Classical Conditioning: Sex & You

Humans exhibit many learned and conditioned behaviors throughout their lives, some more prevalent than others. Some of these behaviors seem to be biologically engrained and enhanced over time where others appear to be strictly learned. John Watson and Ivan Pavlov both mainstreamed the concept of Classical Conditioning. According to Goldstein, classical conditioning is the pairing of a previously natural occurring stimulus with another stimulus to incur changes in the overall response to the prior neutral stimulus. (Goldstein, 2011) Quite the confusing description but let us take a closer look at how Pavlov and Watson utilized this method to come to conclusions about human learning and behaviors and how this can be relevant.

Ivan Pavlov was famous for his experiment commonly known as ‘Pavlov’s Dog,” where he presented food to a dog, the uncontrolled stimulus (UCS), which in turn caused the dog to salivate, the uncontrolled response (UCR). After time, Pavlov began ringing a bell in concurrence with the presentation of the food to the dog, the controlled stimulus (CS). The dog continued to salivate at the sight of the food. At a point, Ivan began ringing the bell without presenting the food to the dog yet the dog was still recorded as salivating at the sound of the bell, the controlled response (CR). The dog now associated the bell ringing with food presentation; he was conditioned to respond the same way to the bell as to the presentation of the food.

Watson conducted a somewhat similar experiment with a 9 month old boy named Albert. This experiment became known as the “Little Albert Experiment.” (Goldstein, 2011) Little Albert responded well to a rat and displayed no negative feelings towards the animal as it moved towards him. The rat moving towards Albert is considered the uncontrolled stimulus (UCS) and his positive response to the rat is considered the unconditioned response (UCR) as his feelings are naturally occurring. Watson began by making a loud noise anytime the rat came close to little albert, the controlled stimulus (CS), startling him. After time, when little albert saw the rat move towards him, the uncontrolled stimulus (UCS), he would crawl away as fast as he could, the controlled response (CR). So what we have here is the removal of the controlled stimulus, the loud noise, but over time being startled by the noise was associated with negative feelings and the rat moving towards him. Albert was conditioned to dislike or be frightened of the rat because of something else frightening him at the same time he would see the rat.

A similar example can be seen for classical conditioning in regards to male and female sexual arousal. We often see in our society that men are easily aroused and tend to be associated with high libido whereas women are more often seen as quite difficult to arouse and are typically associated with low libido. Why is this? Though minimal studies have been conducted on the subject, there are still findings that men “may be more biologically predisposed” to sexual arousal and sexual stimuli. (Hoffman, Janssen & Turner, 2004) A rare but perfectly logical theory is that men over time learn to be more sexually inclined compared to women for two main reasons; the presentation of orgasm on most all occasions when sexual stimulation is introduced, and again, that they are more biologically predisposed to higher levels of libido. Males, when presented with sexual stimulation by touch or sexual images (UCS) on almost every occasion respond with sexual arousal – erections – (UCR). When introduced to the controlled stimulus, the sex act itself or masturbation, then reach orgasm, thus closing the cycle of sexual excitation and release. Because of the hormones released during orgasm, over time males correlate sexual arousal with the feelings of orgasm and release, thus conditioning them to be sexually inclined.

Women on the other hand in this theory as less inclined towards sexual arousal or sexual stimulation because of the lack of sexual cycle completion. A woman who is sexually stimulated by touch or sexual images (UCS) then becomes aroused (UCR). The difference is that though women may seek the sexual act of intercourse or masturbation (CS), they are much less inclined to reach orgasm (CR) which restricts the introduction of the hormones released during the act, thereby not closing that cycle. This conditions women towards less arousal with introduction of the uncontrolled stimulus and resulting in a different uncontrolled response over time. This then results in lowered libido in women. One interesting fact that was found however in the study conducted by Hoffman and associates was the controlled response of women not to the sexually enticing images but to those of a handgun. (Hoffman, Janssen, Turner, 2004) Across the five conditioning groups used in the study, four of five had arousal to the gun image, with all four of those groups exhibiting a higher arousal level to the handgun image than the male abdomen images. What does this tell us about the differences in men to women? Perhaps that woman are more easily conditioned by something dangerous or powerful than to direct images of the opposite sex, like men.

Again, these are theories but explain a lot about why women often have lower sex drives (not including lower testosterone levels) but are less motivated to initiate sexual behavior. In a study conducted by Lalumiere and Quinsey (1998) it was found after pairing slides of partially nude females with highly arousing videos males reached arousal but in a similar study conducted by Plaud and Martini (1999), males were presented with a slide of a penny jar and partially nude females and still (after some conditioning) responded with arousal. How can a penny jar cause arousal? Over time the subjects associated the penny jar with the nude images that occurred after the penny jar images, thereby eliciting arousal. (Hoffman, Janssen, Turner, 2004)

Clearly more studies on the subject of classical conditioning in regards to sexual arousal and stimulation need to be conducted. Many of those that have already been done were conducted on animals; however they display similar findings in rat and bird behaviors and responses to certain controlled stimuli. (Hoffman, Janssen, Turner 2004) Are men really more apt to be sexually stimulated easier and more effortlessly conditioned or are women less prone to have a smaller sexual appetite? Are they based on the lack of positive conditioning related to lack of orgasm? Perhaps over time we will gain more insight into the differences with more controlled studies.


Goldstein, Bruce E. “Ch 1 – Introduction to Cognitive Psychology.” Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. 3rd ed. Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.

Hoffmann, Heather, Erick Janssen, and Stefanie L. Turner. “Classical Conditioning of Sexual Arousal in Women and Men: Effects of Varying Awareness and Biological Relevance of the Conditioned Stimulus.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 33.1 (2004): 43-53. ProQuest Psychology Journals. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

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