How attractive do you find the prospect of sex with animals? Do you think it would be fun to watch another person urinate? Do you find shoes erotic? If you’re like most people, you probably said that these things aren’t exactly up your alley. However, if you were asked these same questions while you were in a heightened state of sexual arousal, research suggests that you might perceive them at least a little differently. Scientists have found that when we’re feeling very sexually aroused, things that we might otherwise perceive as gross or disgusting don’t seem quite as bad.
As some evidence of this, consider a classic study by Ariely and Lowenstein published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. In this research, 35 heterosexual male college undergraduates were asked to evaluate the attractiveness of various sexual activities under two very different circumstances: once while in their normal, unaroused state, and once while masturbating. All of the sexual stimuli were presented on a laptop computer while subjects were in a private room. In the masturbatory condition, the men were instructed to pleasure themselves to a “sub-orgasmic level of arousal.” They were explicitly told not to ejaculate, but if they accidentally did, they should hit the tab key in order to end the study (on a side note, ever since I read this paper, I’ve never been able to look at a tab key without snickering).
Subjects were presented with 20 different sexual stimuli and asked to rate how attractive each one was on a scale of 0 to 100. These included:
“Are women’s shoes erotic?”
“Can you imagine being attracted to a 12-year-old girl?”
“Can you imagine having sex with a 40-year-old/50-year-old/60-year-old woman?”
“Can you imagine having sex with a man?”
“Could it be fun to have sex with someone who is extremely fat?”
“Could you enjoy having sex with someone you hated?”
“If you were attracted to a woman and she proposed a threesome with a man, would you do it?”
“Is a woman sexy when she’s sweating?”
“Is the smell of cigarette smoke arousing?”
“Would it be fun to tie up/get tied up by your sexual partner?”
“Would it be fun to watch an attractive woman urinating?”
“Would you find it exciting to spank your sexual partner?”
“Would you find it exciting to get spanked by an attractive woman?”
“Would you find it exciting to have anal sex?”
“Can you imagine getting sexually excited by contact with an animal?”
“Do you prefer to have sex with the light on?” “
“Is just kissing frustrating?”
The researchers found that out of all 20 sexual stimuli presented, only one of them (sex with the lights on) was rated as less attractive in the masturbation condition; the other 19 were rated as more desirable when the subjects were masturbating compared to when they weren't aroused, including sex with animals, finding a 12-year-old girl attractive, and watching a woman urinate. I should note that of the 19 stimuli that increased in attractiveness, all of the differences were statistically significant except one: sex with another man. What this means is that perceptions of same-sex contact did not really become substantially more arousing, but everything else did.
These findings are consistent with a more recent study of sexual arousal in women that was conducted by a different set of scientists. In that study, participants were either shown “female friendly erotica” or not prior to being asked to engage in a series of disgusting tasks, such as putting one’s hand in a bowl full of (seemingly) used condoms. The researchers found that women who were sexually aroused from having watched porn were more willing to attempt the disgusting tasks and rated those tasks as less gross than women who had watched something else (you can read more about the details of that study here).
These findings tell us that sexual arousal changes our perceptions of the world around us. And we are not necessarily cognizant of these changes either—in other words, we may not consciously recognize that our perceptions have shifted when we enter a heightened state of sexual arousal.
There are huge implications of this for the development of our sexual interests. If this high state of sexual arousal leads to actual changes in our sexual behavior or if we start to create a psychological association between arousal and the presence of a disgusting stimulus, this could plant the seed for developing a fetish. I guess the take-home message from all of this is simple: be careful where you masturbate!
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To read more about this research, see: Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2006). The heat of the moment: The effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19, 87-98.
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