Disgusting student houses
The loathing instinct
Whenever she left her room, Stella Bizirtsaki walked right into a horror movie. The art history student shared an apartment with a few guys who had completely given up on cleaning. ‘One of them dumped his garbage on the balcony, just because he had misplaced the key card to the trash container. It smelled so bad, it was just disgusting.’
She couldn’t take it anymore and decided to move out. But the people in her new place weren’t much better behaved. ‘One flatmate even used my favourite coffee mug for her cigarette ashes and left it on the counter in the kitchen.’
That was the final straw. She resolved to never sign up for shared accommodation again.
What Stella felt, says psychologist Charmaine Borg, was disgust. Borg researches feelings of loathing. She wants to know what revulses people and why, and how it’s possible that one person is not always equally disgusted by something.
Revulsion is culturally conditioned. But no matter where you come from, she says, we all hate blood, sweat, saliva, and faeces. Rotten things are also very unpopular: think of rotten tomatoes or pasta covered in a green blanket of mould after you left it out of the refrigerator for too long.
We have an instinctive and unconscious urge to protect ourselves from contamination or danger
We’re disgusted by these things because they are high on pathogen content: they may very well contain bacteria or viruses that can make us sick. ‘It can be traced back to the instinctive and unconscious urge to protect oneself from contamination or any form of danger’, Borg explains.
That’s why arts student Romane Bodson was very grossed out when she found the previous occupant’s stinky socks, dirty earplugs and used piercings stuck between the bed and wall of her room. Sweat, earwax and blood: a powerful mix. ‘The socks still stank’, she recalls. ‘I wanted to puke when I saw it. I couldn’t stop grumbling, because although none of it belonged to me, I was the one who had to clean it up.’
History student Aske Meijerink often had slugs for company when she was making her meal in the kitchen of her student house. ‘I remember once I even saw slugs crawling over the gas stove,’ she shudders. ‘I was planning to cook, but first I had to spend quite a while shoving the slugs away.’
Another time, after she’d been away for a couple of days, she found her laundry bag full of puke; her housemate had come home drunk.
But perhaps the worst thing she ever encountered was a dead mouse in her couch. ‘For days, my room had been smelling horribly and I couldn’t figure out what was causing it. Sometimes we could hear mice squeaking behind the wall, so I thought the smell had to be coming from there’, she said. ‘Then I sat down on the couch my predecessor left behind and I removed a cushion. And there it was: a mangled dead mouse that was so smelly it made me nauseous.’
Feelings of disgust, says Borg, increase with proximity. ‘They’re concentrated on the intersection between the outside world and our body. So certain parts of the body, such as the skin, mouth or body apertures, are very high on disgust sensitivity.’ Think of a banana peel that falls out of a trash bag. ‘You may be a little repulsed by viewing it. But when you’re asked to touch it or maybe even bite it, the revulsion increases’, she explains.
When you’re asked to touch something disgusting, the feeling of repulsion increases
Women are more sensitive to disgust than men, Borg says. ‘That might be because women need good health for reproduction and to nurture their families, which means they prefer hygienic living conditions.’
Physics student Lotte Ha’s mind was definitely not on having kids, though, when she saw saplings growing from the kitchen sink drain of her student house. ‘I’m never using that sink again. When I saw it all I wanted to do was get out of the kitchen. I love plants, but not when they grow out of a kitchen sink. We really need to do our chores in time.’
Still, there are situations in which people are not as easily disgusted. The most obvious one: when they are in love. When people feel comfortable spending time together and often share things, they are exposed to the same pool of germs, Borg explains. The saliva of your soon-to-be boyfriend doesn’t bother you and you may even like to wear his sweaty t-shirt. ‘In such circumstances, your sensitivity to disgust reduces.’
Especially when you’re sexually aroused, bodily fluids such as sweat, vaginal fluids, ejaculate – things that would otherwise elicit a lot of disgust – suddenly don’t seem so bad. ‘The tendency to approach and come in contact with such stimuli increases’, says Borg. For men that is even stronger than for women. ‘They tend to ignore a lot of things when sexually aroused.’
Students tend to put up with things in their student houses they never would have while still living with their parents and never will again once they have their own place. What makes their situation so different?
We become more tolerant as our range of normalcy increases
‘I think it’s all about motivation’, Borg says. Students often don’t have a choice in where to live. ‘They know this is the only place they can stay, because it fits their budget. Or maybe they are not lucky enough to find other options, so they are motivated to tolerate a lot more.’
When we are exposed to disgust stimuli on a regular basis – those stinky socks, dead mice, crawling slugs, and puked-covered laundry – we tend to unlearn disgust. ‘So we become more tolerant as our range of normalcy increases’, says Borg.
International relations student Het Shah’s range of normalcy has not been increased by his experiences, though: ‘Almost forty people share one toilet in my building’, he says. ‘One day I even discovered poop in the common corridor of the restroom. And last month some of my housemates spotted human poop in the biking shed. I thought they were joking, until I saw it myself. That was really disgusting.’
Photo by Valeska Schietinger