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Are Sexual Tastes Immutable?
Submitted by Marnia Robinson on Thu, 11/08/2012 - 09:08
It's time to distinguish 'sexual orientation' from reversible 'sexual tastes'
"The bulk of scientific evidence currently favors the view that the origins for most sexual desires are not cultural but innate." —Leon F. Seltzer
Such statements mislead people that all sexual inclinations are created equal and are immutable. This is simply not true.
Yes, genitals quite often fire up without our commanding them. Yet researchers have shown that mammals can be conditioned (and sometimes reconditioned) to adjust their sexual response with surprising ease. Even humans have managed to increase or suppress penile erection or vaginal pulse in the lab when offered monetary reinforcement and/or instructional feedback.
Indeed, most of us have a good bit of indirect say over our sexual tastes (as contrasted with our sexual orientation). Brains are plastic. The truth is we are always training our brains—with or without our conscious participation. We can choose to avoid, pursue, and cease pursuit of, stimuli that condition our sexual tastes in particular directions.
For example, many young Internet porn users condition their sexuality to pixels—such that they do not become aroused by real potential mates (to their horror). They are profoundly altering their innate sexual response in ways our ancestors would have found impossible to comprehend (because our ancestors didn't have access to a parade of novel erotic cues at a click). This phenomenon of morphing sexual tastes in Internet porn users does not appear to have been researched at all, so the "bulk of scientific research" is badly skewed at present.
The suggestion that sexual tastes can be profoundly re-conditioned is not purely theoretical. A male rat can be conditioned to prefer a same-sex partner by jacking up his dopamine. And it doesn't take very long. Researchers injected a male rat with a dopamine agonist (a drug that mimics dopamine), and then placed him in a cage with another male. The two rats just hung out together for a day. (The dopamine agonist is out of the system in about one day.) Researchers repeated this 2 more times, 4 days apart.
A few days later, the reconditioned male was put to the test. With no dopamine agonist in his system, he was placed into a cage with his male buddy and sexually receptive female (remember the dopamine was out of his system). Guess which rat turned him on the most? He showed much more response to the male: more erections, more genital investigation, and even female-like solicitations —as opposed to normal male mounting behavior.
Lesson? High levels of dopamine can powerfully rewire the brain and alter sexual tastes. The researchers emphasized that the male rat wasn't gay, as he didn't try to mount the other rat. Yet he had definitely changed. Similarly, continued porn use can't change your sexual orientation, but it can change what type of porn excites you. Desensitized porn users (low D2 receptors) search for whatever will jack up their lagging dopamine.
Once they find it, dopamine soars, and the process of re-conditioning their sexual response has begun. If they keep masturbating to the new genre, dopamine rewires their sexual circuits, leading to an inadvertent, and often alarming, change in porn tastes that make it difficult, or even impossible, to climax to earlier tastes.
In the meantime, the claim that porn choices are "innate" rather than "cultural" also ignores an extensive body of evidence from multiple cultures about socially conditioned sexual practices. Psychologist Kirk Witherspoon explains:
Sexual expression around the globe and across time has known the widest variety of permutations that have all been considered "normal" somewhere. ... What is deemed normal often has a large learned (nurturing) component, not a mere innate (nature) predetermination. For example, many of the sexual offenders I evaluate were themselves introduced to sex as children—either with other kids or with adults. Others, of course, may be more biogenically preconfigured.
Internet porn use may be "normal" in our culture at present, but we should be cautious about assuming our porn-skewed tastes are "innate" or "immutable."
Irreversible versus reversible
In the case of porn users, it's more accurate to think in terms of "irreversible" versus "reversible." Given long enough time-frames, or exposure during sensitive periods, sustained addiction could lead to irreversible preferences, at least in some people. Also, the earlier an attraction-pattern is established the more innate-seeming, or immutable, it will be.
However, "reversible addiction" is the most likely explanation for the experience of many of today's porn users/lovers. They consistently describe escalation to harder and more extreme stimulation. If their tastes were instead immutable, they would swiftly find their perfect "fit" and stick to it indefinitely. Instead, many report profound, surprisingly rapid, shifts in behavior and performance. As it is, sexual tastes are changing rapidly. Said one observer:
I'm bisexual. These days, the men and women I sleep with are doing things that are more in line with pornographic acts than having sex. Things ten years ago were different. Recently, a woman I slept with asked if I wanted to perform anal sex on her. I've never enjoyed it (with men or women) so I declined and she almost seemed relieved, like it was some sort of normal thing that is expected of women. Also it takes forever for a lot of men to climax nowadays. My last boyfriend suffered from delayed ejaculation and he was a very heavy porn user.
Another guy described his escalation into illegal content:
I started looking at porn, on a regular basis, about five years ago. First there were the beautiful women, then the HC porn, then the weird insertions, then the transvestites, then critters, then the hermaphrodites, then the teen porn, then the younger models and now prison (soon to go). As the years passed I became less and less interested in masturbating and more and more interested in "novelty" searching. Towards the end, I couldn't sit at a computer without searching. I've never even remotely considered touching anyone or invading anyone's privacy (all my kids and others can attest to that). Looking back, I just don't see how I could have been so ignorant as to not recognize that I had a problem.
A better understanding of brain plasticity, addiction and how to reverse such trends is vital—lest we imprison such porn users as pedophiles instead of treating them for addiction. Widespread awareness of the risk of morphing sexual tastes would also encourage more people to learn about their options and seek help earlier. Note the experience of these three guys:
Minors - When I used porn all the time I went to more and more extreme material. For me it was young girls. From 10 to 16 years old - hentai, models, CP; didn't matter, I loved it. I would never dream of doing anything with them. However, I always felt awkward around them (including my niece) because I had so much trouble separating them from my sexual thoughts of little girls. Since quitting porn, my taste in women has become far more mature and developed. I used to look at women with big boobs and think 'Meh, too large,' but lately I've just been thinking 'Ooh... Boobies.' It has been weeks since I've looked at a young girl and thought of her as sexually attractive. TL;DR: I think cutting out masturbation to Internet porn may have helped fix my ephebophilia/pedophilia.
Feet - Gradually became addicted to foot-fetish porn and eventually couldn't get it up for actual sex. You have no idea how embarrassing that is. Then I got into a situation where I couldn't look at porn for a month and a half, and couldn't beat off either. 6 weeks later, I was waking up rock-solid erections and sex was like the old days again!!
Femdom - I never thought that I'd be able to have normal sex. I always thought that my brain was just hard-wired to only be turned on by my femdom fetish, similar to the way a gay guy can only be turned on by cock, and cannot appreciate sex with a woman. Little did I know that the fetish I thought was hard-wired within me, was simply the result of my porn-viewing habits. It was a hell of my own making. Now, at day 91 of no porn/masturbation, I managed to have successful sex with 3 different girls over the course of this weekend, the last sexual encounter being the most satisfying. This latest sexual encounter increased my sexual confidence greatly, and has removed any doubt that I previously had about the effectiveness of the reboot process.
Sexual choices matter (continued)
The familiar message that "our sexuality is impervious to our choices" is a risky message. For one thing, it subtly implies that early childhood sexual trauma or adult/child sex is innocuous, as it cannot alter our innate sexual trajectory. How likely is this to be true—especially given the extreme plasticity of our brains during key windows of sexual development? (See this recent paper on sexual reward and preference and our post Why Shouldn't Johnny Watch Porn If He Likes?)
It's evident that some people have their sexuality conditioned in discordant directions through events beyond their control. Adult-child sex is one possibility, but consider this story from The Brain That Changes Itself:
Robert Stoller, M.D., a California psychoanalyst ... interviewed people who practiced hardcore sadomasochism, which inflicts real pain on the flesh, and discovered that masochistic participants had all had serious physical illnesses as children and had undergone regular, terrifying, painful medical treatment.
Some sexual tastes are clearly reversible. The key is to stop reinforcing (climaxing to) the unwanted tastes, and to cease any related addictive behavior. In this way, people discover for themselves if the unwanted tastes fade away after, say, three to six months. Psychiatrist Norman Doidge writes:
As for the patients [experiencing unwanted porn tastes], most were able to go cold turkey once they understood the problem and how they were plastically reinforcing it. They found eventually that they were attracted once again to their mates. None of these men had addictive personalities or serious childhood traumas, and when they understood what was happening to them, they stopped using their computers for a period to weaken their problematic neuronal networks, and their appetite for porn withered away.
Of course plasticity varies. Doidge contrasts such folks with less plastic patients:
Their treatment for sexual tastes acquired later in life was far simpler than that for patients who, in their critical periods [of development], acquired a preference for problematic sexual types. Yet even some of these men were able, like A., to change their [preferred] sexual type, because the same laws of neuroplasticity that allow us to acquire problematic tastes also allow us, in intensive treatment, to acquire newer, healthier ones and in some cases even to lose our older, troubling ones. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it brain, even where sexual desire and love are concerned.
Therapists may wish to defer final assessment until a client has been allowed to take a lengthy hiatus from climaxing to unwanted sexual tastes, whether via porn, acting out, or fantasy. If a proclivity proves immutable, then offer therapeutic help for acceptance, or perhaps lifelong management.
Healing addiction symptoms is not "reparative therapy"
At the moment, there are respected sexologists opining that if someone is upset by his fetish porn tastes (even those which showed up only after extensive highspeed porn use) he can do nothing about them...or he would be "engaging in reparative therapy." Protecting sexual orientation from reparative therapy is a fine goal, but it is unethical to pursue it at the expense of conflating sexual orientation with more superficial sexual tastes. The latter often bear little relationship to fundamental sexual orientation.
Tragically, the dogma that "all sexual tastes are innate" leads to the fallacy that no one can ever reverse any sexual taste without irreparable damage to his core sexual identity. It also leads to the widespread belief that if sexual tastes do morph, they must be shifting in only one direction: closer alignment with one's true sexual identity and "deepest urges." That is, if one's sexual tastes begin to shift, the only choice is to keep spiraling deeper (into addiction in some cases), in the belief that one is always getting closer to one's immutable sexual core—and lasting fulfillment.
Yet as we've seen, morphing sexual tastes often lead to escalation (tolerance) rather than fulfillment. This even happened to the father of modern sexology, Alfred C. Kinsey:
There was something grim in the way Kinsey was approaching sex, not only in his private life but in his research. In both areas, he was becoming more compulsive, like a man who had become addicted to risk taking. The sexual escapades in his attic [sadomasochistic acts with his male lovers] were political dynamite. ... Yet not only did he go right on staging these sessions but he compounded the danger by creating a visual record. (Biography: Alfred C. Kinsey by J.H. Jones)
Here's what Kinsey himself said, based on his experience:
Tell your sadomasochistic friends to observe great caution. The human body adjusts rapidly and the levels are capable of escalating rapidly.
Would Kinsey have cautioned others seeking extreme stimulation if he had believed he was closing in on his core sexual identity? Probably not—especially if he had analyzed the recent research on neuroplasticity and the neuroscience of addiction, and considered its relevance to his own case.
The unwillingness to treat clients based on an understanding of brain plasticity disempowers them. They are discouraged from discovering whether they are bringing their morphing sexual tastes upon themselves with overconsumption.
Evolution is driven by sex (the passing on of genes)
As researcher James G. Pfaus points out, complete inflexibility in our sexual response is inconceivable, as it would have been a major evolutionary disadvantage:
Evolutionary pressures alter the costs and benefits of any behavior, and experience with reward (and possibly punishment) maintains the cost-benefit ratio. ... This ratio may change in different environmental conditions, sometimes quickly and radically. Those who can learn to respond in the wake of sudden changes ... will likely out-reproduce those who do not learn.
Pfaus has demonstrated that mammal sexuality can be conditioned to the scent, garb and location of the researcher's choosing (even to the scent of decaying flesh). Moreover, the more intense the sexual experience the stronger the neural wiring.
Lalumière and Quinsey (1998 ) reported significant conditioned genital arousal in heterosexual men to a picture of a moderately attractive, partially nude woman that was paired with a video depicting highly arousing sexual interaction. A control group that received access to the picture alone (without the video) showed habituation [instead].
In other words, Playboy was passing entertainment; hardcore video is brain training. For some users, this brain training leads to addiction-related changes that erode willpower and destine a person to keep repeating a behavior—not because he likes it or because it arises from his fundamental sexual inclinations—but because his brain has hyper-sensitized pathways for such "valuable" rewards. (Exposure therapy may not work because instead of habituating, he will get erections—thus strengthening the unwanted pathways in his brain.)
The mammalian brain compounds the problem, because it generally finds it easier to fall into chronic overconsumption than it does to resist superstimulating enticements in favor of moderation. Yet our brains retain some plasticity indefinitely. If they didn't, addicts could never recover. (They often do.)
Humanity's understanding of its sexuality has long been distorted by incessant bickering among moralizers, feminists and sexual diversity zealots. Their noise diverts us from fully investigating our sexuality—and our options. An understanding of how sexual plasticity and conditioning operate in humans would reveal the risks of sensitization from both repression and overconsumption.
Thanks to recent science and the hard won experience of former porn users in reversing sexual tastes, humanity is finally poised to comprehend its sexuality from a truly scientific perspective. It's time to retire the meme that, "My chosen masturbation stimuli are always proof of my sexual identity."
Both animal models and people's actual experiences (today and throughout history) show us that many of us do condition sexual responses, albeit often without intent to do so. Nor does plasticity have to be a one-way street in the direction of more extreme. Our choices matter.
Neuroscience can furnish the solid common ground from which we can all work to maximize true freedom of human sexual desire. It would be imprudent to ignore the evidence in order to cling to the sacred cow of "immutable sexual tastes."
(Note: This post is the second part of a reply to Seltzer's series on A Billion Wicked Thoughts.)