sexually," writes McAuliffe.

And though it doesn't come out and say it, there's some thing about the way this study was designed and executed that seems to imply sex is an icky and revolting thing, and that women are only able to force themselves to do it thanks to some evolutionary trickery that dumbs down their disgust response.

Still the study does have some academic context. In fact, it's prefaced with this quote from Freud himself.

"A man, who will kiss a pretty girl's mouth passionately, may perhaps be disgusted by the idea of using her tooth-brush."

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