Human sexual incentives and social learning

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The importance of learning for the emission as well as the interpretation of signs with sexual meaning has been stressed by numerous scientists. Freud was a significant proponent of the notion that the expression of sexuality was socially determined. Arguments on this issue are found in many of his books, but a good introduction can be found in his most fundamental treatise on sexuality (Freud, 1905). Sociologists have pushed the analysis of the role of learning still farther, arguing that the sexual meaning given to some human expressions and behaviors is solely a result of learning. This rather radical point of view is part of what is known as social constructionism. An extremely elegant outline of the social con-structionist view on sexuality was published in its first edition more than 30 years ago (Gagnon and Simon, 2002; reference is to the second edition) and its influence on social scientists interested in problems of sex has been enormous. The social constructionist approach has been reinforced by the brilliant analyses of sexuality presented by Michel Foucault (1976). He considers sexuality itself as a social construction. According to the social constructionists, the role of biology in the determination of human sexual behaviors is negligible. This point of view is offensive to some neuroscientists, to many American homosexuals and to a few psychologists. The majority in the neuroscience community is simply unaware of the existence of the approach, but those who are aware respond frequently with disdain. Some homosexuals respond to the social constructionist's claim that all of human sexuality, including homosexuality, is a result of social learning with disbelief or outright hostility. Some psychologists, normally without the slightest knowledge of the biological sciences, prefer to cultivate a romantic relationship with renamed instincts and look upon social constructionists as kinds of heretics.

Despite the rather cold reception of social constructionism in the field of sex research, its importance can hardly be overestimated. I will illustrate the force of the approach with the aid of an extremely simple example related to the similarity between sexual and ingestive behaviors as far as social construction is concerned. Ingestion is a part of human behavior that is far more important for survival than sexuality and ingestive behaviors are displayed more frequently than copulatory behaviors. In fact, many humans eat three times a day or even more, while few humans have sex three times a day and still fewer have sex more than that. In addition, we ingest liquids almost constantly. I have personally, in many European and American towns, seen people carrying water bottles attached to their belt, and I have even seen people drinking from this bottle in public. What is the role of biology versus social learning in the control of this behavior? We can first look at when food and drink is ingested. Most people seem to get hungry at about the same time in a given location. In Scandinavia, for example, everyone seems to get hungry around 11.30. This, at least, is the time when most Scandinavians have a meal called lunch. In Mexico, few people get hungry at 11.30. In fact, the normal lunch hour is around 14.30. Both in Scandinavia and in Mexico, breakfast is usually eaten sometime between 7 and 8, so the duration of food deprivation between breakfast and lunch is very different. Is there any biological discrepancy between Scandinavians and Mexicans determining that Scandinavians eat 3 hours earlier? Certainly not. I could make a long list of examples, but it should be clear to everyone that the time we eat is socially constructed. We learn to get hungry at a certain time, and what time it is turns out to be unrelated to any known biological phenomenon. We can also ask questions about what we eat. In Sweden, lunch consists of a decent meal, a salad or soup followed by an entrée and normally a light desert and a cup of coffee. In Norway, lunch consists of a piece of dry bread with a transparent slice of ham on top and a glass of skimmed-milk. Despite this difference in behavior, Swedes and Norwegians belong both to the Nordic race, they live in closely similar climates, and so on. What biological difference could be the cause of the different composition of lunch? I have no idea. We all know how abundant the British breakfast is and of what it is made up, and we all know that the French or Italians eat a miserable piece or two of sweet bread for breakfast. Are there any basic biological differences between British and French or Italians determining the different breakfast behaviors?

In northern Sweden, a fish fermented for several months is considered a delicacy. Its odor is putrescent and highly aversive to non-Swedes but very attractive to flies. Every fly in the neighborhood immediately approaches the fish as soon as it is exposed. Some humans (notably Swedes from northern Sweden) consume this stinking food voraciously, while an overwhelming majority rejects it as unsuitable for human consumption. The biological factors behind these behaviors remain unknown. I suggest that most, if not all alimentary incentives are learned, independently of whether the food has positive or negative incentive properties. Finally, we need to ask how we eat, i.e. the alimentary behaviors displayed. In many Scandinavian homes, a more formal dinner party has a rather fixed ritual, exactly as it has in most other places of the world. We can start with the table. The tablecloth should preferably be of linen and the porcelain should be from Rorstrand. There should be at least four glasses for each guest; one for water, one for beer, one for aquavit, and one for wine. The glasses should, if the host can afford it, be from Orrefors. The cutlery should either be of silver or from stainless steel produced by Gense. The napkins, of cotton, should be tightly rolled and the roll should be kept tight with a silver ring and placed to the right of the plate. There should be lighted candles on the table and a vase with low flowers. You should always be able to see the guest in front of you over the flowers. I will stop here, but it would be ridiculous to maintain that anything of what I have described here has a biological basis. Likewise, during the good old times when smoking was not ferociously repressed by the health hysterics, you could smoke at any better dinner in the UK. However, it was unthinkable to smoke before the port had been served and the queen had been toasted. Despite a considerable effort on my part, it has been completely impossible to figure out the biological determinants of that behavior. It is not entirely grotesque to propose that most ingestive behaviors performed by humans are socially constructed. What we might suggest is that biological mechanisms partly determine the timing impact of alimentary incentive stimuli, and somehow influence the amount eaten at each meal. Thus, while the alimentary incentive stimuli are socially learned, their effects on the organism are determined by activities in the central motive state, which is the name we have given to the biological mechanisms controlling motivated behavior.

Examples very similar to the one just presented could easily be made with regard to sexual behaviors. When, where, with whom, and how we copulate is certainly determined by social learning. The words, bodily expressions like gestures or facial activities, images and other kinds of external animate and inanimate stimuli having a sexual meaning have acquired that meaning through social learning rather than natural selection. I side completely with the social constructionists on these issues. Any other opinion is, according to my humble judgment, founded on a superstitious belief in non-existent brain mechanisms. This means that the stimuli controlling sexual incentive motivation are learned and also that the motor patterns executed during copulation are learned. It seems that the only unconditioned part of human sexual behavior is the connection between tactile stimulation of the penis or clitoris and enhanced genital blood flow. Notwithstanding the basic importance of learning, it must be remembered that the impact of sexual stimuli as well as the propensity to execute motor patterns associated with copulatory behaviors in a particular moment are determined by the central motive state, a biological mechanism. Exactly as I did with the motivation to ingest food, I maintain that biological phenomena in the brain partly determine if and how much we will act upon sexual incentives.

There is no contradiction between the notion that sexual incentives and sexual behaviors are socially constructed (learned) and the idea that the motivational mechanisms determining the likelihood to react to the learned stimuli are influenced by unlearned biological mechanisms. Please note that I write 'influenced by' and not 'determined by' biological mechanisms. A particular stimulus, for example an attractive girl taking off her T-shirt and exposing the naked breasts, would not lead to any sexual behavior on the part of a young man if the event occurred on the beaches of Normandy. The act of taking off a T-shirt and exposing the breasts has no sexual meaning on a public beach in contemporary Europe. If the same girl would take off her T-shirt and expose her breasts in her bedroom, to which she had invited a young man encountered on the beach, it is most likely that the young man would respond to the stimulus with some kind of sexual approach. The young man's central motive state has probably not changed much from the beach to the bedroom, yet a constant stimulus (the girl taking off her T-shirt and exposing the breasts) had different effects in the two situations. The cause for this differential reaction must reside in his interpretation of the incentive stimulus. On the beach, taking off the T-shirt has no sexual meaning, but in the bedroom it has. The interpretation of the stimulus is obviously a result of social learning and probably independent from the central motive state. This means that the impact of a constant stimulus is not only determined by the central motive state, but also by processes of assigning meaning to the stimulus. Psychologists would certainly call these processes 'cognitive'. The label put on them is of slight importance, but it should be clear that the central motive state influences the likelihood to respond with a sexual act to a stimulus, but it does not determine this likelihood.

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