I have recently been obsessed with disgust. Weird? Yes, but so am I. Disgust is an emotion that we don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about and understanding. Very few people question where disgust comes from or why it exists. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around these topics, and in this reading I stumbled on a question that grabbed me: can something be sexy without an element of disgust?
I’m sure a lot of you at first glimpse will say “duh yes, I love my partner and find them very sexy and am not disgusted by them in the slightest”. But I think to get at the heart of this question we have to get at the roots of what disgust is: most current theories suggest that disgust is a reaction to things that remind us that we are animal and thus mortal. Obviously we have disgust towards things that might contaminate us: bodily fluids and the like (generally termed primary disgust), but most other things that cause us to feel disgust are things that remind us we’re fallible: gore, destruction of our bodily envelope, or things that make us feel someone is acting in an inhuman or bestial manner. For more on this theory of disgust, check out Paul Rozin or Martha Nussbaum. I’m not going to spend much time here arguing that this is the appropriate theory of disgust so if you want to hear more about it do some reading on your own (there are a good number of studies supporting it).
Behind this theory of disgust is the idea that we as human beings are afraid of our own mortality and that we cannot live every day with the full knowledge and awareness of our mortality. Realizing we are like animals (particularly animals that we see as fallible) reminds us that we are mortal. Reminders of birth also remind us of death. These things place us squarely in front of our own mortality, and so we try to shy away from them so that we don’t have to be confronted with them. One way that we as human beings often deal with our own mortality and animal nature is by creating a group that elicits disgust (e.g. Jews in Nazi Germany) and imbuing them with all the qualities of animals and ourselves that we find unacceptable. We then use them as a buffer zone between ourselves and our mortality. They are people who are not quite human but not quite animal: they are less than we are, and if we keep ourselves pure from them, then we are safe from the contamination of things that remind us of our animal nature.
Sex reminds us that we have bodies. Sex reminds us that our bodies are not all the way in our control, and is associated with the life and death cycle. So sex is disgusting on some level. It is inherently an animal act: it is something that we do that could contaminate us and that reminds us in an immediate way that we create life and we die and we are mortal. Don’t tell me it’s not disgusting. You know when you’re all finished and out of the moment you look around and you’re all sweaty and sticky you feel a little eensy bit grossed out. And if disgust is the feeling we get when we’re reminded that we’re animals, you sure as HELL feel a little disgusted after sex.
Does this mean that everything associated with sex has some disgust associated with it? Can the fact that sex and disgust might be inherently linked tell us something about negative attitudes towards sex? Let’s explore further dear readers.
As a caveat, I have exactly 0 evidence for most of what I’m going to talk about next. This is primarily theoretical and is more an explanation of possible connections between ideas, emotions, and behaviors than a proposition of a fully fleshed out theory. I would love to hear reactions and feedback.
I suspect that in order for something to turn us on, it has to remind us that we have a body. While there are probably some people out there who get turned on exclusively by intellectual things (I won’t deny that I may or may not have masturbated while reading philosophy before), the moment you start to get turned on you have an immediate reminder of your body, your bodily fluids, and your animal nature. Your desires start to take over. It is an incredibly animalistic place to be. For something to be sexy, it has to be something that will give your body a reaction (I’m talking sexy in the very literal sexual sense, not “a sexy car”). Sexy is always and inherently related to your body, whether you’re turned on by a touch or a word or a thought or an idea.
If disgust is what we have made it out to be, this means that in all sexiness there is an element of disgust. I’m not sure if others have experienced this, but I often find myself shying away from the loss of control that comes with getting turned on, with the way my body pulls me to be present when I feel it reacting. When that first blush of “mmm, sexy” hits, I turn my mind away from it. That moving away or pushing away is the basic disgust reaction. It’s the desire to avoid contamination. Even if you do not have a moment of pulling away, you are still being reminded of your body. There is likely still some element of your brain that wants to remain “pure” and unaffected by the animal body.
Now this may not be true for people who are more at home with their mortality and their animal nature. I’m not sure if these people exist or not, but I will add that if you feel no worry about death or about being out of control or contaminated, then there is probably no element of disgust in sexiness for you. But for those of us who feel disgust, I suspect that there has to be some element of that revulsion with yourself and your body in order for something to be sexy. Likely it’s not a major element or you would shy away too hard, but some purely intellectual part of yourself that wants to be immortal is not down with the down and dirty.
However I would argue that disgust heightens sexiness for many people. Disgust is an extremely powerful reaction. It viscerally reminds you of your body. It can elicit physical reactions, like vomit or the hair standing up on your arms or the back of your neck. When it is paired with a desire to move towards the object of disgust, you can have an extremely powerful feeling. This is something that people interested in kink often play with.
Interestingly, disgust is a learned reaction. Small children are willing to touch or play with primary objects of disgust (feces, vomit, etc). Only after time do they learn to feel the deep revulsion towards these things (theorists suggest that there is still a biological component though, much like with language). In their youth they seem quite interested in and fascinated by them (children playing in mud, anyone? Bugs?). Perhaps this fascination comes back in our sexuality when we can go back to the innocence of being young and unaware of our own mortality. Perhaps the sexiest thing is intentionally embracing and forgetting mortality all at once. It seems that we do have a draw towards things that are “disgusting” and when we recognize this and move back towards a youthful point of view, we might have a stronger pull towards them.
But more often than not we cannot forget all the fears of our lives. They peek in here and there. Many of us try to sterilize sex: we turn off the lights so we can’t see each others’ bodies, we trim and clean ourselves so that we don’t smell or look animal, we try to keep the act controlled or only about intimacy and love. But no matter what, at the end of the day, sex reminds us that we’re animals. This is frightening for many people.
And here is where we find the connection to the taboo and to misogyny. For much of human history, women were deemed disgusting. Disgust is a reaction that asks us to distance ourselves from the object of disgust, to cast it out. However men’s sexuality and women’s sexiness makes this impossible. The proliferation of the species is a constant reminder to men that they will die and that they will not be in control. Sex is one area in which you are always and ever reminded that you are not in control of your body. And so perhaps turning the other into the object of disgust allows men to distance themselves from the disgust or contamination they might feel towards themselves in the sex act. Misogyny may in part stem from the fear that men feel towards their animal nature (I am in no way saying women don’t feel this too. I suspect the brute strength of men allowed them to enforce their disgust a bit better than women though. Also being the penetrative partner tends to make others think of you as disgusting. See: homosexuality).
Perhaps this is where much sexualized violence stems from: it is an attempt for some people to distance themselves from the sexuality that disgusts them. We tend to kill or hurt the things that disgust us. That is the most control we can have over them, and the most distance we can put between them and ourselves. When we combine violence with our sexuality, we may be able to fool ourselves into taking the disgust out of the act by putting all of it onto the other person and only feeling the power and anger of the violence. Foisting the disgust of being human onto someone else protects you, particularly if your disgust is only for women, because it makes you different from the mortal, the animalistic, and the disgusting. But female sexuality and the boners it causes in the menfolks are a constant reminder to men that they cannot control their bodies and that even if they try to foist the disgust of sexuality onto women, some of it remains in them.
In addition, this may be where some of the fear of sexuality and the desire for purity comes from. Sex and death have long been associated in many cultures (The French word for orgasm means “little death”), and it’s fairly clear that the desire for sexual purity seems to come with a fear. But a fear of what? Some people might suggest God’s judgment, but I suspect that the disgust that comes with sex is the larger motivation. Many people think that sex is nothing to be disgusted by, but if we break down what elicits disgust, it may actually be an appropriate reaction. Perhaps this is why purity culture is still so strong. Sex is a reminder that we are not Godly or perfect, in control, immortal, or clean. For those people who dream of being this way (which tends to be the religious), sex is the ultimate reminder that they cannot be purely spiritual beings without bodies that will die. It is the ultimate fear: it reminds us of the oblivion after
However simply because something elicits disgust does not mean we should legislate against it or judge it morally. We cannot avoid reminders of our mortality forever, and simply because something “grosses us out” doesn’t mean it’s actually bad or wrong. Disgust is not an appropriate emotion on which to base moral judgment. Martha Nussbaum argues quite persuasively in her book Hiding From Humanity that disgust does not tell us whether an action has harmed another person, it simply tells us something about our fear of death or about how we perceive something as animalistic. If we take a rational approach to morality, we should look at what harms others, and disgusting things do not harm others (I am excluding things like nuisance laws here in which you inflict something disgusting on another person or primary disgust that is aimed at something which might actually contaminate you or bear disease). Just because something may elicit disgust does not mean it’s bad or wrong. We are all free to do as many potentially disgusting things as we want, and perhaps it’s time to start embracing some of the disgusting things we do: we’re human, we will die, and we need to accept that.
In other realms we’re willing to temporarily suspend disgust. We sometimes play in the mud like little kids and we get great joy out of it. Why is sex any different?
So perhaps sex is disgusting. Perhaps it’s disgusting to be sexy. And maybe, just maybe, that shouldn’t be a negative judgment of sex.