Social Learning Theory as an
Explanation of Autoerotic Deviance
Sociology of Deviance
Autoerotic deviance may be the most unknown type of deviance within the
realm of empirical research and societal knowledge. This paper is an attempt
to promote the understanding of how autoerotic deviance is learned and
perpetuated from the theoretical perspective of Akers social learning
theory. Social learning theory includes spontaneous behavior, imitation,
vicarious learning, and schedules of reinforcement. In order to explain any
behavior it is important to understand every aspect of the behavior from the
onset to the extinguishing phase of the behavior.
Autoerotic deviance is defined as any potentially life threatening actions
committed with the intention of increasing sexual gratification. The most
common form of this practice is hanging. Death can occur from such practices
because asphyxiation occurs during the hanging process. However, there have
been document cases of electrocution and exposure to elements as well.
Social learning theory is the best theory to describe this behavior. Akers
version of social learning theory includes spontaneous behavior, schedules
of reinforcement, discriminative stimuli, and theories of neutralization,
which cover the beginning, maintenance, and gratification that is
experienced by those who practice autoeroticism. There is no other theory
that is complete enough to explain all of the stages mentioned above.
This paper attempts to explain autoerotic behavior as well as how social
learning theory can be used to explain the development and perpetuation of
the behaviors. The paper also examines the intricacies of an autoerotic
investigation in order to demonstrate some of the principles of social
learning theory. A brief overview of social learning theory and the history
of autoerotic fatalities followed by a description of how autoerotic
behavior is learned and perpetuated. This paper will also provide policy
implications for preventing future autoerotic deviance.
SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY
The main principle behind social learning theory is that behavior is learned
through social interactions. Each of the theories attempts to show that
people are deviant because they have, in some way, learned that deviance or
crime is favorable versus conforming to the rules set down by society. Also,
deviance is learned in the same manner that other behaviors are learned. It
is important for the understanding of autoerotic deviance to discuss the
works of Sutherland and Akers. The aspects of social learning theory used to
describe such behavior are based on the work of Akers, but it is important
to understand how he expanded the work of Sutherland as well.
Differential association theory is most commonly associated with the work of
Sutherland, and is the precursor to what is now called social learning
theory. He asserted that deviance is learned through interaction with the
primary person or people in an individual's life. The peer groups and
relationships a person has with others helps them to learn definitions
favorable to deviance or to conforming. The learning of favorable
definitions over non favorable definitions of deviance is the cause of crime
and deviance according to Sutherland.
Akers modified the work of Sutherland and generally calls his theory social
learning theory. He added some classical conditioning concepts such as;
schedules of reinforcement that perpetuate behaviors, vicarious
reinforcement that allows individuals to learn through the experiences of
the others, and spontaneous behavior, in which, an individual creates new
behavior by chaining other behaviors together. He also added that people can
learn through imitation and modeling. Akers theory can be summed up as
follows: people become deviant because deviance has been differentially
reinforced and defined as desirable or justifiable over conforming behavior
(Akers, & Sellers, 2003).
HISTORY OF AUTOEROTIC FATALITIES
Autoerotic practices have been around for ages, dating back to, at least,
the Aztec Indians who had artistic portrayals of autoeroticism. Ancient
Aztec wall art has been found depicting hanging men with erections
(Hazelwood, Dietz, & Burgess, 1983). There have been documented writings
that discuss the concept of using dangerous practices to enhance sexual
pleasure dating back as far as the Marquis de Sade's Justine which was
published in the late 1700's (Resnik, 1972). In his many writings, the
Marquis made several references to using ropes for self pleasure, and the
erotic nature of masturbating with props (Resnik, 1972). The most notable
example of autoeroticism in literature occurred in 1710.
Jonathan Swift wrote " Swinging by Session upon a Cord, in order to raise
artificial Extasies" (Hazelwood, et al., 1983, 7). Countless other novels
and stories have been written that included aspects of autoeroticism as the
focus or a part of the story. It is important to understand that autoerotic
practices are not a new occurrence. In 1911, Hans Ewers wrote a novel
depicting a hanged man with an erection and other various elements that
brought masturbation together with asphyxiation. (Resnik, 1972). This was a
fairly common practice for those in the upper classes, and was widely known
by the early sixteenth century (Hazelwood, et. al., 1983). The earliest
documented case of death while practicing autoerotic asphyxia occurred in
1791 when the well known musician Kotzwarra died of an autoerotic practice
(Hazelwood, Burgess, & Groth, 1981).
On September 16, 1791 a women named Susannah Hill was tried for the murder
of Francis Kotzwarra. During her trial it became known that Kotzwarra had
asked her to tie him in a hanging position for five minutes for the purposes
of enhancing his sexual pleasure. He subsequently died, and she was found
innocent because he "trusted more to the charms of the cord" (Hazelwood, et
al. 1983, 16-18). Looking at the historical references to autoerotic
deviance can aid in the understanding of how this behavior develops.
LEARNING AUTOEROTIC DEVIANCE
It is logical to assume that many, if not most, of the practitioners of
autoeroticism do not read the academic literature that has been published on
the topic. That being said, there must be another explanation for how thy
learn such behavior. One such explanation from a social learning perspective
is that they learn the behaviors through vicarious learning.
Vicarious learning is the learning that occurs by observing or hearing that
others have had an experience (Akers, & Sellers, 2003). Autoerotic deviance
can be learned vicariously through the media, or the internet. There has
been mention of autoerotic behavior in major motion pictures such as "Rising
Sun". There have also been representations of autoerotic fatalities on
"COPS", and "NYPD BLUE". Viewers of these programs can learn the behavior,
vicariously, through watching the behaviors displayed.
The media has a major impact on the attitudes of young people in regards to
sexual practices ( Linz, Wilson, & Donnerstein, 1992). Their findings
suggest that viewers could be desensitized to violence shown by the media
(most often movies) by violent scenes being used to emphasize sexual
pleasure (Linz, et. al., 1992). This is believed to cause psychological
effects to the viewer, because they begin to equate the pleasure with
violence (Linz, et. al., 1992). This could possibly explain how people learn
Another part of vicarious learning is imitation. Imitation is learning
behaviors by directly observing, and copying the actions of another (Akers,&
Sellers, 2003). Autoeroticism can be learned through imitation via the
internet or pornographic magazines. There is an entire subset of the porn
industry that appears to be devoted to depictions of bondage and masochistic
behaviors. Included in masochistic behaviors are depictions of hanging
people with erections and the gratification that can be received through
such activities. Research has attempted to demonstrate that autoerotic
behaviors are a representation of masochistic desires and are, therefore,
learned easily through imitation of masochistic depictions.
Some researchers argue that sexual asphyxia is a type of masochistic
practice (Baumeister, 1988). The pain that masochists are attempting to
receive can be a sexual stimulus that allows masochists the ability to
escape, along with more intense sexual gratification (Weinberg, Williams, &
Moser, 1984). Assuming that a person is a masochist, they would, Baumeister
argues, seek out depictions of, and props for the purposes of receiving pain
(Baumeister, 1988). It is reasonable to conclude, then, that some autoerotic
practitioners are masochists, and learn this behavior through masochistic
depictions in pornography and on the internet. Social learning theory,
however, asserts that definitions are learned from peer groups as well.
There is a new type of sexual deviance related to autoeroticism that is
gaining popularity among teenagers. The new practice is called "breath play"
and is a form of asphyxiation that is very similar to typical autoerotic
behaviors. The difference between the two is that "breath play" is not
practiced alone. The significance of the new movement is that it can be a
learning point for autoerotic practices.
As discussed by Courtright and Baran (1980), sexual information received by
young people comes mainly from peers. The sexual socialization of young
people was found to be very influenced by the combination of peers and other
relationships (Courtright & Baran, 1980). Brown (2002) ascertains that young
people are especially susceptible to peer exposure during adolescence. It
was found that when questioned concerning their learned sex beliefs, most
adolescents thirteen to fifteen years old claimed that friends were the
foremost learning vessel. (Brown, 2002). These claims cause concern for the
influence of the gaining popularity of "breath play". If adolescents learn
most of their sexual information from peers, and they are involved with
peers who practice breath play, they will be more susceptible to learning
more favorable than unfavorable definitions of sexual deviance. It can be
logically assumed that if they learn to like the asphyxiation behavior in
"breath play", then they can easily adapt that behavior into autoeroticism.
Perhaps the best explanation for autoerotic deviance is spontaneous
behavior. Spontaneous behavior is any behavior that is created by stringing
more than one previously known behaviors together (Akers, & Sellers, 2003).
Putting more than one known behavior together seems to be the most logical
explanation for how people get involved in autoerotic behavior. The first
known recordings of autoerotic behaviors, Aztec wall art, is a clear example
of spontaneous behaviors. They learned, by viewing hanging men with
erections, that some sexually arousing aspects take place during the process
of asphyxiation (Hazelwood, They began to put two previously known
behaviors, hanging and erections, together for the creation of a new
behavior, autoerotic asphyxia.
PERPETUATING AUTOEROTIC DEVIANCE
This behavior is maintained through the learning of definitions favorable to
autoerotic practices over definitions unfavorable to autoerotic practices.
Social learning theory is based on the idea that people are deviant because
they learn definitions favorable to deviance more than definition
unfavorable to deviance (Akers, 2003). Autoeroticism is such an obscure and
solitary behavior that has no societal support for practitioners to learn
definitions unfavorable. Also, people are very secretive about this behavior
and do not generally discuss it with others. It appears that once the
behavior is learned, there is no way for the person to learn any other
definitions. How can this behavior be perpetuated, then, if there is no
discussion with others?
Autoerotic behavior is perpetuated through reinforcement. Reinforcement is
the consequences of any behavior that increase the likelihood that a
behavior will be repeated (Akers, & Sellers, 2003). There are two schedules
of reinforcement that are included in social learning theory. First,
intermittent reinforcement, is the receiving of a reinforcer only every so
many times the behavior is committed, and the participant is unaware of when
the reinforcer is coming (Akers, & Sellers, 2003). Intermittent
reinforcement is generally used to describe the reason that people continue
gambling behavior. Second, continuous reinforcement is best described as the
receiving of a reinforcer each and every time a behavior is performed
(Akers, & Sellers, 2003). Autoerotic practitioners receive a reinforcer
every time that they practice the behavior. The continuous reenforcement
leads to satiation of the reinforcers ability to perpetuate the behaviors.
Autoerotic practitioners adapt to the satiation and increase their level of
participation and the complexity of the props they use.
The investigation of autoerotic fatalities by police officers give several
clues that support the satiation that occurs from continuous reinforcement.
During an investigation of a potential autoerotic fatalities, the police
need to look for two main aspects that demonstrate a change in the practices
over time. First, the officers look for a self rescue mechanism. The self
rescue mechanism is a provision made by the practitioner to help reduce
potential injury (Hazelwood, Dietz, & Burgess, 1981). Over time the self
rescue mechanism becomes more complex to match the complexity of injurious
An injurious agent is any instrument that is used to cut off the supply of
oxygen to the brain during autoerotic practices (Hazelwood, et al., 1981).
Due to the satiation of the reinforcer, the participant is forced to make
the practice more complex in order to get the same amount of sexual
gratification from the activity. The evidence of this is that there is often
much evidence of previous practice found at the scene of death.
Investigators have been able to locate excess ropes that show the
progression from simple, circular shaped rope, to an extremely detailed
hangman's noose (Hazelwood, et al., 1983). The evidence clearly points to an
evolvement of the activity due to the satiation that occurs under a
continuous schedule of reinforcement.
Punishment is also an important aspect of social learning theory.
Punishments decrease the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated (Akers,
& Sellers, 2003). There is no known punishment experienced by autoerotic
practitioners (Blanchard, & Hucker, 1991). Death is the only punishment that
is associated with the behavior, but it is not a punishment that can be
learned from by the participant. There is, however, some evidence that
autoerotic practitioners have been caught in the act.
The person who catches an autoerotic practitioner is usually shocked by what
they have seen, but does not always understand the nature of what they saw.
Some amount of embarrassment by both parties exists, but is often never
discussed again. This allows the practitioner to walk away from the incident
without any punishment. However, it cannot be assumed that no person caught
during an autoerotic act receives enough punishment by the embarrassment to
stop the behavior, only that the majority do not. The lack of punishment
accompanied by the use of theories of neutralization can account for the
perpetuation of autoerotic behavior.
Sykes and Matza developed the theory of neutralization. They asserted that
people are able to justify their behavior through techniques that allow them
to not have guilt or shame associated with the behaviors they have
committed. The theory also maintains that people commit behaviors that they
are able to justify in their own minds, or that they justify their behavior
afterward to escape feelings of guilt. Some examples of theories of
neutralization are; denial of harm, and denial of victim. Akers added
theories of neutralization to his version of social learning theory (Akers,
& Sellers, 2003). Neutralization techniques are a good way to explain the
perpetuation of autoerotic deviance.
Techniques of neutralization can help to explain why people continue
dangerous autoerotic practices despite the fact that they are aware of the
potential dangers associated with the activity. Practitioners believe that
they will not be harmed because they know what they are doing, or that they
took precautions by using a self rescue mechanism. These are both
justifications of their behavior that allow them to continue the practice
without having to worry about the potentially fatal consequences that they
may be facing.
The stigma that surrounds autoeroticism creates a lack of understanding on
the topic and also creates a neutralization technique for autoerotic
practitioners. Practitioners, often, do not know that many people die from
such practices, so they are able to neutralize their continued participation
by telling themselves that no one has ever died from this activity. It can
also be argued that the participants deny that fact that they are hurting
anyone else. This is due, in part, to the discriminative stimulus that is
created by the obscure nature of autoeroticism.
A discriminative stimulus is a cue for the behavior to occur. The
discriminative stimulus is given meaning through the reinforcers or
punishers that accompany it (Akers, & Sellers, 2003). For autoerotic
practitioners, people and places become the discriminative stimulus. Perhaps
a young man is caught in the act of hanging himself for sexual pleasure and
his mother walks in; she becomes the discriminative stimulus and the next
time the young man locks the door, or creates a private place to avoid
discovery. The marks left around a neck after hanging has occurred can also
be a discriminative stimulus. If the marks are discovered by another person,
the practitioner learns to put a cloth or other soft article between the
rope and the neck to avoid this happening again (Hazelwood, Deitz, &
The policy implications of approaching autoerotic fatalities from a social
learning perspective are numerous. However, the most important policy
implications are that of education. The first step that should be taken is
to educate the public on the dangers of autoerotic practices. This can be a
difficult and dangerous task. Oprah Winfrey attempted to educate the public
on autoerotic fatalities and ended up aiding in the death of a man who
learned about autoeroticism from watching the show (O'Halloran, & Lovell,
Public education of sexual practices is far from a new concept. Many
educational mediums promoting information sharing and protection against
sexually transmitted diseases are provided. The American Social Health
Association is a resource where people can find information on a wide
variety of sexual issue topics (Brown, 2002). Health classes in schools
designate entire sections of time to discussing sexual education. However,
taboo subjects, such as autoeroticism are not discussed. An argument against
the education of such sexual practices is that young people develop patterns
of behavior during the important adolescent sexual developmental stage
(Brown, 2002). From this standpoint, to educate young people about such
practices would only promote practice and the coinciding consequences
The opposing argument is that if no one is educating adolescents about the
dangers associated with this practice, how are they to know its possible
consequences and learn definitions unfavorable to autoerotic practices.
Schools in eighteen states are mandated to offer sexuality education and
thirty-four states are required to offer STD/HIV education to students (Fortenberry,
2002). The consequences of sexual activity are part of the curriculum.
Students are made aware of consequences of certain actions. This education
does not include consequences about autoerotic asphyxia. Education of
autoeroticism would also benefit society by reducing the stigma and taboo
nature of the practice which would, in turn, make more people feel
comfortable about discussing their own experiences.
Education can come from many facets of society, but one that can not be
ignored is the obvious invaluable potential of the media. Arguments have
been made against the idea of educating the public about autoerotic asphyxia
through the media. Brown (2002) asserted that due to the impressionable
nature of adolescents, it is a topic more suited for discussion with parents
and schools. Courtright and Baran (1980) have a different perspective on the
issue. They believe that as an individual increases his or her level of
sexual activity that the media and the images depicted within it becomes
less real to them. One can then infer, when using this perspective, that
perhaps a person's level of sexual experience plays a role in whether using
the media as a method for prevention of autoeroticism would be effective. It
has been found though that knowledge alone can not prevent a specific
behavioral action (Strouse & Fabes, 1985). However, clinic-based programs
with an element of counseling formulated around the specific issue of
autoerotic asphyxia can effectively increase prevention (Fortenberry, 2002).
Hazelwood, Burgess, and Groth (1981) hypothesize that as society becomes
more aware and knowledgeable about autoerotic asphyxia, the taboo status and
secrecy that goes along with it will fade. Only then will cases be more
likely to be reported and the topic understood (Hazelwood, et. al., 1981).
Another possible policy implication would be to block pornographic web sites
for people under the age of 18. There is already a policy in place that
requires people who log on to the sites to be over the age of 18, but the
sign in process is not well monitored. A system that is better able to
verify the ages of people attempting to view those pages would help to stop
some people from so easily viewing images that may be suggestive of
autoerotic practices. It would be naive to think that adolescents would not
be able to get this information elsewhere, but more vigilant monitoring of
the web sites is a good start.
This paper demonstrates how social learning theory can be adapted to explain
autoerotic deviance. Through the use of existing literature, it is possible
to explain one of the most taboo sexual subjects within our society today.
Social learning theory best describes autoerotic deviance because it is
inclusive of elements that explain both the learning and the perpetuation of
autoerotic deviance. Participating in dangerous activities for the purpose
of heightened sexual gratification is not a widely accepted practiced in our
society which makes it difficult to explain from any theoretical
perspective, but social learning theory, as proposed by Akers & Sellers,
allows for a full explanation of the deviance and all of the aspects that
surround the activity.
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