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Effects of Subjective Sexual Arousal on Sexual, Pathogen, and Moral Disgust Sensitivity in Women and Men

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The present experiment tested a novel method of manipulating subjective sexual arousal to examine the effects of sexual arousal on disgust sensitivity. Participants were instructed to employ their own preferred methods of achieving sexual or physiological arousal in the privacy of their own home to reach a target state of arousal. Participants then completed the Three-Domain Disgust Scale (Tybur, Lieberman, & Griskevicius, 2009), which measures sensitivity to sexual, pathogen, and moral disgust. The sexual arousal manipulation caused large, homogenous increases in sexual arousal in women and men. In women, sexual arousal (but not physiological arousal) significantly reduced sensitivity to sexual disgust and marginally increased sensitivity to pathogen disgust. In men, sexual arousal did not decrease disgust sensitivity in any domain. Findings support the evolutionary hypothesis that sexual arousal inhibits sexual disgust, which facilitates an organism’s willingness to engage in high-risk, but evolutionarily necessary, reproductive behaviors, an effect that could be particularly important for women.

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  1. Due to an error in formatting the response options, the first 36 participants responded to a 6-point version of the scale. Data for these participants were adjusted to a 7-point scale prior to analysis.

  2. The results of our factor analysis are available upon request.


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Correspondence to Ellen M. Lee.



Three Domain Disgust Scale (Tybur et al., 2009).

  1. 1.

    Shoplifting a candy bar from a convenience store (moral).

  2. 2.

    Hearing two strangers having sex (sexual).

  3. 3.

    Stepping on dog poop (pathogen).

  4. 4.

    Stealing from a neighbor (moral).

  5. 5.

    Performing oral sex (sexual).

  6. 6.

    Sitting next to someone who has red sores on their arm (pathogen).

  7. 7.

    A student cheating to get good grades (moral).

  8. 8.

    Watching a pornographic video (sexual).

  9. 9.

    Shaking hands with a stranger who has sweaty palms (pathogen).

  10. 10.

    Deceiving a friend (moral).

  11. 11.

    Finding out that someone you don’t like has sexual fantasies about you (sexual).

  12. 12.

    Seeing some mold on old leftovers in your refrigerator (pathogen).

  13. 13.

    Forging someone’s signature on a legal document (moral).

  14. 14.

    Bringing someone you just met back to your room to have sex (sexual).

  15. 15.

    Standing close to a person who has body odor (pathogen).

  16. 16.

    Cutting to the front of a line to purchase the last few tickets to a show (moral).

  17. 17.

    A stranger of the opposite sex intentionally rubbing your thigh in an elevator (sexual).

  18. 18.

    Seeing a cockroach run across the floor (pathogen).

  19. 19.

    Intentionally lying during a business transaction (moral).

  20. 20.

    Having anal sex with someone of the opposite sex (sexual).

  21. 21.

    Accidentally touching a person’s bloody cut (pathogen).

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Lee, E.M., Ambler, J.K. & Sagarin, B.J. Effects of Subjective Sexual Arousal on Sexual, Pathogen, and Moral Disgust Sensitivity in Women and Men. Arch Sex Behav 43, 1115–1121 (2014).

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