Six Varieties of Sexual Disgust
Transformative new research examines sexual disgust — including where it comes from, what behaviors evoke it, and the main ways we experience it.
Sexuality is undergoing an apparent sea-change on a collective level, yet is it true?
For many, divergence from conventional sexuality is seen as deviant and dangerous. While sexual attitudes are shifting toward greater acceptance of formerly off-limits behaviors, including open relationships, short-term sexual relationships — and greater variety in acceptable sexual behavior, including same sex activity and heightened sexual adventurousness — for others, anything but vanilla is repugnant.
What is healthy sexuality? There are grey areas, and while some behaviors are overtly considered universally problematic, they may be tolerated, or worse.
An Evolutionary Basis for Disgust
Disgust in general is a core experience, keeping us away from all kinds of nasty. For example, food that tastes bad often makes us sick, and disgust keeps us from eating poisonous food. At the same time, too much disgust means no one ever eats anything new, which could be deadly in times of scarcity.
Sexual disgust may serve important survival functions, protecting against disease transmission, keeping us from making problematic mate choices, and stopping us from doing things that could cause social damage or ruin — depending on your social group.
Too much disgust is paralyzing, interfering with function in many ways, keeping us from necessary risks. Because sexuality is linked to political and cultural values, sexual disgust may also vary as the culture is more or less repressive, feeding back onto attitudes about mating and marriage.
Evolutionary theory suggests that disgust is a highly conserved emotion because it helps with survival and reproduction on individual and collective levels. Individual variation creates collective diversity, so having a range of possibilities allows greater adaptability in a changing environment. We need a range of attitudes about sexuality for overall group survival, but the group also has to be able to work with whatever internal strife arises.
Defining Sexual Disgust
In spite of the importance of sexual disgust, it hasn’t been spelled out in detail. In order to remedy this, authors of the present study (Crosby, Durkee, Meston and Buss, 2019) conducted three studies to quantify and measure sexual disgust. They also started to look at how sexual disgust varies with other factors, like gender politics and religion.
The first study had 225 participants, average age of 35 years. They came up with 2,300 behaviors contributing to sexual disgust, which distilled into 50 behaviors evoking sexual disgust and clustered into 6 major factors. Please consider before reading, as many of the specific behaviors described may be triggering:
Having sex with your child
Having sex with a dead person
Sex with animals
Pornography involving children
Having sex with your sibling
Sexual pleasure through the use of human feces
Vomiting during sex
Having sex with your parent
Having sex with someone who is underage
Whipping someone during sex
Inflicting pain on someone during sex
Bondage on a woman
Choking someone during sex
Domination or submission during sex
Bondage on a man
Spanking someone during sex
3. Oral Sex
A man performing oral sex on a woman
Simultaneous oral sex (“69”)
A woman performing oral sex on a man
Licking someone during sex
4. Same-Sex Attraction
Sex between two men
Sex between two women
Group sex or orgies
Agreement between partners to have sex with people outside of the committed relationship (“swinging”) link on can infidelity save marriage somewhere
Threesomes or sex involving three people
Having sex with someone who has unpleasant body odor
Having sex with someone who has bad breath
Sexual Disgust and Individual Traits
The second study validated the Sexual Disgust Inventory and started looking at political and religious orientation, gender, and personality as measured by the Brief HEXACO Inventory. HEXACO looks at personality on six dimensions: Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience, overlapping with the Big Five model and including Honesty-Humility as a separate element, with Emotionality paralleling Neuroticism.
The same approach was used in the third and final study to look at these factors in a second group. There were differences between studies 2 and 3 when it came to which sexual disgust factors went along with which individual traits, with a lot of overlap. Both groups contained a balanced mix of men and women, 70 percent White and 90 percent heterosexual, with average age of about 35 years.
In this mainly heterosexual group, women expressed greater disgust than men, associated most strongly with Promiscuity in the third study. An evolutionary explanation is that a male with more mates will have more offspring, but women risk losing out on having a long-term partner for childrearing, and expose themselves to greater disease risk. From an evolutionary point of view, this would incline women toward long-term mating, to maximize resources for survival and childrearing.
Short-term mating was associated with sexual disgust, heaviest for the Taboo factor. Although one might expect short-term mating to correlate most strongly with Promiscuity, the evolutionary risk may be higher if short-term mating increases the likelihood of dangerous taboo violation.
Religious and political beliefs were correlated with sexual disgust, particularly Same-Sex Attraction. More conservative participants had stronger aversions to homosexuality and sexual activity with members of the same sex. Openness was associated with less disgust, correlated with oral sex and same-sex attraction in the second study.
The Future of Sexual Disgust
The Sexual Disgust Inventory is the main product, setting a new standard. Future research using this tool to conduct larger studies with different groups will deepen understanding. It’s also important to exercise caution and recognize that research, and research findings, can be used politically and culturally. The intent here is to understand sexual disgust and begin to look at correlations — not to further moral or political agendas.
Nevertheless, because sexual disgust is such a powerful evolutionary agent, understanding it is critical for making sense of contemporary culture, given all the changes occurring around mating, gender, sexuality, and across all cultural and political groups.
As with other tools, such as those to measure disagreement in relationships, the Sexual Disgust Inventory is useful for understanding individual and couple experiences. While it is not intended as a clinical tool, the SDI can inform inquiry by naming behaviors and providing a framework for understanding them, reducing stigma, and providing a context for constructive dialogue around topics often harmfully shrouded in secrecy. Disgust and shame are close cousins.