Disgust

It was the morning of 30th September; I was sitting in my favourite chair, facing the blue and orange hues of the sky, sipping my ginger tea with a phone in my hand. I read the news that the 19 year old girl, who was brutally gang raped in Hathras had passed away. What added to my misery was that the Uttar Pradesh police cremated her body without her family’s consent. Shocked by the absolute injustice and Machiavellian manoeuvre, I started digging deeper to get more information about the crime. The gory description of the violent sexual attack that the young girl had to endure crushed my soul. “She was lying on the ground, battered and bruised, barely conscious and naked from the waist downwards,” her mother told the reporters. “She was bleeding, she couldn’t move her neck, her arms and legs were lifeless, she was vomiting blood.” Chills ran through my body, everything around me just froze, an eerie silence filled my ears and jitters passed through my spine. 


Sitting in my chair, appalled by the injustice, I began to think about my fellow sisters in the city and across the country. I began to wonder about the lived emotional experiences of women like me – urban, educated, financially independent, and working class women, in the age range of 25-34 years who are recipients of information about crimes against women via the media. This is also the age range that, according to studies, consumes the most amount of news on digital platforms. 


In this pursuit, I reached out and spoke to 50 such women. I tried to study their reactions to the seven basic human emotions as identified by Paul Ekman which are – anger, sadness, happiness, surprise, disgust, and fear. I also tried to understand their response and its intensity on a 5 point Likert scale with regard to the news of the Hathras rape case. A 5 point Likert scale is a type of psychometric response scale in which responders specify their level of agreement to a statement typically in five points: (1) Strongly disagree; (2) Disagree; (3) Neither agree nor disagree; (4) Agree; (5) Strongly agree. It was interesting to note a collective similarity in the emotions felt by the majority of the women. The predominant emotion was DISGUST. Their experience of disgust was not just towards the culprits but also towards the collective community of men who tend to inflict sexual violence on women at the behest of their caste-based privileges and the system that tries to save them. 


What is Disgust? 


Imagine three glasses of tap water. You are told that the water in the first glass contains an odourless, harmless chemical that is terribly bitter to the taste. The second glass is laced with a lethal dose of arsenic. The third glass, perfectly sterile and containing pure water, previously held a sample of dog faeces but has been washed thoroughly. 

Which one would you prefer? 


A common reaction that many experienced to this question was the urge to spit, to purse lips, to blow air, or to make an ach or an ugh sound. The feeling experienced, first at the thought of the bitter tasting water that later aggravated at the thought of the dog faeces, is the feeling of extreme disgust. 


Disgust is a vital yet understudied emotion due to its unpleasant nature. However, why do we experience this emotion?


Evolution of Disgust


Disgust is an adaptive system which evolved in humans to motivate the avoidance of infectious diseases. Animals also display the emotion of disgust as a mechanism to reduce the risk of being infected by micro and macro-parasites. Like rat pups, newborn babies involuntarily reject certain tastes. Newborns reject foods that are bitter, sour, irritating, or painful. However, the disgust felt by excrement is not experienced by newborns. Between the ages four and eight, babies develop an acquired sense of disgust that is different from the innate sense of distaste that they are born with. Due to this, adults can acquire a taste for spicy, bitter, or sour food, but develop a strong feeling of disgust towards excrement. 

An example being the glass test discussed earlier, while the first glass is unpleasant due to its bitter taste, adults would feel most disgust towards the third glass because we are taught that excreta is disgusting. Human infants do not show an emotion of disgust towards excreta until they are taught to do so. 


Furthermore, Darwin noted that what is considered as disgusting may vary across cultures. “Disgust marks the boundaries of culture and boundaries of the self,” W.I. Miller noted in his book, The Anatomy of Disgust. This synthesis replaced previous conceptions of disgust. From a psychological standpoint, Freud believed that disgust is an artificial response used to tame children’s sexuality by repudiating desired objects, such as a mother’s breast. These, according to him, are psychodynamic balancing mechanisms that suppress our sexual instincts. Freud also wrote that one of the primary reasons for why we walk up straight is because we want to keep our heads away from our genitals.

Some conservatives critics called Harmonia Rosales’ Creation of God disgusting and a disgrace for changing Michelangelo’s Creazione di Adamo. But she argues that it is a counter to the eurocentric narratives and norms. 


Sex and Disgust


Imagine you are invited to a friend’s place for dinner. You are at the dinner table and the delicacies begin to be served. Gobs of your friend’s spit is served as a beverage, sweat from the server’s forehead and neck drizzles over the appetizers as he serves them fondly, and bodily fluids from the server’s genitals are served as dips.


Did this scenario disturb you and incite a strong reaction of feeling revulsion?


While the thought of consuming other people’s bodily fluids is disgusting, it is interesting to note that this feeling of disgust is eliminated in sexual relations. During moments of intercourse or intimacy, couples are often comfortable with each other’s bodily fluids. This is because, sex is a period when we suspend our capacity to feel disgust. However, deviances from socially acceptable sexual experiences can be considered disgusting. For instance, in the popular sitcom Friends, when one of the lead characters Monica finds out that the rather mature looking male with whom she had had sex was a minor, she feels repulsed and terms it as icky. Therefore, when sexual experiences are inflicted on someone without consent, it leads to an increased sense of disgust.  


Survivors of violence report feeling a sense of mental pollution, a contamination of the mind that cannot be erased easily. This is the reason why some survivors of sexual trauma suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develop conditions like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or dissociative symptoms. This could be one explanation for why disgust emerged as the major emotion experienced by the 50 female participants of my study, in response to the Hathras rape case. Disgust is marked by boundaries of culture and self. When the boundary of self is crossed, disgust may begin. An additional tangent that also leads to the feelings of disgust in cases of coercion is the aspect of morality.


Socio-moral Disgust


Experiencing a feeling of disgust to offensive substances such as bodily fluids, waste, animal products, rotten food, is known as physical disgust. In the case of physical disgust, there is often a strong desire to withdraw from the eliciting stimulus. However, when the experience of disgust is due to the presence of an immoral behaviour, like incest, murder, rape, paedophilia, it is known as moral disgust. While there are similarities in experiencing physical disgust across different cultures, the perception of moral disgust may vary. For example, in India, there is a higher tolerance for physical disgust than there is for moral disgust. This can be seen in the widespread use of cow dung and cow urine juxtaposed against the continued caste-based discrimination. 


In a study done to identify morally disgusting crimes, the most common ones were rape, racism, killing, murder, torture, bullying, paedophilia, discrimination, necrophilia, genocide, exploitation, incest, theft, bestiality, and cannibalism. However, one can also find a varying degree of disgust with the varying degree of moral normalcy. For instance, who would be considered more disgusting, a serial killer who killed ten people or one who killed five people and raped their dead bodies? This is because disgust is different from fear. While fear is a response to an impending threat to the physical body, disgust is a threat to consciousness.


A test to comprehend this distinction is the sweater test. Imagine a cold winter night, you go to a thrift shop to buy a sweater. You are given a choice between a blue one and a red one. The shopkeeper tells you that the red sweater belonged to a serial killer who killed ten women while the blue one belonged to a man who killed five women and then raped their dead bodies. If you had to choose and wear one, which one would you? 

When this scenario was presented to the 50 participants of my research, a majority of the participants chose the red sweater. While there is a sense of contamination associated with fear, it increases significantly when coupled with disgust. Although the sweater does not pose any threat of physical contamination, any kind of contact with the rapist’s possession may feel like an enhanced form of contamination, like a form of spiritual pollution, due to the deviant morality of the crime. Hence, while acts of murder are perceived as disgusting, acts of brutal rape like the Hathras gang rape are considered disgusting in a more profound sense.


Socio-cultural Disgust 


Since time immemorial, India has seen prejudice based on caste. Persons of certain caste have been considered disgusting purely by virtue of their birth. These persons were considered disgusting and polluting by the upper caste people, and hence any kind of bodily contact with them was frowned upon. 

A legal validation to the idea of contamination was seen in the country by the infamous 1995 judgment of the Rajasthan High Court in the Bhanwari Devi gang rape case, which held that the upper caste men could never rape a lower caste woman because they would not touch her.


History repeated itself in 2006 in the classic instance of caste denial in the Khairlanji case. Surekha, a Mahar woman’s assertiveness and the upward mobility of her family had narrowed the social distance between the two castes to a level that was unbearable for the dominant Kunbis. Following the horrific sexual assault and murders of Surekha, her daughter and two sons, the Nagpur High Court judgment insisted that it was a revenge killing that had nothing to do with caste. 


Today, history seems to have repeated itself yet again. In continuity with the past, we have a Dalit (Balmiki) girl allegedly raped and left to die by the dominant caste (Thakur) men, who were her neighbours in Hathras, UP, a state which records the highest number of caste-based violence against women in the country according to National Crime Records Bureau. This case also follows the familiar initial attempts at cover up and denial. The police cremated the body of the girl sans the consent of her parents and the state government denied the crime of rape. Instead, they claimed that the protests for justice were acts of sedition and labelled them as part of a larger conspiracy to topple the peace in the state. On the other hand, the supporters of the accused were allowed to organize meetings which some upper caste officials from the state government as well as allies attended. 


However, as much as the government or supporters of the accused try to bury the caste element of the case, it stands out, as bright as daylight, casting a pale shadow of nothing but disgust. 


Who is Disgusting?


Today, it is a similar case; however, as we see, the needle of disgust has turned.

While the facade of disgust was put on the survivors to save the perpetrators in 1995 and 2006, today we have risen to the point of collective female consciousness where clearly if anyone is perceived as disgusting, they are the upper caste men who consider Dalit women (eight Dalit women are raped every day in India) as their unsaid property by virtue of the caste capital, just like other tangible properties like land. Today they are at the standpoint of disgust by the women of the country. This change in the discourse reflects the progressive and egalitarian collective consciousness of the women of our country.


Why is Disgust important?


Disgust is unpleasant, however, it can also be an eye opening and liberating emotion. The impact of incidents like the Hathras rape can be distressing and even traumatic in different ways for different women. It is difficult to find a woman who has not undergone any incident of sexual harassment (verbal, physical, psychological, cyber etc.) in her lifetime. Hence, exploring and healing disgust can be a beautiful way of emancipating oneself from years of repressed trauma and feelings of anger, guilt, fear, anxiety, and shame. Exploring disgust and studying helped me see the depleting tolerance among urban women towards violence and their immediate need for justice. It is also a wakeup call for the system to understand that injustice based on archaic notions of disgust won’t be accepted in the evolving society of today.

Akhila R has a Master’s in Clinical Psychology from Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS), Mumbai. She is a Practicing Psychotherapist with five years of experience. Her therapeutic interest lies in working on areas of Personal Development, Trauma, Relationships and Mental Health concerns.

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