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International Academy of Sex Research Presentations

Shocking null-effects in a shock-threat paradigm

Scepkowski, L. A. 1 and Janssen, E. 2, Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, 648 Beacon Street, 6th Floor, Boston University, MA 02215 USA (email: lisasc@bu.edu), 2The Kinsey Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington.

In a paradigm designed to be a laboratory analogue for sexual risk-taking, sexually functional men were exposed to three erotic films, during two of which they were informed they were under the threat of receiving electric shocks with increasing probability as the films progressed. In contrast to previous studies, (e.g., Barlow, Sakheim, & Beck, 1983; Beck, Barlow, Sakheim, & Abrahamson, 1987), in this paradigm, the men were under threat of receiving actual shocks, delivered to the lower arm. During one film, shock-threat was present for the full duration of the 4.5-minute film, and during one, shock-threat was delayed until the last 3 minutes of the film. These two films were presented in a counterbalanced order and were followed by a third erotic film during which there was no threat of receiving shocks. Participants were able to terminate the shock threat during the first two films by pressing a button, at which time the erotic film would be replaced by a neutral film. Throughout the erotic film presentations, the probability of receiving a shock was indicated on the screen. For the duration of the session, various psychophysiological reactions were measured, including sexual arousal by means of a Rigiscan device.

The aim of the study was to examine the relationship between sexual arousal and viewing time under shock threat (the measure of risk-taking) in the context of the Dual Control Model (Bancroft & Janssen, 2000). More specifically, it was hypothesized that sexual inhibition proneness (SIS2; Janssen et al., 2002) would be inversely related to sexual arousal and viewing time. However, very few participants actually ended film presentations, despite receiving electric shocks unpleasant enough to cause audible distress overheard by the experimenters. Of 25 men included here, only six terminated the films early, prohibiting the use of viewing time as a measure of sexual risk-taking.

In exploring these pilot data, we posed several questions: (1) What impact did shock threat have on sexual arousal?; (2) Are there observable differences between men who terminated shock threat and those who continued the films?; (3) Why were most of these participants willing to endure shock threat and actual shocks rather than terminating an erotic film early?

In the men who did not terminate the films, the effects of film order and shock threat condition on base tumescence difference scores were not significant. Visual comparison with base tumescence data acquired prior to erotic film termination in the six men who ended the shock threat early revealed minimal differences. Termination of shock threat was negatively correlated with sexual sensation seeking and erotophilia, and positively correlated with harm avoidance, perception of experience of sexual problems, baseline positive affect (happiness), and sexual inhibition related to “getting caught.” This latter relationship, combined with an absence of correlation with other sexual inhibition factors, suggests that the “sexual risk” created in the laboratory may have been influenced by the laboratory situation itself, rather than the experience of pain.


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