We know that physical sullying, immorality and shame can all be associated with feelings of bodily and mental dirtiness, but it's not entirely clear how all these things interact. For example, for a heterosexual woman, which is worse: having a kiss forced on you by an otherwise moral man, or having a consensual kiss with an immoral man? Corinna Elliott and Adam Radomsky have investigated and they say their findings could prove useful to therapists treating people with obsessive compulsive disorder or victims of sexual assault.
Female undergrads, 148 of them, listened to an audio recording describing a scene at a party in which a woman is kissed by man. In all cases the man was described as physically attractive, but some of the undergrads listened to a version in which he was a friendly, helpful chap, whilst others listened to a version in which he was described as a bit of a cad - a liar, cheat and a thief. Also, half the women heard a version in which the kiss was consensual, whilst the other half heard a version in which the man forced the kiss on the woman. In all cases the participants' task was to imagine as vividly as possible that they were that woman.
Questionnaires completed afterwards showed how the different permutations of the man's integrity and the nature of the kiss interacted to affect the women's feelings of dirtiness, their urge to wash, their emotions and whether or not they really did go and wash their hands or rinse out their mouths.
Unsurprisingly, a forced kiss from an immoral man was the worst-case scenario, leaving the women with strong feelings of psychological and bodily contamination; afterwards 4 out of 35 them literally either washed out their mouths or washed their hands. By contrast, none of the women who imagined a consensual kiss with a moral man washed afterwards and they also reported the lowest levels of psychological contamination.
More interesting are the findings for the women who imagined a forced kiss from an otherwise moral man. It turns out they felt just as sullied as women who imagined a forced kiss from an immoral man, and four of them also washed afterwards.
What about a consensual kiss with an immoral man? This provoked weaker feelings of dirtiness than for either of the forced kisses, but still much stronger feelings of dirtiness than a consensual kiss with a moral man. Three of the undergrads washed after imagining this scenario.
In other words, the researchers explained, there's an asymmetry. A man's prior morality doesn't prevent the sullying effect of a forced kiss, and yet a "moral" or consensual kiss is unable to eradicate the dirtying effects of a man's immoral reputation. Indeed, so-called "moral" men who imposed unwanted kisses on women were subsequently rated by the female participants as immoral.
"This phenomenon is akin to the asymmetrical relationship present between 'contaminated' substances and 'non-contaminated' substances," the researchers explained. "For example, a drop of blood could 'contaminate' a glass of purified water; however, a drop of purified water could not 'decontaminate' a glass of blood."
ELLIOTT, C. (2009). Analyses of mental contamination: Part I, experimental manipulations of morality. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47 (12), 995-1003 DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2009.03.004