I’ve been attending a ton more meetings lately. This is certainly due, in large part, to the lovely social explosion my life has recently experienced. It’s a ton of fun to get out of the house, feeling energized (that in itself a function of my work proving much less stressful these past few weeks), and being able to go out and listen to other people’s ideas of kink and BDSM play.

Today, I attended a presentation given by a graduate student on conditioning and, ultimately, behavior modification. It was extraordinarily academic (her handout had a bibliography!), which was both interesting and slightly disappointing. Part of me just wanted to hear about some more kinky ideas for play. However, I learned a lot, and will need to do a lot of googling later on to learn even more.

Not surprisingly, much of the example scenarios that the presenter did bring up involved orgasm control; it’s not just such an obviously kinky application of conditioning, but it’s also the application that has the greatest amount of research behind it. (Best quote of the day: “I’m still shocked at what you can get grant money for!”) There was a ton of valuable information in the presentation, but let me summarize what I found to be the salient learning points for my own reference.

Conditioning is the academic term for what people in the BDSM scene more often call “training.” This is an interesting point because I’ve often disliked the word training. It conjures up silly images of professional dominatrices (dominatrixes?) offering some form of “training” to clients who pay them to do so. The pro-domme, in that image, is the one I see as the trained, submissive partner. In fact, knowing many pro-dommes as friends (way more than I can count on two hands by now), I hold this belief strongly because many (though not all) of them are, by their own admission, submissives in their heart of hearts. To hear the two terms associated as two perspectives of the same coin has triggered a new way of relating to the term and by extension, the people who use the terminology.

The only context in which I used to feel comfortable thinking about “being trained” was that in puppy play scenes, and that never had anything to do with conditioning but with roleplay. What struck me, however, wasn’t the academic exaplanation but rather how the academic understanding of these concepts could lead to a far better understanding of how to apply such behavior modification and conditioning techniques to BDSM training scenarios in a truly D/s dynamic–one that is predicated on a real, strong, loving D/s relationship.

So what is conditioning? Conditioning is about creating a conditioned response to a neutral stimulus. This is not only academically fascinating, but is also at the root of all fetishes. In fact, sexual response is largely believed to be the result of two kinds of conditioning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

How does conditioning work? Most of us already know, but in a nutshell, classical conditioning works like this, using Pavlog’s dogs as an example:

  1. An unconditioned stimulus (food) produces an unconditioned response (salivating).
  2. A neutral stimulus (bell) is introduced along with the unconditioned stimulus (food), creating an association over time between the neutral stimulus and the unconditioned response (salivating).
  3. Eventually, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus (bell) which, by itself, causes a conditioned response (salivating).

Note how the response never changed. In Pavlov’s dogs example, it was always salivating. In kinky scenarious, it may be something else. For the sake of example and enjoyment, let’s do the same thing but with the not-so-hypothethical example of how I “learned” to love playful spanking:

  1. An unconditioned stimulus (singletail whippings, an often playful event for my play) produces an unconditioned response (masochistic enjoyment).
  2. A neutral stimulus (spanking) is introduced along with the unconditioned stimulus (singletail whippings), creating an association over time between the neutral stimulus and the unconditioned response (masochistic enjoyment).
  3. Eventually, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus (spanking) which, by itself, causes a conditioned response (masochistic enjoyment).

This can be applied to so many things and has so many uses in BDSM and kinky relationships that it’s really unending. The example above demonstrates how conditioning can be used to increase kink compatibility between partners. I used to hate getting my ass spanked. Now I rather enjoy it, and I even wiggle my butt to get it some attention when I’m feeling like playing.

However, there are some additional things that I learned tonight that were exceptionally helpful to realize. As it turns out, successfully conditioning someone is a lot more complex than simple pairing of stimulus as the classical conditioning example would have you believe. If other factors aren’t taken into account, it just won’t work. Some of these factors are well-researched, some are still unknown, and still others are emotional.

For instance, I learned tonight that there is a concept in this field of psychology called habituation. Habituation is the notion that boredom with a certain stimulus works against the conditioning response for sexual purposes. No one masturbates to the same porn or the exact same fantasy over and over again. Mixing it up keeps things hot. (This probably, and finally, explains my recent enjoyment of the various “games” I am wanting to play in the arena of orgasm control.) In other words, variety is not only the spice of life, it’s also an essential ingrediant in successful slave or puppy training, for example, or in any kind of conditioning.

Mixing it up a little requires the introduction of operant conditioning. In a nutshell, operant conditioning is a reward and punishments system; organisms want to increase pleasure and decrease suffering. The trick is knowing what is pleasureable and what is not. In other words, newsflash! Masochists do not consider pain as suffering.

Interestingly, several factors all combine to indicate that rewards are far more effective than punishments. In one simple example, once rewards are established, the removal of the reward is often a sufficient punishment in and of itself. Simple and effective. Rewards are all about positive reinforncement. Do well, and you’ll get a treat.

However, what happens if you tell a dog to sit, and each time it sits you give the dog the treat? It will sit, but it will expect the treat. If it doesn’t get it the next time you ask it to sit, what will happen? The dog will stand up. The conditioned response has gone because the reward was removed, and this is called extinction. In order to keep the dog obeying your commands you need to place it on a constant reinforcement schedule. This is, obviously, suboptimal for a D/s dynamic because it forces the dominant to constantly maintain the desired behavior in the submissive.

Much more powerful than a constant reinforcement schedule is an intermittent reinforcement schedule. In such a schedule, rather than getting a treat every time the dog sits, it only gets the treat sometimes. To further strengthen the reinforcement, the dog gets not one kind of treat, but any one of a set of many kinds of treats. This creates uncertainty in the submissive, and results in the trained behavior being maintained with much less effort and for much longer periods of time because the submissive doesn’t know when or what its reward will be, so it obeys at all times.

All of this reinforcement talk is reminiscent of Ms. Rika’s fantastic essay on Rewards vs. Treats. In fact, it’s mostly the same exact thing, only Ms. Rika seems to intuitively understand what I have only understood through intellectualizing the question. She states that positive reinforcement should be intermittent because it emphasizes the dominant’s control. Indeed, she is reffering to an intermittent reinforcement schedule used along with operant conditioning.

Now, finally, with a strong foundational understanding of how conditioning works, we can understand why the following tips and tricks are so effective:

  • Set small, realistic goals and reward these baby-steps when they are taken successfully frequently. Taking this approach to conditioning is typically more successful than setting large goals and providing one “large lump sum” reward at the end. Again, classical conditioning teaches us that it takes time to change behavior, and that it is easier to change behavior in small ways gradually than in large ways quickly.
  • Make sure you find rewards that work. What’s the best way to learn about these for your particular dynamic? Ask the submissive what s/he likes! Make a list of all these rewards and their percieved values and create an intermittent reward schedule to reinforce the desired behavior when it occurs. (As a sidenote, this means my girlfriend and I need to rethink our “consequence” box for accidental orgasms.)
  • Avoid confusing punishments with play. Again, a masochist does not see beatings as a punishment. Instead, removal of the rewards is often a far more effective punishment. It is also safer and prevents you from setting yourself up for failure.
  • Make sure you are aware of what behavior you want to encourage, and what you don’t. Be aware of your own behavior and the behavior of others such that you will be able to recognize the good behavior when it happens; it’s a lot easier to spot the problem behavior than the desired one.