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An Explosive Issue: Are Sexual Behaviors Learned?

The question is not whether our sexually addictive behavior and fantasies are learned, but rather which ones are learned, when they are learned, and which ones are carved in stone?

This issue quickly can become radioactive. Talk of any changes in our patients’ sexuality brings on accusations that clinicians want to alter people’s sexual orientation or fit them into a particular model of sexual health. But the fact that something can be learned or unlearned is just a fact. It does not imply anything about good or bad behavior.

The guiding principle behind sex addiction treatment is “sex addiction is not about sex, it’s about pain.” Knowing to what extent different kinds of sexual behaviors are learned or susceptible to change may be of interest. But in sex addiction treatment, it’s not what you do that is the problem. It’s the addiction. The question is never whether the behavior itself is good or bad but whether it is being used as a drug. No behavior is inherently pathological.

The emerging science of sexual arousal

Parts of our sexuality appear to be “hard wired,” i.e. genetic. In other instances sexual preferences are learned at some point in our life. In a previous post, I argued that it is likely that our arousal template – the sexual fantasies, scenarios or behaviors that we prefer – exist on a continuum, a nature-to-nurture scale, depending on how little or how much they can change in the course of our life.

A great deal of research is yet to be done on this whole issue, but a recent experiment appears to show that sexual arousal to a particular kind of stimulus can be un-learned. This study has nothing to do with the old idea of “aversive conditioning” or pairing a particular sexual stimulus with pain. Rather it suggests that the sexual arousal response to a particular type of stimulus can be reinforced or allowed to extinguish under the right conditions.

A clinical case study

Consider Joe (fake name). When he was growing up his mother behaved in sexually provocative ways around him. She would wear revealing clothes or allow her breasts or private parts to be visible, and she was aware that this was sexually tantalizing to her young son. At times she touched him in suggestive ways. Joe grew up with a very predictable arousal template built on this early experience of repeated, inappropriate sexual stimulation and the resulting frustration and eroticized anger. His sexual fantasies and preferences for girlfriends always involved an innocent or “proper” woman whom he would sexually conquer despite her reservations. He also dabbled in voyeurism but decided it was too dangerous.

Then a funny thing happened. Joe discovered internet pornography. Porn use gradually became compulsive and Joe’s arousal template evolved. His tastes were shaped by scenarios he discovered on porn sites, and gradually he started watching violent rape porn. Also, Joe began to be aroused by images of younger women and found that he was even less interested in his real life girlfriends who lacked the erotic perfection he could find in online porn. He also found his sexual functioning with a girlfriend was becoming impaired.

The nature-nurture continuum in action

What is hard-wired?
Well, Joe feels that he is heterosexual. This part of his sexuality was probably there before he was born. It’s probably not going to change, even if he were to stretch the envelope of his sexual addiction by experimenting with same sex partners.

What is learned?
Joe’s preference for the sexual conquest of a woman against her own moral principles seems to be learned as a result of his early trauma: the covert molestation by his mother at a young age. In fact, he is very aware of this connection. He is also aware that he avoids intimacy and has problematic relationships.

But as deep-seated as this may be, there is reason to believe that if he could work through his trauma issues he could begin to broaden the very narrow bandwidth of his arousal template and find more enjoyment in consensual sexual experiences. In the process he can become more “intimacy-abled.”

What represents an escalating addiction?
The shift of Joe’s fantasies to more violent pornographic depictions of rape and even torture seems to have evolved out of the progression of his sex addiction, aided and amplified by the addictive features of internet porn. This may be the most changeable part of his sexuality. Many porn addicts find that if they give up porn, like kicking a drug, the sexual fixation on narrow fetish-like material will gradually subside. If there is porn induced erectile dysfunction (normal erection and ejaculation only to porn), it can be reversed.

It is important to note that no one told Joe to change any of these behaviors. He is aware that he has trouble being sexually aroused by a girlfriend. He feels his bouts of porn are compulsive and bring on emotional hangovers. He wants to be free of his preoccupation and feels his fantasies of cruelty, harm and humiliation go against his human values. He worries about what his addiction has done to his adult children. Sometimes Joe feels he is hopeless, but he is motivated. Stay tuned.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource and at www.sexaddictionscounseling.com

An Explosive Issue: Are Sexual Behaviors Learned?

Linda Hatch, PhD

Linda Hatch is a psychologist and certified sex addiction therapist specializing in the treatment of sex addicts and the partners and families of sex addicts. Linda also blogs on her own website at Sexaddictionscounseling.com


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APA Reference
Hatch, L. (2016). An Explosive Issue: Are Sexual Behaviors Learned?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex-addiction/2016/04/an-explosive-issue-are-sexual-behaviors-learned/

 

Last updated: 15 Apr 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 15 Apr 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.