Recently, the magazine Woman’s Day designated messy bedrooms as the number one “sex drive stealer” for women. It’s a cliche that women don’t want sex unless the house is clean—and now, psychologists have produced scientific evidence that dirt and disgust really are a strong turn-off for women.
A team of psychologists, led by Diana Fleischman at the University of Portsmouth in the UK and Lisa Dawn Hamilton at Mount Allison University in Canada, recruited 76 heterosexual women—some were undergraduates in a psychology class; others had responded to a Craigslist ad—and hooked them up to a “vaginal photoplethysmograph,” a tampon-like device that measures women’s arousal by monitoring blood flow to the vagina. “Dilated blood vessels in the vagina are a precursor to full-on sexual arousal,” Fleischman explained in a Skype interview with Women in the World. Their paper appears in the journal PLOS ONE.
Other researchers had already suggested a link between disgust and sexual dysfunction: Women with conditions like vaginismus and vaginal pain also tend to be more sensitive to disgusting stimuli in general. “We were interested in whether or not disgust influences sexual arousal in women who don’t have any sexual dysfunction,” Fleischman said.
With their arousal-measuring devices in place, the women in Fleischman and Hamilton’s lab were first shown a neutral film (a documentary about ships). Then, half the women viewed images designed to evoke feelings of fear (weapons, dangerous animals, natural disasters) while half viewed pictures designed to elicit disgust (rotting corpses, feces, dead animals), and rated their level of fear or disgust. Next, they watched an eight-minute erotic film designed to appeal to women. (“None of the films show sexual violence or fellatio,” the authors note.)
“When women viewed disgusting images before they viewed porn, they had less of a sexual response,” Fleischman said. “We also found that women who were the most disgusted showed the lowest level of sexual arousal: The ratings of disgust predicted sexual arousal.”
The fear-provoking images, meanwhile, had no significant effect on arousal.
Some of the women saw the pornographic video before viewing the disgusting or fear-provoking images; the researchers wanted to see if arousal could mitigate the effects of the gross or terrifying images, but they didn’t find much of a link there.
The authors have an evolutionary explanation for their findings. According to Fleischman, women are both more likely to contract sexually transmitted infections and more likely to suffer serious consequences—like infertility—if they do catch an STI. “There’s been evolutionary selection pressure for women to be cautious about STIs,” Fleischman said. “It makes sense that women would not be motivated to have sex if there are any signals in the environment that pathogens are prevalent.”
The experiment seems to confirm what women sense intuitively: “This is the first time it’s been experimentally shown that women have reduced physiological sexual arousal when they are disgusted.”