“When you have a sexual encounter, for most people, when the arousal isn’t there anymore, you think ‘Hey, what did I do? Did I do that?!’” Charmaine Borg observes.
Unfortunately, for some women it doesn’t work that way. It was a study of women’s sex problems that set Borg on the trail of sex and yuckiness at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. She was looking into dyspareunia, or pain during intercourse, and vaginismus, when the vagina tenses up so tightly that intercourse just isn’t possible.
Borg and her team wondered if women suffering from these problems tended to find sex more disgusting than other women do. The answer, they found, was a resounding yes.
This set them thinking how they could look at the other side of the coin: what happens normally when healthy women have sex?
Borg and her team recruited 90 volunteer women and persuaded them to carry out a series of disgusting tasks. They then watched just how far the women would go, and how much the tasks made them go ‘bleurch!’
However, before the women got started on the tasks, they had to watch a film. Some were shown a ‘neutral’ film of a train ride, some a high-adrenalin sports film, while others got to watch an erotic movie.
The team devised a sliding scale of tasks to test the women’s squeamishness. Some had nothing to do with sex – like drinking from a glass with an insect floating in it. Others were specifically sex-related.
“For instance we had a few condoms that looked wet, so they gave the impression they were used, and the woman had to put her finger in inside them,” Borg explains. “Or the person had to pick up a pair of dirty woman’s panties and put them in the laundry bag.”
A task like lubricating a penis-shaped vibrator wasn’t enough to faze most of the women. But other tasks were “a bit more harsh”, as Borg puts it. That’s putting it mildly.
“They had to look at a graphic picture of a woman being penetrated by a dog. Then they had to imagine they were the person in the picture, and say ‘I feel really horny with the dog inside me.’”
Did the mood-setting movie make a difference? Sure enough, the women who had first been warmed up with a sexy film were less disgusted by the tasks. What’s more, they were prepared to do more of the hardcore ones.
So Freud was right. When we’re seized by sexual passion, we stop caring about things slimy, smelly and gloopy.
“Sex and disgust are two very strong emotions that are competing,” says Borg. They’re both important instincts – sexual arousal for reproduction, disgust to protect us from disease or poisons. “So the two emotions are both very strong, but they can’t go together. If one is high, the other is low.”
For women suffering from painful intercourse, it seems they’re just not getting turned on enough to suppress their natural feelings of disgust at the yuckier side of sex, Borg concludes.
So what’s going on inside our heads? Is the suppression of disgust purely psychological, or is it triggered by brain chemicals? One thing we do know is it’s affected by a woman’s menstrual cycle, Borg points out. The more fertile you are, the less you’ll be disgusted by sex. She’s now taking the research further by using MRI scans to see what the disgust suppression mechanism looks like inside women’s brains.
Meanwhile, perhaps there’s a take-home lesson for guys here. When you make love, take your time and make sure you’re really getting her aroused. Otherwise you may well leave her feeling less horny than queasy.
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