Professor Robin Mackenzie presented a paper at the 8th Skepsi international conference based around the one word title “Disgust.”

Disgust 1The meeting was held here at the University of Kent on the 29th and 30th June and explored the complex nature of the feeling of disgust in a variety of disciplines. Disgust is universally experienced feeling, even if the object of disgust as well as its linguistic expression, can vary greatly according to different cultures. The conference also explored the fact that abstract issues can elicit disgust, and whether disgust can (or should) be related to ethical outrage as a way to protect human dignity and social order.

Robins’ paper was entitled “Cultural reframing of sexual disgust: now that sex and reproduction are not necessarily connected, how long should humans having sex with sentient sexbots, nonhuman animals and children provoke disgust?” clearly this was a very challenging topic that challenged some of our basest emotions. Disgust as an emotion is thought to have evolved to avoid infectious microorganisms; sexually costly behaviours; and avoiding anti-social behaviour. Some authors argue that sexual disgust stems not from a need to motivate avoiding mates who could potentially jeopardize our reproductive success. Similarly parts of the body such as the mouth and genitals are potential sources of both pathogens and sexual pleasure, creating what Robin refers to as ‘an attraction/repulsion dynamic.’

Given that what people view as immoral, disgusting or socially harmful is often shaped by cultural norms, Robin challenged long-held views of disgust in the context that the rise of reproductive technologies and contraception are severing necessary connections between sex and reproduction. Sex is considered acceptable among consenting adults and thus the concept of consent operates as a gateway to differentiate between lawful and prohibited sex. Sex with entities regarded as unable to provide legal consent or genetically related kin is legally outlawed, customarily provoking sexual and moral disgust. Robin made the point that sentient sexbots will soon become purchasable customised sexual partners. She then raised the following questions: How might sexual disgust become reframed as reproductive, virtual and robotic technologies progress? What should be the relationship between the reframing of sexual disgust and the law?

The conference also included intriguing titles such as: ‘Why is God Disgusted by Sex?’ ‘Changing Feelings of Disgust as Witnesses of Human Plasticity.’ Why are Injuries Disgusting?’ and ‘The Aesthetics of Ambivalence: Revolting Women in Contemporary Literature.’ Rumour has it that Monty’s Python’s “every sperm is sacred” even got an airing once or twice.

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