Welcome to November’s issue of Science of Sex, wherein I tackle issues about human sexuality. Why do we do that? How do we know? This month, I discuss another issue related to arousal (although I’ve barely scratched the surface, it seems)
I hope you enjoy this article, and if you’re interested in more, check out the Science of Sex archives.
Initially, I was just going to write about the interplay between arousal and disgust, but sexual arousal affects so many of our systems — especially cognitive ability.
If you’ve given a thought to how being aroused affects your thinking process, you’ve probably realized how easy it is to make poor decisions when aroused. Anecdotally, I have risked my sexual health by not using condoms, but foregoing protection and birth control is only one example of this risk. Arousal might lead you to have sex with someone who is a bad choice (an ex, a friend, someone with whom romantic feelings are unbalanced, etc). Disgust plays a role in why most people don’t have sex with family members; although, Science of Sex: Genetic Sexual Attractionsome people do.
Studies have even found that a woman’s attractiveness can influence whether a man chooses to use a condom during sexual activity with her.
Less obvious and perhaps more indirectly related to cognitive ability is how arousal seems to lower disgust, at least, in some individuals. Researchers theorize that disgust evolved as a way to keep us away from potentially dangerous things. So humans developed aversions to things that are dirty and “yucky,” such as fecal matter, bodily fluids (urine, blood, semen etc), and even actual dirty in our environment. It makes sense that arousal would inhibit disgust because sex involves precisely some of those things.
This interplay explains why you might be more open to the idea of a certain sexual activity, say, anal sex, once you’re already aroused than you would be “cold.”
You might even notice disgust returned once the arousal cycle has completed, either through orgasm or simply subsiding over time. This can manifest as disgust or guilt toward yourself or partners after sex. If you’ve ever found yourself completely disinterested in any sexual activity, then you know what I mean. As you’re frantically closing every browser tab once you’ve finished masturbating because you cannot stand to see it, you’re experiencing the return of disgust.
At least one study finds that this isn’t the case with women. This could perhaps be due to arousal non-concordance: a woman’s mental and physical arousal is typically less in sync than a man’s. The canceling out of disgust when aroused that men experienced could simply be an effect of their higher levels of arousal concordance.
Arousal continues to affect our system in other ways, too. Sexual arousal is often accompanied with the promise of sexual gratification through either solo or partnered activity. Dopamine receptors activate when aroused, which is one reason sexual tension can feel so good. The promise of sexual reward can also encourage poor decision making. The drain of dopamine and hormones after your arousal cycle completes can also contribute to negative post-masturbation or post-sex feelings.
I suspect that arousal inhibits or overrides a number of feelings and responses that we either don’t yet know about or understand, and I look forward to telling my readers about them in a later post.
- The role of men’s physical attractiveness in women’s perceptions of sexual risk: Danger or allure?
- The Effects of Impulsivity, Sexual Arousability, and Abstract Intellectual Ability on Men’s and Women’s Go/No-Go Task Performance
- Effect of Self-Reported Sexual Arousal on Responses to Sex-Related and Non-Sex-Related Disgust Cues
- The heat of the moment: the effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making
- Brain Sex in Men and Women – From Arousal to Orgasm
- The science of sexual arousal
- Survival’s Ick Factor
- Disgust Trumps Lust: Women’s Disgust and Attraction Towards Men Is Unaffected by Sexual Arousal
- Does Sexual Arousal Override Feelings of Disgust?
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