Sex may be one of life's great pleasures, but it also involves a lot that normally might gross people out -- sweat, bodily fluids and body odor, for starters.
A small Dutch study, released Wednesday, set out to identify the psychology that leads women to willingly, and even enthusiastically, engage in sexual activities despite the ick factor. The results, published online in the journal PLoS ONE, indicate that arousal overrides feelings of disgust and facilitates a woman's desire to do something that a woman who is not aroused might find flat-out repulsive.
"Women [who] were sexually aroused were more willing to touch and do initially disgusting tasks," study co-author Charmaine Borg, a researcher in the department of clinical psychology and experimental psychopathology at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, told The Huffington Post.
Borg and her colleagues separated 90 female university students into three equal groups: one watched "female friendly erotica;" one watched a video of extreme sports meant to get them excited, but in a non-sexual way; and one watched a video of a train, meant to elicit a neutral response.
The women were then given 16 tasks, most of them unappealing. They were asked to take a sip from a cup of juice that had a large (fake) insect in it, to wipe their hands with a used tissue and to take a bite from a cookie that was sitting next to a living worm. The women were also asked to perform several sex-related tasks, like lubricating a vibrator.
Women in the "aroused group" said they found both the unpleasant tasks and the sex-related tasks less disgusting than women in the other groups. They also completed the highest percentage of the activities, suggesting that sexual arousal not only decreases feelings of disgust, but directly affects what women are willing to do, the study shows.
Daniel R. Kelly, an associate professor of philosophy at Purdue University and author of the book "Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust" who was not involved in the study, explained that disgust is an "extension of our immune system" that helps prevent people from getting infected by making them wary of things, like bodily fluids, that potentially carry disease or make people vulnerable.
"Disgust is an emotion," he explained. "What it's there for, primarily, is to protect us against eating things that might poison us, or coming into close physical proximity to things that might carry infections. That's its mission."
David Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas Austin and author of "Why Women Have Sex," called disgust a "huge issue for women."
"Women show far more disgust and especially sexual disgust, than men," he said.
Buss concurred with Kelly that the findings are evidence of what "is very likely an evolved psychological defense."
"It helps to protect women from having sex with the wrong men, such as men who might communicate diseases, men who show signs of a high 'parasite load,' men who have poor hygiene and so on," he said.
What is interesting about the new Dutch paper, the two experts agreed, is that it suggests the mission to avoid the potentially "dangerous" parts of sex takes a backseat when women are aroused. "Sexual arousal can override disgust," Buss said.
That not only suggests a potential reason why a woman might engage in behaviors that she wouldn't if she weren't turned on, it might also provide insights into how low-sexual arousal feeds sexual dysfunctions in women, the study's authors argue.
"These findings indicate that lack of sexual arousal may interfere with functional sex, as it may prevent the reduction of disgust and disgust-related avoidance tendencies," Borg explained, saying she hopes the findings prompt further research in this area.