A passionate night with a loved one usually involves a bit more than tonsil hockey. Partners enjoy close and mutual encounters with each other’s most intimate body parts and juices. But if one of them forgets to bring a toothbrush in the heat of the moment, the thought of borrowing one from the object of last night’s desire is often repellent. How do we explain this? It is largely due to disgust, discovered Charmaine Borg. She will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 9 December.
Borg examined various factors affecting genito-pelvic pain/penetration-related disorders, such as dyspareunia (pain with penetration) and vaginismus, (complete inability to insert anything in her vagina).
Before she started her research, Borg had assumed that women suffering from vaginismus would express more disgust than sexually asymptomatic women coming across sexual stimuli. This was not the case. ‘Brain scans showed that nearly all women react to images of penetration in the same way as they do to images designed to evoke disgust, such as rotting food, dirty toilets, injuries and deformed bodies; even the women without sex-related disorders.’ According to Borg, this was just one of the surprising findings in her research. ‘Sexual arousal is an extremely powerful weapon for suppressing disgust, but as soon as the arousal subsides, women “come to their senses”.’
To test this hypothesis, Borg asked three groups of women to perform a number of tasks. The tasks were either of sexual content or not directly related to sex. These tasks varied from taking a sip from a glass of water containing a large cockroach to touching with a fingertip wet and used condom. In the group that were sexually aroused the participants appeared less disgusted and were also more willing to perform the ‘disgusting’ tasks (have a sip from the water with a cockroach in it).
This was not the case for women with vaginismus. Perhaps sexual arousal does not suppress their feelings of disgust as evident by the measurement of the levator alesque nasil, the muscle we use to wrinkle our nose in response to disgust. Borg: ‘Women with sexual penetration problems clearly express more disgust than women without sexual disorders. It’s possible that this makes them tighten other muscles too, whether consciously or subconsciously’, says Borg. ‘But even if they are aware of what they are doing, it doesn’t mean that they can do anything about it.’
Measurements taken while the women were watching a female-friendly porn film also showed that women with vaginismus or dyspareunia were more repelled than women without problems. When asked afterwards, only the women with vaginismus admitted to associating penetration with ‘dirty’. This was not the case for the women with dyspareunia. Borg: ‘Although the measurements indicated disgust, they apparently adjust their initial associations when given time to think about it.’ This probably explains why women with dyspareunia are ultimately able to have sexual intercourse, even if they are feeling pain.
Although the treatment for vaginismus is usually effective - the success rate is 98 percent - this does not mean that both parties are enjoying sex. Borg: ‘Many women are eventually able to achieve sexual intercourse, but it is not necessarily enjoyable, partly because they continue to feel disgust.’
The fear of pain is obviously another important factor for women with vaginismus or dyspareunia. Having said this, although the emotions fear and disgust are very similar, there are also differences between the two, explains Borg. The results of her study provides plenty of potential for further research into a possible refinement of the current treatment for women with vaginismus or dyspareunia, by including extinction procedures for the emotion of disgust.
Charmaine Borg (Malta, 1981) studied Mental Health Sciences at King’s College, University of London. She conducted her PhD research in the Department of Clinical Psychology and Experimental Psychopathology with a Malta Government Scholarship. Her thesis is entitled ‘Sex, disgust, and penetration disorders’, and her supervisors are Prof. P.J. de Jong (University of Groningen), Prof. W.C.M. Weijmar Schultz (UMCG) and Dr J.R. Georgiadis of the Neuro Imaging Center (UMCG/University of Groningen). After gaining her PhD, Borg will continue her research as a postdoc.
Thirteen researchers from the University of Groningen (UG) and the UMCG have been awarded Veni grants within the framework of NWO’s Innovational Research Incentives Scheme.
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