Diana S. Fleischman (2016)
Evolutionary explanations for sexual behavior and orgasm most often posit facilitating reproduction as the primary function (i.e. greater rate of fertilization). Other reproductive benefits of sexual pleasure and orgasm such as improved bonding of parents have also been discussed but not thoroughly. Although sex is known to be highly reinforcing, behaviorist principles are rarely invoked alongside evolutionary psychology in order to account for human sexual and social behavior. In this paper, I will argue that intense sexual pleasure, especially orgasm, can be understood as a primary reinforcer shaped by evolution to reinforce behavior that facilitates reproductive success (i.e. conception through copulation). Next, I will describe an evolutionary account of social shaping. In particular, I will focus on how humans evolved to use orgasm and sexual arousal to shape the social behavior and emotional states of others through both classical and operant conditioning and through both reproductive and non-reproductive forms of sexual behavior. Finally, I will describe how orgasm is a signal of sensitivity to reinforcement that is itself reinforcing.
Orgasm, like other primary reinforcers, can make stimuli that are paired with it (e.g. a color, someone’s face, a specific smell) reinforcing.
Many scientists have been puzzled by women’s orgasmic frequency. Why don’t women consistently experience orgasm and, conversely, why do women have orgasms at all? The fact that women experience orgasm, at least some of the time, is one piece of evidence that orgasm is a primary reinforcer for some kinds of adaptive behavior.
Some (e.g. Prause, 2011) have speculated that it is precisely because orgasm is variable in women that it may be more reinforcing than it is for men; variable reinforcement has been found to be a greater driver of behavior that is resistant to extinction than consistent reinforcement (e.g. gambling on a slot machine is more resistant to extinction than pulling a lever with a consistent payout) (Pryor, 1999).
a woman who was easily orgasmic in a variety of conditions could be making a more costly error: being motivated to engage in behavior that is unlikely to result in the optimal reproductive outcome of conceiving with a genetically fit male who is free of disease (Miller, 2000).
If one considers attachment and affection to another person as a behavior that can be reinforced with orgasm, we might not expect consistent orgasmic and sexual pleasure. With animals, a behavior that is being successfully and consistently produced need not be reinforced consistently (e.g. a dog sitting), but behavior that is decreasing in frequency may need to be carefully shaped when any subtle cue of that behavior reappears. A waning behavior like affection or attachment may be more effectively strengthened by, for example, rewarding the desired cues with variable reinforcement (e.g. the slot machine example used earlier) (Pryor, 1999; Skinner, 1938).
Classical conditioning... is a process by which a neutral stimulus is paired with a primary reinforcer, like sexual pleasure or orgasm, which thereby makes the neutral stimulus in itself reinforcing. When two people engage in sexual behavior and have orgasms they are associating sexual pleasure with the characteristics of the other including proximity, smell, taste, and form; these all become secondary rewards/reinforcers. When two people have repeated erotic contact, they become classically conditioned to perceive one another as secondary reinforcers and can better shape one another toward their own strategic goals.
If one person in a dyad is associated with sexual pleasure, he or she can very easily engage in what is called ‘negative punishment’, withholding positive consequences for a behavior as a means of punishment and an adaptive tactic for extinguishing the behavior. Take, for example, ‘silent treatment’; If an individual values social interaction with a sexual partner, then taking away this reinforcer is a way of simultaneously punishing the behavior and no longer supplying positive reinforcement toward that behavior. Silent treatment will be much more painful if someone’s mere presence, eye contact, or voice is strongly secondarily reinforced by sexual pleasure. Furthermore, withdrawal of other stimuli often associated with orgasm like touch, eye contact, close proximity, and smell can be used more subtly (than silent treatment) to shape behavior both consciously and unconsciously.
A variety of tactics can be used to reinforce and punish others, especially if you are a secondary reinforcer to someone because of classical sexual conditioning. While this hasn’t been explored directly in the literature before, there is one paper that details possible ‘manipulation tactics’ that can be used between romantic partners (Buss, 1989): charm, silent treatment, coercion, reasoning, regression, and debasement. Each of these can be viewed from a social shaping perspective and most could be augmented with the association of sexual pleasure. The ‘charm’ tactic includes acts of love and affection, compliments, gifts, and promising a reciprocal favor in exchange for a behavior in the mate, other means of operantly and classically conditioning a partner than sexual behavior. We already discussed silent treatment above as an example of negative punishment.
Here, I want to stress that positive association between a behavior and a reinforcing outcome like sexual pleasure is unlikely to be overt and, in fact, may work better for strategic goals if the manipulation is covert or unconscious. Self-deception is likely at play here; people are rarely conscious of the ways they manipulate others, and consciously verbalizing how you are manipulating someone else through reinforcement, would likely be viewed as unethical or sociopathic. The tactics of manipulation people use both sexually and non-sexually very likely exceed those they can verbalize.