Sex may be one of life's great pleasures, but it also involves a lot that normally might gross people out -- sweat, bodily fluids and body odor, for starters.
A small Dutch study, released Wednesday, set out to identify the psychology that leads women to willingly, and even enthusiastically, engage in sexual activities despite the ick factor. The results, published online in the journal PLoS ONE, indicate that arousal overrides feelings of disgust and facilitates a woman's desire to do something that a woman who is not aroused might find flat-out repulsive.
"Women [who] were sexually aroused were more willing to touch and do initially disgusting tasks," study co-author Charmaine Borg, a researcher in the department of clinical psychology and experimental psychopathology at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, told The Huffington Post.
Borg and her colleagues separated 90 female university students into three equal groups: one watched "female friendly erotica;" one watched a video of extreme sports meant to get them excited, but in a non-sexual way; and one watched a video of a train, meant to elicit a neutral response.
The women were then given 16 tasks, most of them unappealing. They were asked to take a sip from a cup of juice that had a large (fake) insect in it, to wipe their hands with a used tissue and to take a bite from a cookie that was sitting next to a living worm. The women were also asked to perform several sex-related tasks, like lubricating a vibrator.
Women in the "aroused group" said they found both the unpleasant tasks and the sex-related tasks less disgusting than women in the other groups. They also completed the highest percentage of the activities, suggesting that sexual arousal not only decreases feelings of disgust, but directly affects what women are willing to do, the study shows.
Daniel R. Kelly, an associate professor of philosophy at Purdue University and author of the book "Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust" who was not involved in the study, explained that disgust is an "extension of our immune system" that helps prevent people from getting infected by making them wary of things, like bodily fluids, that potentially carry disease or make people vulnerable.
"Disgust is an emotion," he explained. "What it's there for, primarily, is to protect us against eating things that might poison us, or coming into close physical proximity to things that might carry infections. That's its mission."
David Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas Austin and author of "Why Women Have Sex," called disgust a "huge issue for women."
"Women show far more disgust and especially sexual disgust, than men," he said.
Buss concurred with Kelly that the findings are evidence of what "is very likely an evolved psychological defense."
"It helps to protect women from having sex with the wrong men, such as men who might communicate diseases, men who show signs of a high 'parasite load,' men who have poor hygiene and so on," he said.
What is interesting about the new Dutch paper, the two experts agreed, is that it suggests the mission to avoid the potentially "dangerous" parts of sex takes a backseat when women are aroused. "Sexual arousal can override disgust," Buss said.
That not only suggests a potential reason why a woman might engage in behaviors that she wouldn't if she weren't turned on, it might also provide insights into how low-sexual arousal feeds sexual dysfunctions in women, the study's authors argue.
"These findings indicate that lack of sexual arousal may interfere with functional sex, as it may prevent the reduction of disgust and disgust-related avoidance tendencies," Borg explained, saying she hopes the findings prompt further research in this area.
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Keeps Your Blood Flowing
According to Dr. Jennifer Berman, co-founder of the Female Sexual Medicine Center at UCLA, orgasms increase your circulation, keeping the blood flowing to your genital area. This in turn keeps your tissue healthy!
It's A Form Of Cardio
Although it can't be considered an alternative to daily exercise, having an orgasm is a cardiovascular activity. "Your heart rate increases, blood pressure increases [and your] respiratory rate increases," says Berman. And because it's akin to running in many physiological respects, your body also releases endorphins. Sounds like a pretty fun way to work your heart out.
Lifts Your Mood
Feeling down in the dumps? An orgasm might be just what you need to pick yourself up. In addition to endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin are also released during orgasm. All three of these hormones have what Berman terms "mood-enhancing effects." In fact, dopamine is the same hormone that's released when individuals use drugs such as cocaine -- or eat something really delicious.
Helps You Sleep
A little pleasure may go a long way towards a good night's rest. A recent survey of 1,800 women found that over 30 percent of them used sexual release as a natural sedative.
Keeps Your Brain Healthy
Having an orgasm not only works out your heart, but also your head. Barry Komisaruk, Ph.D. <a href="http://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/tips-moves/orgasm-news" target="_hplink">told <em>Cosmopolitan</em></a> that orgasms actually nourish the brain with oxygen. "Functional MRI images show that women's brains utilize much more oxygen during orgasm than usual," Komisaruk says.
It's A Natural Painkiller
One thing that Victorian practitioners may have been onto is that orgasms can work to soothe certain aches and pains -- namely migraines and menstrual cramps. (So now you know what to do next time you have a headache if you don't feel like popping an Excedrin.) According to Berman, the contractions that make up an orgasm can actually work to evacuate blood clots during your period, providing some temporary relief.
It Relieves Stress
Most of our lives are so hectic that it's hard to even imagine being relaxed. However, it turns out that <em>sexual</em> release can double as <em>stress</em> relief. Not only do the hormones help with this task, Berman says that being sexual also gives our minds a break: "When we're stressed out and overextending ourselves, [we're] not being in the moment. Being sexual requires us to focus on one thing only."
Gives You A Healthy Glow
There actually might be something to the idea that we "glow" after sex. The hormone DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), which shows <a href="http://www.ivillage.com/secret-health-benefits-sex/4-a-283856" target="_hplink">increased levels during sexual excitement</a>, can actually make your skin healthier.
Aids Your Emotional Health
Last but not least, when you know what it takes to make yourself orgasm, you may increase your emotional confidence and intelligence. "When you understand how your body works and ... [that it] is capable of pleasure on its own, regardless of your partner status, you make much better decisions in relationships," says Logan Levkoff, Ph.D., a sexologist and certified sexuality educator. "You don't look to someone else to legitimize that you're a sexual being."