In a recent study, academics at the Department of Psychology, Northern Illinois University, USA, point out that to have sex, we have to overcome strong feelings of disgust.

Their study, published in the journal “Archives of Sexual Behaviour,” begins with the point that basically the human body is pretty disgusting. It secretes fluids and harbors germs and previous research has established to the satisfaction of scientists that, generally, we find contact with anything that has been in a stranger’s body orifices extremely unpleasant.

Yet, despite all that possible repulsion of such orifices and secretions, we still engage in sex.

The authors of the study entitled “Effects of Subjective Sexual Arousal on Sexual, Pathogen, and Moral Disgust Sensitivity in Women and Men,” point out that the act of physical intimacy presents us with an evolutionary dilemma: we are simultaneously driven to avoid contamination from potentially dangerous substances and yet we are also compelled to attain mates, as we do need to pass on our genes.

Ellen Lee, James Ambler and Brad Sagarin, the authors of the study, found a possible way nature has resolved this dilemma: an evolved internal mechanism in our brains that inhibits disgust in “reproductively-relevant situations.”

Arousal Reduces Disgust?

The study found that in women, sexual arousal significantly reduced sensitivity to sexual disgust. The authors argue that their findings support the evolutionary theory that sexual arousal inhibits sexual disgust, which facilitates a willingness to engage in high-risk, but evolutionarily necessary, reproductive behaviors. The authors also argue that this effect could be particularly important for women.

In this research, men showed very low levels of sexual disgust, even when not sexually aroused, indicating a potential ‘floor effect’ – in other words – the measured disgust was so low in the first place that it had nowhere to go in terms of getting lower with sexual arousal.

Previous research has found women more sensitive than men to disgust, particularly to sexual disgust.

However, the authors also say that the item on the sexual disgust subscale that showed the smallest decrease in disgust was the item that explicitly described sexual attention from a disliked source: (‘‘Finding out that someone you don’t like has sexual fantasies about you’’). Subjective sexual arousal does not appear to make unwanted sexual attention or partners more palatable, particularly in women.

But now a brand new study entitled “Disgust and mating strategy” has found that our feelings and attitudes to disgust could be part of our personality and in particular, is linked to our longer-term mating, love or sex strategies.

The study from The University of Texas at Austin, and Bilkent University, Turkey, argues that people generally vary in the attitudes and desire for longer-term, committed relationships versus short-term, uncommitted connections.

Short Term Mating Strategies

The authors, Laith Al-Shawaf, David Lewis and David Buss point out that successful short-term mating strategies typically involve multiple sex partners, desire for sexual variety and brief intervals of time before sexual intercourse.

This strategy should be difficult to implement in the presence of high levels of sexual disgust: those with higher levels of sexual disgust are less likely to be comfortable with casual sex, multiple partners and sex that occurs before sufficient information can be acquired about the health and hygiene status of potential mates.

The authors therefore propose that a crucial component of a successful short-term mating strategy is lower sexual disgust. In contrast, less repulsion over certain aspects of sex are not necessary for the successful pursuit of a more monogamous strategy.

In fact, higher levels of sexual disgust may facilitate the implementation of committed mating strategies by inhibiting short-term mating and deterring those in committed relationships from sexual infidelity.

This reasoning suggests that sexual disgust as an aspect of personality should be lower among individuals pursuing a short-term mating strategy relative to those pursuing committed relationships.

The study, published in the academic journal “Evolution and Human Behavior,” found that a stronger disposition toward short-term mating is associated with reduced sexual disgust.

The research asked participants to rate how disgusting they find a variety of potentially repellent situations, for example, “A stranger of the opposite sex intentionally rubbing your thigh in an elevator” and “Performing oral sex.”

A stronger drive toward short-term mating was associated with reduced sexual disgust among both men and women.

The Role of Physical Attractiveness

But the study also found that the relationship between physical attractiveness and short-term mating was significantly stronger in men. More physically attractive men are keener on short-term flings, while more physically attractive women are not more interested in such an approach to their sex lives, compared to less attractive women.

The authors argue that physically attractive women may have a larger number of sexual partners simply because they have more eager suitors, but not necessarily because they are pursuing a “short term mating strategy.”

In this research, women’s attractiveness was not associated with desire for or positive attitudes toward short-term mating.

This absence of a connection between women’s attractiveness and short-term mating psychology suggests not that physical attractiveness activates short-term mating among women, but rather that physically attractive women accumulate a larger number of sex partners, perhaps as a side effect of having a larger number of suitors or by commencing sex at an earlier age.

The authors argue that shorter-term mating looms larger in men’s than in women’s relationship psychology, and is pursued more vigorously by men because as a strategy, it has evolutionary benefits for men, in terms of passing on more genes.

Because physical attractiveness is desirable in a mate, physically attractive individuals should be better able to implement their preferred mating strategy. And because successful short-term mating strategies were more reproductively beneficial for men than women during human evolution, evolutionary reasoning suggests that physical attractiveness should lead men—but not women—to pursue uncommitted mating.

This pattern is apparently mirrored in other species: more attractive male birds devote less effort to parenting when they can translate their physical attractiveness into “extra-pair copulations.”

Perhaps women who are seduced by a physically attractive male should be more wary and keep their disgust levels up?

Young couple photo available from Shutterstock