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Study: Sexual Arousal Staves off Disgust

Women were less grossed-out by a litany of gag-inducing tasks (like sticking their hand into a bucket of used condoms) when they were sexually aroused. A proposed evolutionary advantage, says science

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PROBLEM: Why don't we think sex is gross? Why didn't my high school health teacher's declaration that the three S's of sex are "sticky, sweaty, and smelly" convince us all that abstinence is the way to go?

METHODOLOGY: Film clips were used to induce states of either sexual arousal, non-sexual (adrenaline-based) arousal, or neutrality were induced in 90 female subjects. The women were then asked to complete 16 different disgusting tasks, categorized as morally disgusting, animal-remainder disgusting, contamination-based disgusting, or sexually disgusting. For example: Handling a piece of feces-smeared toilet paper, drinking from a cup that had an insect at the bottom, or sticking their finger into a bowl of used condoms.The tasks were actually only fake-gross -- so, they were actually touching new condoms with lubricant. They were also allowed to opt out of any of the particular tasks. But still. The wonders of the scientific method. 

The women in the various states of arousal then rated how disgusted each task left them feeling, on a scale from zero to 100. 

Also, if you're interested, the "female friendly erotica" used to induced sexual arousal was "de Gast by Christine le Duc.

RESULTS: The sexually aroused subjects were less grossed-out by the sex-related gross tasks than the other participants. They also found the non-sex-related gross tasks to be less disgusting than the others did, but to a lesser extent that did not reach statistical significance. The sexually aroused group also opted out of fewer tasks.

CONCLUSION: The instinctual response of revulsion to most gross stimuli is somewhat dampened by sexual arousal. 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.

The full study, "Feelings of Disgust and Disgust-Induced Avoidance Weaken Following Induced Sexual Arousal in Women," is published in the journal PLoS ONE .

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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