Disgust Trumps Lust: Women’s Disgust and Attraction
Towards Men Is Unaffected by Sexual Arousal
&Diana S. Fleischman
#Springer International Publishing 2017
Abstract Mating is a double-edged sword. It can have great
adaptive benefits, but also high costs, depending on the mate.
Disgust is an avoidance reaction that serves the function of
discouraging costly mating decisions, for example if the risk
of pathogen transmission is high. It should, however, be tem-
porarily inhibited in order to enable potentially adaptive mat-
ing. We therefore tested the hypothesis that sexual arousal
inhibits disgust if a partner is attractive, but not if he is unat-
tractive or shows signs of disease. In an online experiment,
women rated their disgust towards anticipated behaviors with
men depicted on photographs. Participants did so in a sexually
aroused state and in a control state. The faces varied in attrac-
tiveness and the presence of disease cues (blemishes). We
found that disease cues and attractiveness, but not sexual
arousal, influenced disgust. The results suggest that women
feel disgust at sexual contact with unattractive or diseased men
independently of their sexual arousal.
Keywords Disgust .Sexual arousal .Attraction .Physical
attractiveness .Disease avoidance
Mating and pathogen avoidance both pose fundamental adap-
tive challenges. They have substantially shaped the evolution
of traits in non-human animals, as well as in humans (Buss and
Symons 2015; Dixson 2009; Schaller 2015; Trivers 1996).
However, the two are in tension (Lee et al. 2014): Mating
behavior like kissing or sex necessarily involves close physical
contact and exchange of bodily fluids, which poses a large risk
of infection with pathogens (Fleischman et al. 2015). Mating
decisions must therefore weigh the costs of pathogen transmis-
sion with the benefits of mating success (Tybur and Gangestad
2011; Tybur et al. 2013).
The potential costs and benefits of mating pivot around the
mates. Mating decisions therefore incorporate information
about particular mates in question. Particularly relevant are
their genetic quality and health status (Tybur and Gangestad
2011). For both of these properties, there exist easily available
visual cues that provide a heuristic for assessments (Sugiyama
2016). Physical attractiveness is assessed within milliseconds
of seeing a new face (Willis and Todorov 2006) and is a reliable
indicator of genetic quality and health (Little 2014;ReandRule
2016). Disease often manifests itself visibly on the organisms,
for example through skin blemishes (Bundy 2012;Ryanetal.
2012). Hence, visual information about a potential mate should
induce avoidance and approach tendencies in line with antici-
pated costs or benefits of mating (Al-Shawaf, Conroy-Beam,
Asao, & Buss, 2016; Tooby and Cosmides 2008).
Disgust evolved primarily to protect the organism from
pathogen threats by encouraging avoidance of potential path-
ogen vectors (Curtis et al. 2004; Oaten et al. 2009; Tybur and
Lieberman 2016). Hence, such stimuli also elicit it (Rozin
et al. 2008). But the emotion also promotes adaptive mating
Diana S. Fleischman
Department of Psychology, University of Portsmouth, King Henry
Building, King Henry I Street, Portsmouth PO1 2DY, UK
Department of Psychology, University of Zurich, Binzmühlestrasse
14, 8050 Zürich, Switzerland
Department of Clinical Psychology and Experimental
Psychopathology, University of Groningen, Grote Kruisstraat 2/1,
9712 TS Groningen, The Netherlands
Evolutionary Psychological Science
decisions (Al-Shawaf, Lewis, & Buss, 2015; Tybur et al.
2013). This is evidenced by the fact that people experience
disgust not only towards individuals who show signs of bad
health, pathogens, or potentially contagious disease
(Mortensen et al. 2010; Rozin et al. 2008;Ryanetal.2012)
but also towards for example mates outside of a fertile age
range (Fessler and Navarrete 2003; Tybur et al. 2009).
Disgust therefore discourages costly mating.
While disgust encourages avoidance, sexual arousal facili-
tates approach. This psycho-physiological state facilitates sex-
ual engagement through the following means: preparing the
body physiologically for intercourse (Masters and Johnson
1966), temporarily increasing sexual desire (Toates 2009),
narrowing attention to sexual stimuli, increasing approach
motivation towards them, and inhibiting negative emotions
(Barlow 1986; Janssen and Bancroft 2007;Prauseetal.
2008). Similar to disgust, it is sensitive to traits of the mate,
particularly physical attractiveness (Buunk et al. 2002;Hawk
et al. 2007; Stone et al. 2011). Both disgust and sexual arousal
therefore partly determine mating decisions based on visual
information about a mate.
Disgust and Sexual Arousal Influence Each Other
Disgust and sexual arousal motivate avoidance and approach,
respectively, and are therefore oppositional. Accordingly, peo-
ple tend to experience only one of them at a time (Koukounas
&McCabe,2001; Vonderheide and Mosher 1988). Because
sexual intercourse inherently involves stimuli that can trigger
strong aversion (e.g., genitals; Rozin et al. 1995), sexual
arousal should facilitate sexual engagement by temporarily
inhibiting avoidance tendencies and therefore also disgust re-
sponses (Borg and de Jong 2012). This also corresponds to
predictions by clinical models of sexual response: According
to the dual-control model of sexual response (Janssen and
Bancroft 2007), negative emotions like disgust need to be
suppressed to enable seamless sex, in that they draw attention
away from sexual stimuli and therefore disrupt the sexual
response cycle. More specifically, de Jong et al. (2013)pro-
pose that sexual arousal and disgust inhibit one another. They
claim that in a given moment, the more prominent of the two
suppresses the other and gives rise to the congruent response.
That means that if disgust outweighed sexual arousal, it would
pull away attention from arousing stimuli and guide it towards
the disgust elicitor, and vice versa. Accordingly, this would
reduce sexual arousal and therefore reduce approach,
Research indeed indicates that disgust inhibits sexual
arousal. Fleischman et al. (2015) and Andrews et al. (2015)
experimentally induced disgust in a group of male and female
participants and found that those groups reported less subse-
quent sexual arousal to erotic movies than the control groups.
Thus, the existing evidence for an inhibitory effect of disgust
on sexual arousal is relatively clear cut in both sexes. Three
experiments also showed convincingly that men’s disgust sen-
sitivity decreases under sexual arousal (Ariely and
Loewenstein 2006; Lee et al. 2014; Stevenson et al. 2011).
Findings on the effect of sexual arousal on disgust in women,
however, have been very mixed.
Does Sexual Arousal Inhibit Disgust in Women?
A Note on Disgust Domains The studies we are going to
review have discriminated between types/domains of
disgust, and have used different classifications to do so. We
will therefore briefly clarify the terms used. Tybur et al. (2013)
coined the term sexual disgust to refer to disgust towards
sexual acts that are evolutionarily disadvantageous, e.g., sex
with a partner in an infertile age range. However, van
Overveld et al. (2013) used it in the context of disgust towards
sex-related stimuli more generally, interchangeably with sex-
related disgust. Borg and de Jong (2012)haveusedtheword
sex-related disgust to describe disgust towards sex-related
stimuli. Sex-related disgust is therefore a more general term
that also encompasses both usages of sexual disgust. We will
therefore refer to sexual disgust according to Tybur et al.’s
(2013) definition and to sex-related disgust as elicited by
sex-related stimuli. Pathogen disgust is generally used to refer
to disgust elicited by stimuli of potentially infectious organ-
isms (Tybur et al. 2013). This can also exclude sexual stimuli,
but we will use it to refer to disgust to only sex-unrelated
Four studies have directly examined whether women expe-
rience a reduction in disgust when sexually aroused. They all
used a similar experimental setup, in which participants were
either sexually aroused or in a control state, and rated their
disgust towards various stimuli. Borg and de Jong (2012)
asked sexually aroused, positively/physically aroused, and
unaroused women to perform certain disgusting tasks. The
tasks were either sex-related (e.g., touching a lubricated con-
dom) or not (e.g., eating a biscuit with an insect on it). The
sexually aroused group, compared to the other two groups,
completed the highest number of disgusting tasks and reported
finding all the tasks less disgusting. These group differences
were larger for sex-related tasks than sex-unrelated tasks.
Lee et al. (2014) looked at sexual and pathogen disgust.
Participants sexually aroused themselves at home in their own
preferred way and then filled out the Three Domains of
Disgust Scale that comprises pathogen, moral, and sexual dis-
gust (Tybur et al. 2009). Sexually aroused women were less
sexual disgust sensitive than the control group, but also more
pathogen disgust sensitive. Van Overveld and Borg (2015)
found no difference in disgust towards neutral, pathogenic,
van Overveld and Borg (2015)didnotfindthiseffect.
Evolutionary Psychological Science
or sexual images between a sexual arousal and a threat arousal
group. Finally, Fleischman et al. (2015) found no influence of
sexual arousal on women’s pathogen disgust. Arousal was
measured both by self-report and with a physiological mea-
sure of genital blood flow (vaginal plethysmography). Women
who were aroused did not rate highly pathogen salient images
(e.g., excrement, dead animals, and injured, diseased, or dead
humans) as less disgusting than women who were not
aroused. The authors also found that both physiological and
subjective measures of sexual arousal did not decrease subse-
quent ratings of disgust at these images. Taken together, these
studies suggest that sexual arousal does not inhibit disgust
generally. Effects have been selective on particular classes of
stimuli in single studies, but with inconsistent results across
studies. One limitation of all four studies is that they assessed
participants’disgust towards stimuli that are largely irrelevant
for mating. But as we have argued, avoidance and approach
motives should be regulated according to properties of poten-
tial mates. The interactional effect of sexual arousal and dis-
gust should therefore depend on the sexual partner at hand.
Sexual arousal may facilitate intercourse with physically at-
tractive, healthy-looking mates, whereas disgust may prevent
intercourse with unattractive or diseased mates.
Study and Hypotheses
In the present study, we tested whether sexual arousal
downregulates women’s disgust towards potential mates and
whether this is moderated by the mates’physical attractiveness
and disease cues (rosacea blemishes). Participants rated their
disgust towards different men when they were sexually aroused
and when they were not. We thereby extended previous
methods by testing the effect of sexual arousal on disgust with-
in participants. The focus was on women because past studies
have found the link between sexual dysfunction and disgust
only in women, not in men (Borg et al. 2010; Grauvogl et al.
2015) and because there are significant sex differences in dis-
gust (Fleischman 2017; Skolnick 2013; Tybur et al. 2011),
sexual arousal patterns (Carvalho et al. 2013; Chivers 2010),
and the interaction of the two (Andrews et al. 2015; Lee et al.
2014). We hypothesized that sexual arousal will decrease dis-
gust towards attractive, but not towards unattractive mates (hy-
pothesis 1) and that sexual arousal will only reduce disgust
towards mates without disease cues, but not towards mates with
disease cues (hypothesis 2).
Faces Twenty pictures of male faces were obtained with per-
mission from a modeling website and from the Warsaw set of
emotional facial expression pictures (Olszanowski et al.
2015). We chose to show only faces because women generally
pay most attention to and infer most relevant information
about a mate by looking at the face (Re and Rule 2016;
Wagstaff et al. 2015). They were rated for attractiveness by
121 women from the social network of the first author on a
scale ranging from 0 = not at all,to10=extremely,withthe
midpoint 5 = average. We choose the six pictures with the
highest and the six with the lowest attractiveness ratings.
The mean rating of the attractive faces was 6.60 (SD =.60)
and the mean of the unattractive ones was 2.51 (SD =.54).
This difference was statistically significant with a large effect
size, t=55.73,p<.000,d= .96. A professional photo editor
then first smoothed the skinof all faces, because skin quality is
a cue to disease as well (Bundy 2012; Re and Rule 2016;
Sugiyama 2016). He then made a version of each picture in
which the face contained blemishes typical of the disease ro-
sacea. See Fig. 1for example pictures.
Videos There was one video for each of the two conditions.
The video in the sexual arousal condition was a 6-min women
friendly erotic clip showing a Caucasian mixed-sex couple.
The first minute consisted of non-genital foreplay, followed
by about 2 min of cunnilingus, and another 3 min of penile-
vaginal intercourse in the man-on-top and rear entry position.
Forty-five women in previous studies (Hamilton and Meston
2013; Harte and Meston 2008) have reacted to it with both
physiological and self-reported sexual arousal (L. D.
Hamilton, personal correspondence, December 8, 2015).
The video also corresponded to the recommendations for
Fig. 1 Examples of the pictures used, with attractiveness and blemishes
Evolutionary Psychological Science
female sex research by Woodard et al. (2008). The neutral
condition contained a 7-min video blog of a Caucasian,
mixed-sex couple’s hiking trip (Flying The Nest 2015). The
video was chosen because it was simple, physical, and pleas-
ant and thus relatively comparable to the erotic clip.
Furthermore, the couple was comparable in physical attrac-
tiveness to the pornographic actors.
When signing up for the study, we instructed participants to
participate online from home where likely most comfortable
being sexually aroused. Prior studies have successfully
employed related methods (Ariely and Loewenstein 2006;
Lee et al. 2014). When participants opened the link to the
study on Qualtrics, they were randomly assigned to one of
the two conditions and received informed consent according-
ly. The instructions emphasized that they should be alone and
undisturbed for at least 20 min. They were then asked to pro-
vide information on demographics, sexual orientation, their
menstrual cycle, relationship status, use of oral contraception,
and recent illness. Parts of this information were used to con-
trol for factors that have been shown to influence women’s
disgust reactions (Fessler and Navarrete 2003; Fleischman
2014), perception of potential partners’faces (DeBruine
2014; Sacco et al. 2012), and reaction to visual sexual stimuli
(Mass et al. 2009;Renfroetal.2015;WallenandRupp2010).
Participants were then shown one of the videos according
to their randomly assigned condition. If they were in the sex-
ual arousal condition, they were reminded of the explicit con-
tent and had to open the video in a separate window to view it.
They were only able to continue with the survey after the
respective video was over. They were then asked about their
level of sexual arousal and disgust as a manipulation check
(How sexually aroused/disgusted are you feeling right now?).
The questions were answered on scale from 0 = Not at all to
Participants consequently viewed six pictures of male
faces, half of which were attractive and half of which were
unattractive. Three of them contained blemishes. Because the
blemishes could not be evenly divided among unattractive and
attractive faces, we counterbalanced across participants
whether two attractive and one unattractive face contained
blemished or vice versa. Furthermore, we used a Latin square
and counterbalanced the order of the faces and conditions
across participants in order to eliminate order and priming
effects (DeBruine 2014).
Participants indicated how attractive they found the men
depicted on a scale from 0 = Not at all attractive to 4 = Very
attractive. They also indicated how disgusted they would feel
“Talking to that person,”“Hugging that person,”“Kissing that
person,”and “Having sex with that person.”We chose these
four behaviors in order to cover sexual and non-sexual behav-
iors, for which we expected different effects based on previous
studies (Borg and de Jong 2012; Stevenson et al. 2011). The
items also ranged from a casual interpersonal behavior to in-
timate physical contact and should therefore differ greatly in
the disgust they elicit (Ryan et al. 2012). Furthermore, sam-
pling across behaviors enabled us to account for effects that a
single behavior might have and avoid floor or ceiling effects.
The items were answered on a scale from 0 = Notatall
disgusting to 6 = Extremely disgusting.
After these ratings, we again assessed levels of sexual
arousal via self-report. Participants in the neutral condi-
tion then filled out the pathogen disgust scale from the
Three Domains of Disgust Scale (Tybur et al. 2009). This
enabled us to control for individual differences in disgust
sensitivity. Furthermore, based on a trend in their data,
Fleischman et al. (2015) suggested that individual differ-
ences in disgust sensitivity may predict the degree to
which sexual arousal influences motivation to engage
with attractive and unattractive targets with and without
disease cues. Only one subscale was used, because it ap-
pears to be the most valid one and relates most strongly to
disgust sensitivity (Tybur et al. 2010). Its reliability was
Finally, we asked respondents “How seriously did you take
this survey?”and they replied once again on a scale from
0=Not at all to 4 = Very much. After filling out this first part,
participants were asked to fill out the second part the next day
for which they received a reminder per email. The second
questionnaire placed them in the other of the two conditions.
It comprised a different set of faces, comparable in physical
attractiveness ratings and blemishes, to rule out effects of fa-
miliarity (Little et al. 2014). Eventually participants were fully
debriefed about the purpose of the study.
Statistical Power and Sample Size Estimation
There were two analyses of our prime interest: first, com-
paring overall disgust levels between the two conditions
and second, our hypothesis; hence, the interaction effect
of sexual arousal and attractiveness/blemishes on disgust.
Effect sizes of the main effect of sexual arousal between
groups in previous studies were an approximate eta
.08 (Lee et al. 2014; Stevenson et al. 2011). We therefore
estimated that it would take 34 participants in a repeated
measures design to obtain a power of .8 (Guo et al. 2013).
We stopped data collection after we reached a sufficient
number of participants for this analysis (54; Simmons
et al. 2011).
We used five-point and seven-point Likert scales with at least the endpoints
labeled throughout the study, as Weijters, Cabooter, and Schillewart (2010)
Evolutionary Psychological Science
The raw data consisted of 91 participants that had completed
part one and 54 that had completed part two. Some of the
responses of the two parts could not be connected due to
Several participants in the sexual arous-
al condition (11 in part one and four in part two) reported no
sexual arousal at all and were hence excluded from the anal-
ysis. Two participants who identified ashomosexual were also
The analyses were performed on two nested datasets. One
was the fully repeated measurements sample (RM data;
n= 38), in which each participant had been placed in both
the sexual arousal and the neutral condition. The other dataset
consisted only of those who completed part one of the study,
with each participant in only one of the conditions (n=79).
There were 34 women in the sexual arousal and 45 in the
It was therefore analyzed between partici-
pants (BP data). All participants in the RM data also complet-
ed part one. Therefore, we report the demographics of the
participants in the exhaustive BP dataset.
Participants were female psychology undergraduates from
the participant pools of the authors’universities. Their ages
ranged from 18 to 43 years, with a mean of 21.66 (SD =4.10).
Most (N= 66; 83.5%) were Caucasian, and the others were of
various other ethnicities. Three participants reported to be bi-
sexual, the rest identified as mostly or exclusively heterosex-
ual. Forty-four participants were single and the other 35 were
in a relationship; 37 used oral contraceptives, 42 did not.
Recruitment took place via internal advertisement in the uni-
versities and participation was rewarded with course credits.
We performed manipulation checks on both the BP and the
RM data. Table 1shows the means of the two sexual arousal
self-reports (after the video and after the faces), baseline dis-
gust (measured after the video), and how seriously partici-
pants took the survey, per dataset. The table also depicts the
outcomes of the ttests between the sexual arousal and the
neutral condition. The between and within participant tests
of the two datasets corresponded to each other. Participants
reported significantly and substantially more sexual arousal in
the sexual arousal condition than the neutral condition, both
before and after seeing the faces. The sexual arousal condition
also scored higher on baseline disgust. Seriousness scores
were high overall—no participant had a score smaller than
two—and did not differ significantly between conditions.
The manipulation therefore worked as expected, with disgust
levels as a possible confound.
Disgust Hypothesis 1 predicted that sexual arousal would de-
crease disgust towards attractive, but not unattractive faces;
hypothesis 2 predicted that sexual arousal would not reduce
disgust towards blemished faces. Thus, we expected interac-
tion effects between sexual arousal and attractiveness, and
sexual arousal and blemishes. We computed a fully repeated
measures analysis of variance (RM ANOVA) using the RM
data, with attractiveness, blemishes, sexual arousal, and be-
havior as predictors. Behavior was added as a control variable
within participants. The dependent variable was disgust to-
wards each behavior. Table 2shows the corresponding statis-
tics. We found significant main effects of behavior, attractive-
ness, and blemishes, but not of sexual arousal. Unattractive
faces (M =3.49,SE = .12) elicited significantly more disgust
than attractive faces (M =2.19,SE = .11), and blemished faces
(M =3.11,SE = .12) elicited more disgust than unblemished
faces (M =2.57,SE = .11). Behaviors became increasingly
disgusting as they became more sexual (see Fig. 2). All
depicted differences in Fig. 2reached statistical significance
(see Table 3for within participant contrasts). There was a
significant behavior by attractiveness interaction. As can be
seen in Fig. 2, the more sexual the behaviors became, the
larger the difference in disgust between attractive and unat-
tractive faces. The mean differences in the order of behaviors
were .25 (.73) for talking, .88 (1.15) for hugging, 1.99 (1.25)
for kissing, and 2.24 (1.38) for sex. There were no other sig-
nificant interaction effects. Both hypotheses were not
Individual Differences and Between Participant Analysis
We also controlled for baseline disgust after seeing the video
and for the individual difference variables age, conception
risk, oral contraception, recent illness, being in a relationship,
and pathogen disgust sensitivity. Because these variables all
varied between, not within participants, we computed a mixed
design ANOVA with the BP sample of part one (n= 79),
retaining our main variables sexual arousal, behavior, attrac-
tiveness, and blemishes in the analysis. Sexual arousal varied
between participants in this analysis, and as can be seen in
Tab le 4, it again did not influence disgust ratings. Overall, this
analysis mirrored the results of the fully repeated measure-
When adding all the individual difference variables in one
model, there were a few significant, yet meaningless
Participants received an individual ID code in part one, but some did not
report it in part two.
The assumption of homogeneity of variance was met despite the difference
Evolutionary Psychological Science
that most likely resulted from an inflated
type I error rate. Therefore, we are reporting the tests for
adding each variable separately to the mixed design
ANOVA. This analysis was also more meaningful in terms
of statistical power. Age and conception risk were added as
covariates, oral contraception, recent illness, and relationship
status as between participant dummy variables. We computed
conception risk using the estimation for irregularly menstru-
ating women by Wilcox et al. (2000) and excluded partici-
pants that used oral contraception fromthe computation (miss-
ing data). For pathogen disgust sensitivity, we performed a
median split on the data similarly to Fleischman et al. (2015)
and therefore treated it as a between participant dummy vari-
able as well.
The test statistics are listed in Table 4.Noneof
the variables reached statistical significance.
We also examined how ratings of attractiveness of the faces
were influenced by attractiveness level,
blemishes, and sexual
arousal of the participants. We ran a fully RM ANOVA with
attractiveness ratings as the DV (see Table 5). Attractiveness
ratings were influenced by attractiveness level and blemishes,
but not by sexual arousal. This also validated our attractiveness
manipulation. Furthermore, there was an interaction effect be-
tween attractiveness level and blemishes. For unattractive
faces, there was no difference in attractiveness ratings between
blemished (M=1.62,SD = .76) and unblemished (M= 1.68,
SD = .67) faces, t(90) = .65, p= .516, d= .14 . But in attractive
faces, there was a large difference between blemished
(M= 3.21, SD = .91) and unblemished (M=4.00,SD = .86)
faces, t(90) = 6.50, p< .001, d= 1.37. Hence, blemishes only
reduced the attractiveness ratings of attractive faces, and attrac-
tive unblemished faces were rated as particularly attractive.
Individual difference variables also did not affect attractiveness
ratings, but for conciseness, the tests are not reported here.
The main goal of this study was to investigate the effect of
sexual arousal on women’s disgust towards potential mates,
moderated by the mates’attractiveness and disease cues. We
hypothesized that sexual arousal would decrease disgust to-
wards attractive, but not towards unattractive or blemished
men. Both hypotheses were not confirmed. Disgust, as well
as attractiveness ratings, were influenced by attractiveness and
blemishes, but not by sexual arousal. Sexual arousal also did
not interact with any of the variables. Individual difference
variables did not have any effects either.
Attractiveness and Blemishes
As expected, attractiveness decreased women’s disgust to-
wards behaviors with the men depicted. This is in line with
the findings of Principe and Langlois (2011) that attractive
faces elicit less disgust than unattractive faces and with
Mehrabian and Blum (1997) who showed that attractive faces
elicited more positive emotions in viewers. These findings
highlight the desirability of physical attractiveness, particular-
ly as mates (Eastwick et al. 2014;Zsoketal.2017).
Attractiveness seems to reduce disgust and therefore also
avoidance tendencies—probably because it signals good
health and small risk of pathogen transmission (Gangestad
1993;Sugiyama2016; Tybur and Gangestad 2011).
Some interaction effects were significant, because one of the cell differences
was significant and the other was not. However, these differences never
reflected trends in line with the literature. Furthermore, for interaction
effects, they were partly very small groups, hence low power and hence a
higher type II error rate.
This variable was only available from participants who completed the neutral
condition (n= 44).
As a reminder, the attractiveness level refers to the attractiveness manipula-
tion, hence to the attractive and unattractive faces we chose based on pilot
testing. Attractiveness ratings refer to how attractive participants of this study
rated the faces.
Tabl e 1 Sexual arousal directly
after participants had seen the
video and after they had rated the
faces, disgust after rating the
faces, how serious participants
took the survey, and the distance
between the two conditions
Arousal condition Neutral condition
BP data Arousal after video 2.64 (.93) .29 (.59) 3.02***
Arousal after faces 1.40 (1.1) .48 (.82) .97***
Disgust .60 (.78) .27 (.54) .49*
Seriousness 3.58 (.61) 3.8 (.47) .40
RM data Arousal after video 2.66 (1.02) .24 (.49) 3.02***
Arousal after faces 1.82 (1.14) .37 (.59) 1.55***
Disgust .60 (.87) .11 (.39) .71**
Seriousness 3.74 (.62) 3.82 (.39) .17
Significance is based on ttests
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We also found that the more physically intimate the behaviors
were, the less disgust elicited attractive as opposed to unattrac-
tive men. This also seems like an adaptive choice considering
potential mating costs. The behaviors we assessed (talking to,
hugging, kissing, sex) differed in the extent that they require
physical contact and therefore also in the potential adaptive costs
associated with pathogen transmission (Rozin et al. 1995). Sex,
the behavior that elicited the greatest disgust, and the greatest
difference between attractive and unattractive faces, additionally
involves costs/benefits associated with potentially producing
offspring. The more potentially costly a behavior is on average,
the more important it is to choose a partner that optimizes the
cost-benefit ratio. Accordingly, our study shows that anticipated
disgust seems to be a particularly useful indicator for potential
costs when they are high. Overall, women’s behavioral tenden-
cies reflected our initial premise that attractiveness and health
both signal potentially beneficial mating and that disgust is in-
dicative of potential costs with suboptimal mates.
In line with Ryan et al. (2012), our study shows that
blemished faces, independently of their attractiveness, elicit
more disgust than unblemished faces This might explain
why people with face blemishes seem to experience more
negative social interactions (Kent 2002; Schachter et al.
1971; Wright et al. 1970). Blemishes reduced the attractive-
ness of attractive faces, but not of unattractive faces. This
could be because there are many attributes that determine
the attractiveness of a face (Little 2014; Re and Rule 2016;
Sugiyama 2016). Unattractive faces contain other cues that
might show detrimental traits, so the blemishes we added
might not have made large difference. Similarly, the effect
cosmetic make-up has on women’s faces is rather small com-
pared to the inherent properties of the face (Jones and Kramer
2015). Another explanation might be that the blemishes made
the threat of infection salient, and participants therefore be-
came more critical in evaluating the attractiveness of the faces
(Little, DeBruine, & Jones, 2011; Young et al. 2011).
Sexual Arousal and Disgust
Sexual arousal did not influence disgust ratings, even when
we controlled for the specific behaviors, individual differ-
ences, and baseline disgust. Contrary to Istvan et al. (1983),
there was also no effect of sexual arousal on attractiveness
ratings. Studies in men, however, consistently show that sex-
ual arousal decreases their disgust sensitivity (Ariely and
Loewenstein 2006; Lee et al. 2014; Stevenson et al. 2011).
de Jong et al.’s(2013) model provides a possible explana-
tion for the null results of this and previous studies
Tabl e 2 RM ANOVA table for the effects of sexual arousal, behavior,
attractiveness, and blemishes on disgust
Effect Fdf pPartial eta
Arousal .30 1 .86 .00
Behavior 46.43 1.38
Attractiveness 70.44 1 .000 .80
Blemishes 9.29 1 .007 .34
Arousal × behavior .35 1.87
Arousal × attractiveness .33 1 .57 .02
Arousal × blemishes .33 1 .57 .02
Behavior × attractiveness 45.45 1.44
We used the Greenhouse-Geisser correction of degrees of freedom due
to the broken assumption of sphericity
Talking to Hugging Kissing Sex
Fig. 2 Mean disgust ratings per behavior and attractiveness. All
differences were statistically significant
Tabl e 3 Within subject contrasts between the disgust scores towards
the different behaviors
Talking to vs. hugging 2.96 .31
Hugging vs. kissing 7.41 1.08
Kissing vs. sex 21.79 2.14
All degree of freedom were 37. All pvalues are below .01
Tabl e 4 Mixed design ANOVA of the main variables, with disgust
ratings as the dependent variable, and sexual arousal varying between
participants, controlling for individual difference variables
Effect Fdf pPartial eta
Arousal .11 1 .74 .00
Behavior 164.53 1.60
Attractiveness 85.83 1 .000 .53
Blemishes 13.94 1 .000 .16
Baseline disgust .61 1 .44 .01
Age .05 1 .83 .00
Pathogen disgust sensitivity 1.38 1 .25 .01
Conception risk .97 1 .33 .03
Recent illness .47 1 .50 .01
Relationship status .27 1 .61 .01
We used the Greenhouse-Geisser correction of degrees of freedom due
to the broken assumption of sphericity
Evolutionary Psychological Science
(Fleischman et al. 2015; van Overveld & Borg, 2015): Sexual
arousal might have not exceeded the level of disgust to the
extent that it would occupy attentional resources and therefore
inhibit disgust. Women on average have a higher disgust sen-
sitivity and propensity than men (Andrews et al. 2015; Borg
et al. 2015; Fleischman 2017; Grauvogl et al. 2015;
Rohrmann et al. 2008; Tybur et al. 2011). This also implies
that they require relatively more sexual arousal to outweigh
disgust and elicit a sexually functioning feedback loop (de
Jong et al. 2013). In other words, sexual arousal is less likely
to outweigh disgust in women. This is also thought to be the
underlying problem in sexual dysfunctions involving disgust
(Borg et al. 2010). The expected inhibitory effect of sexual
arousal on disgust might therefore be observable in experi-
ments using a strong sexual arousal manipulation (Lee et al.
2014) and/orless disgusting stimuli. Our stimuli were not very
disgusting per se, but the men depicted were unfamiliar to
participants, and strangers tend to elicit more disgust than
familiar others (Borg et al. 2015; Peng et al. 2013; Rozin
et al. 1995). The increased baseline disgust level in the sexual
arousal condition might have contributed to an imbalance be-
tween sexual arousal and disgust in favor of the latter.
The mixed findings in women could also be explained by the
sex-specific challenges in evolutionary history (Buss and
Schmitt 1993). Women face greater potential costs from sexual
intercourse, because of parental investment, as well as greater
susceptibility to disease (Fleischman 2014; Madkan et al. 2006).
Hence, they favor a sexual strategy that involves mating inside
long-term committed relationships, with partners whose traits
they have carefully examined (Schmitt 2015). The women in
our study had never seen the men they were presented before.
The study therefore presented them with a short-term mating
scenario. Selection pressures might have not been strong on
evolving a mechanism that suppresses disgust in such scenarios,
because it yields little evolutionary benefit. It might even impose
costs due to suboptimal mating decisions. In sum, while sexual
arousal clearly decreases disgust in men, this effect seems to be
weak, and/or more dependent on context in women.
Individual Difference Variables
We did not find that any individual difference variables (age,
pathogen disgust sensitivity, recent illness, relationship status,
oral contraception, conception risk) influenced disgust or at-
tractiveness, although previous research has (Curtis et al.
2004;DeBruine2014; Fessler and Navarrete 2003;
Fleischman 2014; Gruijters et al. 2016;Parketal.2012).
The fact that we did not find a link between recent illness
and disgust might be because we employed only explicit mea-
sures, while other studies have found this link only on implicit
measures (Lund and Boggero 2014; Miller and Maner 2011).
The null effect of being in a relationship is in line with the
findings of Wang et al. (2016). Failure to replicate the effects
of the other variables probably stems from the fact that they
have been rather small and that our study lacked the statistical
power to detect them. Furthermore, some variables, for exam-
ple facial masculinity, have been precisely manipulated in
other studies (DeBruine et al. 2010), while our manipulations
pertained to attractiveness globally. So overall, our data does
not directly refute these effects, but merely confirms that they
Our results should be interpreted in light of methodological
constraints, for example regarding the experimental manipu-
lation. We cannot know for sure whether participants fully
complied with the instructions. Although we used a validated
erotic video, participants might not have found it pleasant,
which contributes to women’s sexual arousal in response to
erotica (Carvalho et al. 2013). Our self-report measure of sex-
ual arousal also did not guarantee that women were physically
aroused (Chivers et al. 2010). Research to date has not yet
addressed whether disgust inhibition, or attentional processes
more broadly, operates differently under self-reported vs.
physiologically measured sexual arousal. Participants agreed
to watch pornographic material for the study, which poses a
volunteer bias typical for sex research (Bogaert 1996; Hock
2015; Wiederman 1999); also, participants might be accus-
tomed to pornography, and less sensitive to it (Kelley and
Musialowski 1986; Koukounas and Over 2000). Future stud-
ies on sexual arousal might avoid these limitations by
allowing participants to arouse themselves in their preferred
manner (Lee et al. 2014), or self-select erotica (Goldey and
van Anders 2016; Ioannou et al. 2016). Other than that, this
study might have profited from measuring additional control
variables, for example sociosexuality (Murray, Jones, &
Schaller, 2013;Saccoetal.2012), or baseline mood (ter
Kuile et al. 2010). Also, we might have trapped participants
into labeling any positive or negative feelings as attraction and
disgust, respectively, and therefore we might have left out
other feelings that could play a role.
We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for pointing out some of
Tabl e 5 Statistics for the RM ANOVA on attractiveness ratings
Arousal 1.12 .298 .03
Intended attractiveness 581.53 .000 .94
Blemish 22.05 .000 .37
Intended attractiveness × blemish 7.25 .011 .17
Only the significant interaction effect is listed. All degrees of freedom are 1
Evolutionary Psychological Science
This study suggests that approach and avoidance motivation
in women towards unfamiliar potential mates are unaffected
by their sexual arousal state, but are affected by the mates’
visible traits. Specifically, attractiveness and a lack of disease
cues increase approach (attraction) and decrease avoidance
motivation (disgust) towards engagement with mates.
Acknowledgements We would like to thank Andrea Schlump for her
helpful comments on the study design and Aaron Kreidel for the editing
of the stimuli. This research did not receive any specific grant from
funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.
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