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Your first sexual partner may have more to tell you about your spouse or current lover than you may think. Although this may sound surprising to you, studies have shown early experiences play a role in who we choose as a sexual partner.

I work in the the lab of James G. Pfaus, in the Department of Psychology at Concordia University. We wondered if your first sexual partner can determine how you choose a current sexual partner, and if so, how and why.

Our research shows that our first sexual partners can influence our current choices of sexual partner. In order to study first sexual experiences, our lab works with rats, because - believe it or not - the way they have sex is remarkably similar to ours.

Everything we experience is processed by our brain. Our nervous system is equipped with a psychological and biochemical infrastructure that allows us to learn about our environment and experiences.

Humans are equipped with a nervous system that shares the same learning mechanisms. This helps to explain why you experience that pleasurable sensation when you open a can of beer on a hot day, or why just “talking dirty” can trigger sexual arousal in the form of genital blood flow.

Partner features such as height, hair colour and body dimensions, along with contextual cues such as your bed, a bar, the time of day or day of the week are the bell, and sexual gratification is the food. This is how we learn things about sex: Molding our type, and also how and when to have sex, along with what to do, with who and even why.

So how could your “first” have anything to do with your current lover?

Our study: Lingerie and perfume on rats

It has been shown that male rats can be trained to associate a sexually receptive female and the sexual reward from intercourse with a neutral odor cue worn by the female, like a perfume. When paired enough times, the male rat will develop a preference for this female over an unscented female.

With this in mind, in our study, we manipulated the first experience of these male rats by allowing them to copulate with a receptive female. Later on, we trained them to prefer females that wore perfume.

Finally we tested their preference — allowing them to copulate freely with two females: One bearing the perfume and their “first.” What we found is that males did not show a preference for their current partner (the female with the perfume), unlike in the other groups who only copulated with scented females.

In other words, although male rats tend to develop a partner preference for their current partner, once they were presented with their first partner we were able to interfere with that learned preference.

This shows that their first sexual experience can have a profound effect in partner preference.

Furthermore, we wondered if this was specific to olfactory cues. Therefore, when we swapped the odor cue for a jacket (yes, rat lingerie!), similar results were found, meaning the rats preferred their first partners — wearing jackets — over the ones that did not wear jackets.

The experiments show that rats can “learn to associate sex with a variety of contextual cues, including the texture of clothing,” indicating that sexual fetishes are at the base of the same learning mechanisms.

These findings do not capture all the complexities of partner preference choices, nor suggest that one is a prisoner of the past choices when it comes to choosing a sexual partner or a spouse. However, they shed light on how we form a type.

Although the findings clearly support our conclusions, it’s important to mention that some rats still preferred their current partner, or even none of them. 

Although the results were conducted between male and female rats, the same learning mechanisms apply to people who are homosexual, queer and every hue in colourful rainbow of sexual orientations.

Whether your current partner or spouse resembles your “first” or not, it is clear that we learn things from our past experiences, and sex is no exception.

The Conversation

The Conversation