Disgust can function as a social emotion–that is, we learn what is “disgusting” (including our own bodies and sex-related things) by reading the responses of people around us. The good news: You can choose to let go of learned sexual turn-offs. From Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.
Often disgust is reinforced in subtle ways, but sometimes we can remember a specific moment when the message is made clear. I talked to a grandmother—a badass Southern belle sex educator grandmother, to be specific—who told me about just such a moment from when she was a teenager. She had been sitting on the front porch making out with her boyfriend, but when she went inside, her mother came up to her with disgust in every line of her face and said, “What you were just doing out there? That’s sex!”
And this sixty-something grandmother told me, “It took me a long, long time to realize why I got so anxious about sex with my husband—and I mean nauseated anxious—and when I finally figured it out, I was angry for about ten seconds, and then I was just so sad for my mother.”
She went on, “Now when I do health education at my church, I just say it right out loud: ‘I like sex!’ I want everyone to know that it’s okay!”
I love this woman.
For sex educators, the rule is, “Don’t yuck anybody’s yum.” And since we can’t know what everybody else’s yums are, we don’t yuck anything. We know that disgust is a social emotion and that our students have already been exposed to too many people who communicate disgust around sex.
That’s why sex educators and sex therapists go through an educational process of intensive exposure, deliberately designed to minimize our own judgment, shame, and disgust reactions, so that we can respond with open neutrality to whatever students or clients bring into the room. This training often takes the form of a Sexual Attitude Reassessment, a multi-day training that includes values clarification exercises, guest panels and speakers, plus (in my experience) a range of porn that would surprise most people in its variety, intensity, and creativity, followed by reflection and processing of our reactions to all of it.
Unless you become a sex educator, you never need to go through a process like this. All you ever need to do is begin to recognize where your learned disgust response is interfering with your own sexual pleasure, and decide whether it’s something you’d rather let go of. Your genitals and your partners’, your genital fluids and your partners’, your skin and sweat and the fragrances of your body, these are all healthy and beautiful—not to mention normal—elements of human sexual experience. You get to choose whether you feel grossed out by them.