Why Sex Doesn’t Gross You Out When You’re Aroused

Getting turned on overrides women's natural disgust response, a study suggests, making them more willing to do things they otherwise wouldn't

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If you think about it, sex is actually sort of disgusting, what with all the sweat, saliva, fluids and smells. So much so that a group of researchers from the Netherlands got to thinking, How do people enjoy sex at all?

According to their small new study, people — at least women — may be able to get over the “ick” factor associated with sex by getting turned on. Sexual arousal overrides the natural disgust response, the researchers found, and allows women to willingly engage in behaviors that they might normally find repugnant.

The study, conducted by scientists at the University of Groningen, involved 90 women who were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group watched a “female friendly” erotic video; another watched a video of high-adrenaline sports like skydiving or rafting, designed to be arousing but not sexually so; and the third group watched a neutral video clip of a train.

Afterward, all the women were asked to perform 16 tasks, most of them icky, like drinking from a cup with a bug in it (the bug was fake), wiping their hands with a used tissue, eating a cookie that was next to a live worm or putting their finger in a tray of used condoms.

(MORE: The Ancient Sexual Revolution that May Have Spurred Human Monogamy)

The researchers found that the women who watched the sexually arousing video rated the unpleasant tasks as less disgusting than did their counterparts who were not sexually aroused. They were also more likely to complete more of the tasks, suggesting that sexual arousal not only dampens the disgust response but also influences how much women are willing to do.

That helps explain why so many people keep having sex, despite the inherent messiness of it, the researchers said. “The findings indicate that both the impact of heightened sexual arousal on subjective disgust and also on disgust-induced avoidance will act in a way to facilitate the engagement in pleasurable sex,” the authors wrote. Previous studies suggest that sexual arousal has the same effect on men.

“I think this study is interesting in that it helps support the idea that sexual arousal lowers inhibitions and often enables one to participate in activities that they might normally find disgusting or off-putting,” Dr. Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and author based in New York City who was uninvolved with the study, told ABC News.

(MORE: Penis Size: It May Be Written in the Length of His Fingers)

The findings may also shed light on conditions involving sexual dysfunction. Lack of sexual arousal may interfere with healthy sex by failing to dampen the disgust factor, the authors said. Essentially, if women are not appropriately aroused before sex, they may find it even more repulsive and increasingly start to avoid it. Low arousal can also render women physically unable to enjoy sex, the authors said:

As a result, this could lead to problems with sexual engagement, and lack of vaginal lubrication, which in turn could increase friction and cause problems such as pain with intercourse. It is thus possible that in extreme cases the woman might acquire negative associations with sex and might start to avoid sexual intercourse altogether.

The authors call for further research among larger groups, including participants suffering from sexual dysfunctions.

The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

MORE: What the U.S. Can Learn from the Dutch About Teen Sex

196 comments
CharmanePuck
CharmanePuck

Absolutely. Sexual arousal most definitely plays a role in limiting our perceptions of disgust within sexual intercourse. I am a young female who still struggles with the concept of sex on a daily basis but in the state of arousal I really seem to forget about all my values and beliefs on private parts and why they are disgusting to me.

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paulsmith1988
paulsmith1988

Consider sexual arousal as the second stage of lovemaking. To start with, you need to engage in sexual relations then after that, through foreplay and closeness, you turn into excited. Anyhow if its all the same to is stating "yes" and your physique isn't tuning in, you could be experiencing sexual arousal jumble (Sad). 

SwaggaCat
SwaggaCat

In my opinion, sex isn't "disgusting" or "gross", and anyone who think it is is must be extremely immature or doesn't understand anything about it. It's a natural thing that you do with your lover, and a very nice thing at that.
And a little something, why point out the bug was fake but still let them touch used condoms?!

lindsncal
lindsncal

Innately....naturally...those gross things are there to attract us. We've just been indoctrinated to not respond to our instincts but to think they're gross.

For thousands of years, when a woman was expecting her husband back from battle, she would purposely not bathe for a while because those 'gross' things are instinctively used to attract us.

delder
delder

It's all about hormones. Before puberty and after menopause it is hard to understand why people get into such humiliating positions and make such fools of themselves.

mrone
mrone

Maybe it was not due to arousal but because they though that sex is "dirty"?  As a follow up study, have them shovel horse manure and than see if icky things are still as icky as before.

TinaMoore
TinaMoore

Sex is icky if you're attempting to have it with someone you are not attracted to.  If the attraction is there, almost nothing is "icky".  Just my opinion.

rhill
rhill

The bug was fake but used condoms were okay?

grichens
grichens

"The authors call for further research...'

Natch.

govett
govett

The Internet abounds with ick, yet it grows apace. Is there an Internet arousal unbeknownst to me?

spacedingo
spacedingo

To assume that sex is gross to begin with is just wrong.

BTW, in an episode of Family Guy - when Brian looks into his girlfriend's car window and sees her having sex with Cleveland, Cleveland says "Close the window; you're letting the stank out". Later in the episode Quagmire says the exact same.

MatthiasLehmann
MatthiasLehmann

Interesting, but why the exclusive focus on women only?

ellisfurman
ellisfurman

I do hope these eggheads included "anticipation" of an orgasm in their report of possible reasons, especially in the group that watched the erotic film.

Beethoven999
Beethoven999

I think because your mind is on another thing rather than what you are actually doing. 

FrankYosso
FrankYosso

over looked is a women's desire to please and make her partner [male or female] happy...sometimes arousal plays no part in the act....her pleasure comes from pleasing...

crucesignati
crucesignati

Since when is imagery of a train "neutral."  :)

LorenSoyka
LorenSoyka

careful, don't let that thing touch you, and definitely don't get any on you. and women wonder why they get dumped at middle age because they won't do it anymore or their man turns to porn or a girlfriend for a substitute.

OregonStream
OregonStream

People can have particular activities that the "ick factor" inhibits if they're not already aroused, and sub-par hygiene could also be an issue. But many people get aroused 'thinking' about sex. So how icky can they find it, if the fantasy PRECEDES the arousal?

CarmenSepulveda
CarmenSepulveda

Wow, this is the first time I've read Time in years and I can't believe how similar it is to the sensational rags at the supermarket checkout line.  Entertaining drivel!

LexyDermengin
LexyDermengin

@gruffghost "...and the third group watched a neutral video clip of a train."

kadsura
kadsura

"The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE." 

I've gotta say, some of the shittiest papers I've read were from plos one. I wish the editors were more seletive in choosing higher-quality studies not just these eye-popping ones.

BartEdwardSimmons
BartEdwardSimmons

If people had sex before the advent of modern deodorant and regular baths without being grossed out, It does not take a scientific study to prove in todays world why we are doing it like horny rats every chance we get lol!

ScrubPuppy
ScrubPuppy

I've never met a woman who couldn't get past the Icky Factor.  They all come around eventually.  Yes, it might require effort on the part of their partner, but once there, it's all gravy.  

ralph.dratman
ralph.dratman

@CharmanePuck I'm glad to read that someone else had already become aware of this well in advance of reading the article. I've been thinking about ideas closely related to those discussed here for several years. I've come to the conclusion that most of us have a vast split in our perception of our own (and others') sexual behavior.

Seen from the perspective of a naive child, sex is more than anything else just a very strange, even nonsensical idea. I think most children have that or a similar reaction at some point when first learning about the mechanics of sexual intercourse. The whole concept sounds crazy. In later years we do our best to get used to this strange idea, and also we find in ourselves unexpected longings for pleasure of a kind we know involves some kind of sexual, coupling behavior. 

It seems to me that the impression that sex is crazy and dangerous does not go away. These disparate ideas and feelings have to coexist in our minds. One of my reactions to realizing all this is a sense of indignation that my mind has not been entirely my own. Desire acts like a drug administered to change a person's mood and even their thoughts. To put the matter in an extreme way, it is as though we are all being continually molested and traumatized by our own desires.


One more point. I have the idea that these contradictory perceptions, while troubling to both sexes, cause more practical problems for females, especially females in the late teenage years, than for males of the same age. If that turns out to be true, I suggest it is a more serious problem for young women simply because the idea of allowing one's body to be penetrated by some other person seems more dangerous and crazier than the idea of penetrating someone else. Seen from the child's world, without the influence of sexual desire, the female role in sex sounds seriously scary and dangerous.

submandave
submandave

@ellisfurman The researchers were obviously trying to find a way to improve their chances of scoring.

mightyobvious
mightyobvious

@HariMirchein Lol, no, just messy. And disgusting... ;)

ralph.dratman
ralph.dratman

@FrankYosso There is some of that in men too. I'm not convinced that sexual desire itself is essentially different between human males and females. But of course the anatomical details are different!

KarenDiaz
KarenDiaz

@LorenSoyka Wow, what a dumb response Loren. Bow down the man, huh?! You're ridiculous.

MarkinFL
MarkinFL

@CarmenSepulveda How is this sensational? Sure sex is heavily invested in sensation but this article is hardly sensational. Its actually pretty basic stuff. Just getting into the details of sexual function which may help with understanding dysfunction. Useful but hardly surprising considering that sex is pretty common.

gruffghost
gruffghost

@LexyDermengin i like how your favorite line was my favorite line too

HariMirchein
HariMirchein

@mightyobvious Ah, but it gells in eventually becoming a taste :)

N_Jessen
N_Jessen

So it depends on whether one perceives the actual act as much grosser than the fantasy. That probably varies a bit. On the other hand, fantasizing about eating a fat live stink bug might be about as repulsive as the act itself to most. :-)

LexyDermengin
LexyDermengin

@gruffghost "What's the unsexiest thing in the world? Ah yes. Trains."

ralph.dratman
ralph.dratman

@N_Jessen Whichever is more repulsive -- the act or the fantasy of the act -- it seems certain that they are different -- assuming one has never eaten such a bug before.

gribbleman
gribbleman

Yeah - that was the first thing I thought of too.

MarkinFL
MarkinFL

@LexyDermengin I suppose they avoided shots of it going in and out of tunnels.