Authors: Jesse Bering
While we’re on the general subject of our animal ancestry, one of the more creative accounts of the relationship between sex and disgust in human beings comes from the field of “terror management theory,” which postulates that any disgust reactions we have to sex actually stem from the fear of our own mortality. Sex is so corporeal, or bodily, the argument goes, that it’s a uniquely powerful reminder of our animal nature. And just like other animals we’ve got one-way tickets to Decomposition Central, which is a very scary place to us. It’s so scary, terror-management theorists claim, that if our brains were to dwell on this reality for too long, we’d become so paralyzed with fear that we’d no longer be able to function adaptively. Human beings coped with their awareness of death, these scholars believe, by inventing various cultural expressions of immortality to quell their existential fright. (All of this is presumably happening subconsciously, mind you.) And by the looks of it, the idea of sex presents some big challenges to our species in this uncomfortably mortal regard.
In one study, for instance, having people contemplate their own deaths caused them to favor a definition of sex in its more lofty, abstract forms (such as “making love” rather than “copulating”). Concepts like love and romance are said to be “symbolically immortal,” helping to return the individual to a more manageable state of death anxiety. Presumably, this is why we’re so enamored of slogans such as “A diamond is forever” and why poetic lines like Emily Dickinson’s “Unable are the Loved to die / For Love is Immortality” strike a true and universal chord. Compare those maudlin sentiments with Shakespeare’s lurid metaphor for sex in
as “making the beast with two backs” or his describing a couple as “prime as goats” and “hot as monkeys.” You’d find Shakespeare’s language here especially gross, the argument goes, right after being told you’ve got an inoperable brain tumor and have only a few months to live. Like another famous theory that’s based on subconscious anxieties, it has its limits, but I think there’s probably something to terror management theory. It could explain Rick Santorum believing gay marriage is a stone’s throw away from interspecies marriage, anyway. That poor man—the mere act of ejaculating, reminding him that he’s an animal, must be so existentially
Yet we don’t need complex psychodynamics to understand how it all really works. We lost our rodent tails and whiskers long ago, but even for us postmodern animals it’s still best not to think
much about all those bodily secretions and worrisome odors of ours while having sex. Even the best relationships can be strained by having to explain to your loving partner why you look as if you’ve just gotten a nose full of rancid vinegar while performing oral sex on him. Fortunately, most of us can overcome these seemingly insurmountable sensory barriers thanks to a brain that’s able to subjectively sanitize such sticky situations. One that evolved to be overly sensitive to disgust during sex wouldn’t have been very adaptive after all; so prudish a creature would perish in its own purity as a genetic dead end. Rather, as Sigmund Freud wrote, “our libido thrives on obstacles” and “in its strength enjoys overriding disgust.” Indeed, more recent scholars have found that our willingness (and sometimes our eagerness) to let others’ body products make contact with our lips and tongues or even to slip down our throats entirely is a product of our fluctuating arousal levels. When we’re horny, we’re happy to dip into someone else’s organic buffet. Really. There are even data on it.
In a study with straight undergraduate students in Denmark, for example, most of the males said they’d be willing to taste a woman’s breast milk if they were aroused, but far fewer said they’d ever do so if they weren’t turned on. Similarly, most women could see themselves ingesting semen if they were hot and bothered, but the thought of swallowing fresh seminal fluid when not in the mood was enough to send shivers up many spines. Imagining having to taste someone else’s sweat, tears, and saliva, meanwhile, wasn’t especially sickening to the students either way. By contrast, very few men
women—no matter how concupiscent they might be—ever wanted to taste menstrual blood. And wouldn’t you know it, while most of the female students said they’d be willing to give it a go if they felt sufficiently lustful, only 3 percent of the males in the study warmed up to the idea of ever tasting another man’s smegma.
This overall pattern of findings makes some sense in evolutionary terms. When the system works smoothly, sexual arousal can serve to anesthetize the otherwise adaptive disgust response long enough for people to get on with the Darwinian business of reproduction. (Well, heterosexual people, anyway. It just allows us homosexuals to have decent sex.) But questionnaire studies aren’t the greatest when it comes to tapping into behaviors fueled by strong emotions. Even if a straight man
willing to taste another man’s smegma when drunk with desire, he might not know it himself, or he might not share that fact on a survey. More creative approaches induce actual sexual arousal in participants to see how the state of lust alters their real-time perception of disgusting objects or affects their behaviors. In one study, researchers first exposed straight male subjects to porn. Only then did the real testing begin. The psychologists behind the scenes, led by Richard Stevenson, were curious to know if sexual arousal lessens disgust for
sexual cues only
nasty things altogether
. We can therefore think of their experiment as pitting a “local anesthetic” hypothesis of disgust management against a “general anesthetic” one. To get at this, the scientists invaded the sensory systems of these now very aroused men with terribly yucky things, comparing their perceived grossness of gross sex cues with their reactions to cues that were just generally gross.
For the sensation of touch, for instance, the lustful men were told to dip their hands into a bucket filled with either lubricated condoms (for sexual disgust) or cold pea-and-ham soup (for general disgust). For hearing, they listened to a brief sound bite of someone either performing oral sex or vomiting. (These do sometimes go together, but let’s not complicate matters.) Smell, meanwhile, was a whiff of rotting fish (for sexual disgust) or of feces (for general disgust). Seeing involved being exposed to the image of a horribly disfiguring scar on a naked woman or a pile of decomposing garbage. Fortunately for the participants, the researchers chose not to include the sense of taste in this particularly interactive study of disgust. That would have probably been “a little much,” as my dad likes to say.
The findings support our local anesthetic hypothesis. Sexual arousal, or at least male sexual arousal, numbed the participants’ gut-level aversion to sexual unpleasantries only, not to the whole disgusting lineup. Even when we’re in the middle of doing disgusting things with each other under the sheets, in other words, we’re just as sensitive to the revolting features of the noncarnal world above. Think of it this way: When you’re in the throes of orgasm, the fact that the hot guy or gal you met at the club last night hasn’t showered since yesterday and smells a little funky probably isn’t
much of a hindrance to your ultimate pleasure. But if you move your passionate lovemaking to the other room, where in your mad dash to tear each other’s clothes off, your nostrils suddenly detect the unmistakable smell of decomposing human flesh coming from beneath the bed, that would probably be a sensory deal breaker for your bliss. (Not to mention you’d have a different type of “happy ending” to worry about now—in the form of getting out alive.) In fact, the olfactory category in Stevenson’s study, which, if you recall, compared the rotting fish smell with the feces smell, was the only one for which the lustful male raters found the stimuli to be equally pleasant (or unpleasant, depending on how you look at it). But that’s actually not very surprising if we understand lust as dampening sex-related disgust for
bodily effluvia, not just those emanating from one particular orifice. Necrophiles aside, the smell of a moldering corpse tends to be sexually off-putting. Yet there are plenty of smells from living bodies that most of us don’t find too pleasant, either. And it’s not just “fishy” smells that can be an orgasmic barrier for straight men, after all. Women, from what I understand, have anuses too, and an
odeur de colon
can be a psychological impediment to sex for both men and women, gay or straight.
By virtue of certain “anatomical affordances,” however, and the limiting nature of homosexual male intercourse (that is, anal sex), gay men are frequently the targets of a cheap rhetorical strategy designed to evoke a moralizing disgust response. “It’s wrong because it’s gross” is, of course, a rather transparent case of moral dumbfounding. Yet painting gay men as depraved creatures rife with infectious disease whose idea of a relaxing Sunday afternoon involves wallowing in feces and smelly assholes can be alarmingly effective at keeping heterosexuals from seeing them as fellow human beings. For example, whenever the subject of gay men crops up at the various websites, news feeds, and online forums that cater primarily to social conservatives (they do
love to talk about us queer folk), post after scatological post is a display of this antifecal-therefore-antigay mentality. “If your personal identity revolves around your lust for other men’s stinking anuses,” wrote one man at the
website in response to a news story about gay pride, “a particularly disgusting form of depravity that spreads horrific diseases, the chest swells with self-satisfaction.” Another weighs in: “Homosexuals should never have got their special rights like civil unions let alone marriage or Don’t-Ask[-Don’t-Tell] in the first place. The ignorant and stupid on our side wanted to appease them and usually say: ‘I know a couple and they are nice’ … friggin idiots … when did we base special rights based on fecal diseased sex in the constitution?”
When the romantic relationships of gay men are repeatedly linked with excrement this way, the disgust response makes it much easier to sell them as immoral. And in the battle against the “homosexual agenda,” this has quickly become a core strategy in the tireless and patriotic efforts against, ahem, “evil.” Really, I’m not kidding: anything even remotely related to gay men—Anderson Cooper chuckling uncontrollably during a newscast, Barney Frank bending over to tie his shoelaces, a scandalous plot twist on the sitcom
—will faithfully serve to induce a reverie of maledictions for their anuses.
We can also induce disgust to sway a person’s political views. It’s one of the oldest tricks around. “Just look at these guys!” the Nazi author of an illustrated children’s book wrote for his young German readers in 1938. “The louse-infested beards! The filthy, protruding ears, those stained, fatty clothes … Jews have an unpleasant sweetish odor. If you have a good nose, you can smell the Jews.” (The book’s publisher was later executed as a war criminal for his central role in peddling anti-Semitic propaganda.) For those who don’t know how the trick works, it can get them every time. A study by the psychologists Yoel Inbar, David Pizarro, and Paul Bloom illustrates how the experience of disgust can make even those who aren’t normally intolerant express strikingly bigoted views. In the study, a group of straight male and female undergrads from Cornell University were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. For the sake of clarity, we’ll call these the “stink” and “no-stink” conditions. All of the students sat alone in a private room and completed a survey about their attitudes on a range of social and political issues. For those in the stink condition, a research assistant had sneaked in beforehand and applied a novelty spray to a trashcan in the corner. (This smell—I got the sense from speaking to one of the authors—was vaguely akin to that of a hospital emergency-room toilet.) The no-stink participants were tested in the same room and answered the very same survey, but, luckily for their brains’ olfactory bulbs, they weren’t exposed to the bad odor while doing so.
The findings are revealing. Irrespective of the gender of the participants and their self-reported political orientation (they ranged from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative” in their worldviews), those who were randomly assigned to the stink condition expressed significantly more disapproval toward gay men than did those in the no-stink condition. It wasn’t that the bad smell simply made these participants crankier in general while pondering their feelings on social issues. In fact, their opinions of other minority groups (such as blacks and the elderly) weren’t any different from those of the cohort in the no-stink condition. The disgusting smell just made these very bright and perfectly polite students from an Ivy League university less sympathetic to gay men. (The data trended in this direction for their judgments about lesbians, too, but the effect wasn’t as strong.)
Now, we needn’t dwell on the obvious (anal sex isn’t limited to gay men, not all gay men have anal sex, straight people can get HIV through intravaginal sex, and—it’s really not a myth—condoms
exist). But just for the record, the average gay man is no less repulsed by a sexual experience involving feces than are most other human beings. I’m careful here to say “most” because there are indeed a handful of people who walk among us who could be considered truly “coprophilic,” which means they have a strong erotic attraction to feces. It’s not my sort of thing, and I’d imagine there’s a lot more scrubbing involved than there is with your average postcoital cleanup job, but assuming one takes certain precautions, it seems harmless enough to me, really. Kind of a funny thing about coprophilia, too: the only documented cases are heterosexual men.
* * *
Feces ranks among the most rare aphrodisiacs, but we shouldn’t forget that rather than seeing it as a turnoff, some people actually get turned
by the human body in its more natural aromatic form. Upon finishing a military campaign, Napoleon Bonaparte, who despised the saccharine fragrance of perfumes, sent that notorious memo to his wife, Joséphine. It read simply: “Coming home soon; don’t wash.” The existence of human pheromones (or scent-based hormones that stimulate strong desire in the opposite sex) is still hotly debated, but whatever their role in our sexuality, it’s no longer as major as it was in the days of the murid rodent ancestor. Male hamsters, for example, will hump anything dabbed with the vaginal secretions of a female in heat. By contrast, human males told to inhale a woman’s bottled-up vaginal odors without knowing what it is that’s under their noses generally find it off-putting. According to the psychologist Roy Levin, most heterosexual men express an “affectionate distaste” for the smell (tolerating it but not exactly enjoying it). Yet he also notes that plenty of other men, and lesbians too for that matter, have come to fetishize it. Certainly there are brazen admirers, especially when the smell is indicative of youth. Levin describes stumbling upon a product called Girl Scent on the Internet (now be nice, it was during his very important research
) with this colorful marketing description: