Theories of Sexual Deviant Behaviours

03 Apr 2018

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Obispo, Stacey L.



It is generally accepted amongst academia that learning behaviors have been attributed toward the acquirement of sexual deviant behaviors (Atkins, 2004; Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004;Brom, et al., 2013; Hall & Hall, 2007). Sexual deviant behavior is defined as maladaptive, aberrant and compulsive behaviors which include sexual offenses, fetishes and paraphilia (Atkins, 2004). Problems arise when sexual deviant behaviors collide with cultural, religious and legal lines. As a result, understanding how sexual deviant behavior is learned can contribute towards further insight in preventing such occurrences and lead to understanding how to rehabilitate offenders. This paper will address how sexual deviant behaviors are a part of various learned responses including; how conditioned responses to the procurement of sexual deviant behaviors are applied through Pavlovian conditioned responses; how Pavlovian conditioning relates to other learned processes of sexual deviance; and what motivators in the sexual offender’s childhood cause a condition response. Additional examination will include the rehabilitation of offenders through learned methods of reconditioning, controversies on reconditioning sexual offenders, and offender motivation to change

Theories of Pavlovian Conditioned Responses and Sexual Deviance

The behaviorists’ perspective on how sexual deviant behaviors are learned is explained through Pavlovian conditioned responses (Akins, 2004). There is much history on the behaviorists’ perspective on learned sexual deviance. First, Kraft-Ebing suspected conditioning was related to a case of masochism. Kraft –Ebing hypothesized that the development of such behavior resulted from the child feeling friction on the penis while being detained across the lap of the parent and being spanked (Akins, 2004). French psychologist Alfred Binet proposed that sexual deviations were caused from accidental experiences with a deviant act that was thought as rewarding (Akins, 2004). Next, Jaspers and Rachman suggested that sexual deviations were the result of an accidental pairing of an abnormal stimulus along with sexual arousal or ejaculation(Akins, 2004). Laws and Marshall expanded on Jasper and Rachman’s theory by including the involvement of second order conditioning meaning that once a stimulus was conditioned it came to act in the same role as the unconditioned stimulus (sexual arousal) and paired with another conditioned stimulus which would come to acquire sexual properties (Akins, 2004).Another similar view is McGuire, Carlisle, and Young’s theory which suggests that fantasy is an important part of the sexual deviants process. They believe that early sexual experiences that are accidental result later on in the pairing of fantasy with masturbatory activity. Moreover, through this process of higher order conditioning , deviant preferences become governing and non- deviant preferences either fade away or drop in value. Marshall and Eccles proposed that Pavlovian conditioned responses to sexual deviance are procured by pairing a conditioned stimulus (CS) with touch induced sexual arousal or with non-touch stimulus that evoke sexual arousal (Akins, 2004).

Most interestingly, the behaviorists learning perspectives do not stop within their own realm of behaviorism. Rather these perspectives spread onto social learning theories which give further explanations towards the relationship between sexual deviance and Pavlovian conditioning which appear to be interconnected.

Relating Pavlovian Conditioning to Other Learned Processes of Sexual Deviance

Pavlovian conditioning is interconnected between socially learned processes of sexual deviance(Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004).Social learning influences that contribute towards one procuring sexual deviance behavior include; participant modeling, vicarious learning, and symbolic modeling (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004). There are similarities in both social learning and classical conditioning which relate to sexual deviance. For instance, similarities between social learning and conditioning include: both are behaviorist theories; learning can occur unintentionally, both partake in learning by positive and negative consequences, they require motivation of some sort and involve reinforcement and repetition, and both can lose their effectiveness without reinforcement.

Motivators in the Sexual Offender’s Childhood Which Create a Conditioned Response

There are specific motivators in the sexual deviant’s childhood which create a conditioned response. These specific motivators that cause a conditioned responses place an individual at risk towards becoming a sexual offender. Motivators according to Burk and Burkhart (2003) include: emotional deficits, inappropriate family environment, and sexual victimization starting in childhood.

Emotional deficits according to Burk & Burkhart (2003) are the initial stressors in the life of a high risk child. These stressors include: poor parent/child attachment bonds, low self-esteem, and poor quality of relationships, inadequate emotional coping skills, and prior sexual abuse. Furthermore the authors state that these problems are postulated to lead to the reliance of sexualized coping, including masturbation and sexual acts with others (Burk & Burkhart, 2003). This type of sexualized coping is thought to act as a way to escape from difficult issues and is built in to the family processes and early development (Burk & Burkhart, 2003).

An inappropriate family environment in childhood increases the chances of one becoming sexually deviant (Burk & Burkhart, 2003). Symptoms of a high risk family environment include; an sexually inappropriate family environment, the age of onset of sexual behavior, use of pornography during childhood and adolescence, deviant sexual fantasies during childhood and adolescence, and an impulsive/antisocial lifestyle in childhood and adolescence are factors (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004). Additionally, the family environment of a high risk child includes beliefs, values, and attitudes conditioned in sexual offender’s upbringing. Unhealthy beliefs, values, and attitudes which are conditioned in childhood create conditioned responses in the procurement of sexual deviant behaviors and offending(Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005).

Sexual victimization and exposure to sexual violence increases the chances for the child to become an offender in adult hood (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004). Juvenile individuals who have not been sexually victimized are at a lower risk of becoming a sexual offender (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004).Whereas, juveniles who have had a history of sexual victimization are more at risk towards becoming an offender (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004). The link between sexual violence and arousal was completed in a study by Malamuth, Haber, and Feshbach on male college students (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004). They found that males exposed to sadomasochistic cues were more sexually aroused by the rape depiction than males exposed to nonviolent cues (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004).

Effectiveness of Decreasing Sexual Deviance through Reconditioning

Andersen (2008) found reconditioning sexual offenders is an effective method for decreasing sexual deviance. Strategies in reconditioning sexual deviant behaviors include a cognitive behavioral approach (Saleh, Grudzinskas & Bradford, 2009). The cognitive behavioral approach addresses denial and distortions with empathy training, and sexual impulse control (Hall & Hall, 2007, Saleh, Grudzinskas & Bradford, 2009).

The cognitive behavioral approach is sought out in dealing with treating sexual offenders because many offenders have cognitive distortions or thinking errors which serve numerous purposes such as; rejecting responsibility, denying victim’s suffering, allowing the offending to continue and avoiding painful emotional consequences (Paulauskas, 2013). Furthermore the realization of the fact by the offender that he or she has seriously harmed the victim or the society challenges his or her perception of themselves as a decent individual (Paulauskas, 2013). Controversies Regarding Reconditioning Sexual Deviant Behaviors

Hall & Hall (2007) found the controversial aspects of reconditioning are used in in certain therapies such as aversion therapy. The approach in aversion therapy is to both take the individual’s sexual orientation away from children (in the case of pedophilia) and to also recondition and change masturbatory practices (Hall & Hall, 2007). The aversion therapy approach includes pairing an unpleasant stimulus such as an odor or an electric shock, with deviant behavior, or the fantasies thereof (Akins, 2004). Initially this form of treatment was used with chemical treatments which brought on nausea for the unpleasant stimuli however it was rapidly replaced with mild electric shocks given in either the arm or leg (Akins, 2004). There is no evidence which proves that aversion therapy has shown permanent changes in sexually deviant behavior (Akins, 2004). Aversion electric shock therapy is rarely used today (Akins, 2004).

Another type of aversive conditioning is called covert sensitization. In this type of therapy the individual pictures himself or herself participating in the deviant behavior and when the individual achieves a vivid image, they are told to imagine a very unpleasant scene such as being embarrassed, being caught or being nauseous (Akins, 2004). The covert part of this therapy is the individual imagining a sequence of arousing and unpleasant images as described by the individual to the therapist (Akins, 2004). This therapy was paired with a foul odor and the description of the unpleasant scene was used to increase aversive effects (Akins, 2004). This form of therapy was later called assisted covert sensitization (Akins, 2004).This form of therapy has been found to be effective in long term treatments (Akins, 2004). However it is inconclusive if this form of therapy is solely responsible for effective results because many other therapies have also been used in combination (Akins, 2004).

Offender’s Motivation for Change

Barrett, Wilson, and Long (2003) found that reconditioning sexual deviance can occur only if the sexual offender wants to change. A way to inspire sexual offenders towards change is through the Good Lives Model .The Good Lives Model is a motivator for sexual offenders to change because it centers on one’s basic human needs in various areas of functioning. The point of the Good Lives Model is to provide skills, self -confidence, and attitudes essential to start the pursuit of each offenders designed good life (Saleh, Grudzinskas, & Bradford, 2009). Many of the basic human needs in sexual offenders may have not been fulfilled (Saleh, Grudzinskas, & Bradford, 2009). As a result many of these individuals needs are full of deficits stemming from childhood (Saleh, Grudzinskas, & Bradford, 2009). The basic human needs the model focuses on include: general healthy and optimal functioning, knowledge, mastery, autonomy, inner peace, relatedness, spirituality, happiness, and creativity (Saleh, Grudzinskas, & Bradford, 2009). This model focuses on fulfilling individual deficits with therapy while giving the offender tools to stay away from situations that may cause one to reoffend (Saleh, Grudzinskas, & Bradford, 2009). For example, the child molester would make sure they avoid being alone with a child and a rapist would avoid situations in which they previously offended (Saleh, Grudzinskas, & Bradford, 2009). Furthermore offenders are given a support group to help them achieve their goals (Saleh, Grudzinskas, & Bradford, 2009).


Sexual deviance is a part of learned responses acquired by Pavlovian conditioning and social learning influences such as; participant modeling, vicarious learning, and symbolic modeling (Beauregard, Lussier, & Proulx, 2004). These learned responses are acquired through childhood motivators which include emotional deficits, inappropriate family environment , and sexual victimization (Burk & Burkhart, 2003). Rehabilitation of sexual deviance is possible under the condition that the offender wants to change (Barrett, Wilson, & Long, 2003). Cognitive behavioral therapy is an excellent method in treating offenders. Although many offenders start therapy thinking there is nothing wrong with them or what they have done the cognitive behavioral method can be an effective treatment for these individuals (Paulauskas, 2013). Through this method the sexual offenders’ denial and distortions are treated with empathy training, and sexual impulse control (Paulauskas, 2013). In sum through cognitive behavioral therapy the offender realizes that he or she has seriously harmed the victim, society, and it challenges his or her perception of themselves as a decent individual. It is promising that prevention and intervention methods offered by cognitive behavioral therapy can make a difference in individuals that are at risk or have offended and to society as a whole.


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