Evolutionary perspective on female sexual disgust
“One recognizes one’s course by discovering the paths that stray from it” (Lacan, 1975)
Surprisingly, anxiety is not the only thing that inhibits our sexual functioning, there is also disgust to worry about.
Jacques Lacan had some pretty interesting ideas about sex, namely that there was no such thing as a sexual relationship, all sex is just masturbation by means of other people. The controversial intellectual purported the idea that sexual desire is essentially self-centred auto erotic. This, on its own, would seem to entail unlimited openness to sexual experience, but in practice something restricts us to only some pleasure instruments while rejecting others, despite self-centredness of our desire. The only thing that curbs our limitless desire for gratification and cause us to discriminate in regard to who we choose to masturbate with is sexual disgust.
For Lucan disgust was a defining characteristic of human sexuality. Imagine that as a chat up line “get your coat I want to use you as a means to masturbate with because you don’t repulse me” Charming!
Lacan may have a point though, if you think about it the human body is pretty disgusting, we secrete fluids, harbour bacterium and make weird and funny noises, even the thought of coming into contact with strangers’ bodily fluids or orifices can make us sprint to the nearest bathroom to puke! The anus and the vagina are said to be the most intrusion sensitive part of the body and the mouth the most contamination sensitive part. All of which spring into sexy action for the vast majority of sexual encounters.
Despite this abundance of repugnance eliciting factors, we do still manage to keep bumping uglies,
probably because sex is never that straight forward a concept, if it was, I wouldn’t have a job.
Evolution and Sexually Transmitted Contamination threat: Cave People biology
In order to have sexual contact with someone you first need to overcome disgust, even just making out involves the swapping of saliva bleurgh! Disgust is the antithesis of desire and arousal. Disgust functions to avoid proximity whereas successful mating requires close proximity (cave people didn’t have phone sex). Sex provides us with survival dilemma with two competing motivations – the desire to avoid contaminating substances (bodily secretions, fluids, germs and bodily orifices) and the equally powerful motivation to find a mate (or mates, no judgement!).
Sexual disgust does provide an important evolutionary function in that it enables us to avoid problematic mate choices and biologically costly sexual behaviours (cave people didn’t have access to alcohol either). A sensitive disgust response to strong body odour or an unsightly infection protects us from disease transmission from a contaminated sexual partner, however an overly vigilant disgust response means no one is getting laid!
Evolution may have found a solution to this dichotomy in that the brain has an internal mechanism that evolved to inhibit disgust in sexually relevant situations.
Natural selection favoured physiological apparatus that would elevate potential sexual partners based on their suitability for reproductive success and ensure the smelly, insipid looking sapiens were left on the shelf.
Sexual response is navigated by a dual control mechanism by which sexual desire and arousal exist within a harmonious balance between excitatory (come hither!) and inhibitory (stay away!) responses. Sexual excitement systems and sexual inhibitory systems motivate us either in pursuit (lust) or in avoidance (fear or disgust) of sexual encounters and behaviours. When the sexual excitement system (SES) is activated by sexual stimuli it sends messages to the brain that you are in a sexy situation with an acceptable mate choice, this kick starts your arousal process. The sexual inhibitory system (SIS) sends messages to the brain that you are in a threatening situation, at risk in some capacity. Sexual arousal can downplay the significance of objects that may normally gross us out such as saliva and other bodily fluids to allow for a successful sexual encounter, however if a hazard is deemed too higher a risk or a person possesses a sensitive disgust response, threat will most likely quash sex.
Had our distant ancestors not prioritized an imminent danger over a quickie in a cave they wouldn’t have survived long enough to get a happy ending and so our physiology evolved to pay close attention to risk over non-essential activities like shagging.
It’s worth noting here that pathogen/parasite avoidance behaviour will decrease due to food deprivation or loss of mating opportunities. Research has demonstrated that reductions in disgust are, at times, quite specific. For example, Hoefling et al. (2009) measured involuntary facial muscle responses (ick face) in hungry and satiated participants to appetizing food images and disgusting food images (e.g., mouldy food), participants displayed a reduction in domain-specific disgust (in this case, food-related disgust) when hungry meaning disgust reactivity decreases depending on how hungry you are. The same can be said for sex hence why when you’re in a sex drought you may find yourself frantically scraping the mould off your ex!
Gender and Disgust
Researchers maintain that there seems to be a significant gender differences in the subjective experience of disgust, generally and with sexual disgust specifically. Studies found that when shown erotic footage men and women rated the videos differently, with men reporting greater arousal and anxiety and women reporting greater disgust and curiosity. Women have also been shown to display greater disgust reduction when they are sexually aroused than men.
Evolutionary biologists argue this gender disparity in disgust susceptibility is due to the fact that for cis women sex involves greater risk. Cis Women are anatomically more predisposed to sexually transmitted infections and so their emotions have evolved to help avoid this risk. Studies found that images parallel to representations of sexually transmitted infections scored high on a pathogen disgust subscale and showed the largest increase in disgust, however these findings were not present in those humans born with a penis.
Anatomy could be responsible for the greater sexual risk avoidance. Unlike the relatively thick skin of the penis, a woman’s genitalia are covered by a thin, more delicate mucous membrane that more easily allows viruses and bacteria to pass through—and cause infection. The vagina and vulva are also warm and moist environments, which feels wonderfully comforting but is unfortunately the type of environment that encourages bacteria to grow. Further-more the volume of potentially infected male ejaculate deposited in a woman’s vagina during heterosexual intercourse is larger than the potentially infected cervical and vaginal secretions to which men are exposed. The risk of STIs is generally lower with sex between two people who both possess a vagina, but there’s still a risk from sexual behaviours such as oral sex, fingering, tribbing (rubbing genitals) and Analingus (rimming).
Women are also more likely than men to experience long-term health complications from untreated STIs, including infertility and pelvic inflammatory disease. (Remember unsafe sex is unsexy sex). So, is biology the reason so many women get the ick?
From a professional perspective this evolutionary explanation for heightened female sexual disgust doesn’t quite cut it. I have spent the last 12 years working with clients presenting with sexual aversion or sexual anxiety, I have encountered many women who present with a sensitive sexual disgust response. What I have learned from working with these courageous and formidable women is that overall, their sexual disgust response isn’t directed at disease carrying mates, its directed inwards, towards their own interpersonal sexual domain, their own secret sexuality, their own private desires, preferences and their own bodies.
These observations contradict the idea that sexual disgust functions to keep us from harmful toxins or sexual misconduct, more complex than simply survival by aversion, but maybe survival by conformity. How can a woman need protecting from the pollution of her own body? Biology alone doesn’t answer this question..