Social learning of sexual responses

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With regard to classical conditioning, operant conditioning, habituation and sen-sitization of sexual responses, we have a respectable amount of experimental data. Certainly more than enough for assuring that there is nothing special with sexual responses, at least not so far as their modifiability by learning. They behave exactly like other responses such as eating, drinking, exploration and many others. On the contrary, when we come to the last form of learning on our list, social or observational learning, we do not have any experimental data at all. Yet it is most likely that human sexuality is, essentially, a social construction achieved by a combination of social learning and formal instruction. More basic learning mechanisms can and do modulate human sexual behaviors, but their role is probably much less prominent. The situation is the contrary in non-human animals. There, modifications of sexual behaviors are brought about by basic learning mechanisms, in the extent that experience modifies these behaviors at all, and very little if anything can be attributed to social learning. This fact quite obviously impedes most basic and all comparative research on social learning of sexual behaviors. If the human is the only animal in which this kind of learning is of any real importance, then how could we study it in a comparative perspective? Furthermore, the immense power obtained through rigorous experimental control is lost when our subjects of study are limited to the human species. Additionally, most of the methods of modern neuroscience employed in non-human animal research are of little use in the human. Finally, we cannot forget that many societies have no interest in the scientific study of human sexuality and particularly not in studies that may challenge the notion of penile-vaginal intercourse as its basic and only permissible activity. The consequence of all this and of some other factors not mentioned is that our ignorance about social learning of human sexual behavior is almost total.

In case someone does not believe in the fundamental social nature of human sexual behaviors, I will briefly mention some examples of socially learned aspects or rules about sexuality acquired through formal instruction. First, with whom we can have sex. There is an age limit for the display of sexual behaviors in most societies, either imposed by law or by custom. In many human groups there are prohibitions against having sex with our parents and with our children, and frequently also with our siblings, and sometimes even more distant relatives are excluded from the potential choice of partner. Persons of the same sex have only recently been accepted as sexual partners and that only in the most advanced societies. All these arbitrary rules are imposed upon us through formal instruction. Second, where we can have sex. Some people would like to have sex under the table between the entrée and the dessert when dining at a fancy restaurant. If they materialized their wish, they would be thrown out and prosecuted by criminal justice. Some like sex outside and some like it in the dark, some in the light. Whatever our choice may be, it is a result of social learning, perhaps combined with operant learning. At a student party, some newly formed couple might discover an unused bedroom. The guy observing them when they sneak away will soon take his boyfriend to the same room with the same purpose. We all learn where to have sex, essentially through formal instruction or social learning. Third, the kind of motor patterns displayed when having sex are also determined by a combination of social and operant learning. Some men are extremely fond of fellatio, while some others prefer penile-anal intercourse. Some want to use an ultrathin strawberry-tasting green condom, while others prefer a black variant with rough surface and a taste of banana. These different copulatory behaviors have certainly been acquired by social learning. It is unlikely that the pertinent information was provided as part of formal instruction and it is equally unlikely that the individuals in the example spontaneously had discovered the pleasures of fellatio and anal intercourse. It is far more likely that they had seen these behaviors on a late TV-show or an early porn session with rented movies at a friend's house. A woman's taste for partners equipped with extravagant condoms was perhaps acquired at a girls-only party, where condom taste happened to be one of the subjects of conversation. There is no need to continue with this rather infamous list of examples. Anyone can make it grow with innumerable own examples of socially acquired elements of sexual behaviors.

It is also important to note that the sexual incentive properties of external stimuli are learned in the human. One of the very few scientists having dedicated some effort to this issue suggests that all sexual incentives are learned (Hardy, 1964). Initially, no external stimulus has any sexual meaning, according to his reasoning. However, mechanical stimulation of the genitalia is proposed to have reinforcing consequences. Thus, any act leading to such stimulation is reinforced and acquired through operant learning, and any external stimulus can become associated with genital stimulation and acquire sexual incentive properties through classical conditioning. However, albeit classical conditioning of incentive properties is possible, as we have seen earlier in this chapter, the extent to which it explains human sexual incentives is unclear. It is most likely that an important proportion of these incentives is learned through social learning. The cultural diversity as well as carefully documented changes over time in the stimuli with sexual incentive properties is suggestive of a crucial role for social learning.

The lack of experimental data on social learning of sexual responses obliges me to end this section without any strong conclusion. I will, however, make some publicity for a brilliant, old book, originally published in 1973 and out of print for many years. A few years ago, it was reprinted and some new material was added in a foreword and some more in an afterword (Gagnon and Simon, 2002). It is the only insightful account of the role of social learning in human sexuality that I know of. I find it extremely interesting and thought provoking, although it is basically speculative. But what else could it be in the absence of data?

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