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Horm Behav. 2001 Sep;40(2):339-57.

Sex and context: hormones and primate sexual motivation.

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  • 1Department of Psychology and Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322, USA.


Gonadal hormones regulate the ability to copulate in most mammalian species, but not in primates because copulatory ability has been emancipated from hormonal control. Instead, gonadal hormones primarily influence sexual motivation. This separation of mating ability from hormonally modulated mating interest allows social experience and context to powerfully influence the expression of sexual behavior in nonhuman primates, both developmentally and in adulthood. For example, male rhesus monkeys mount males and females equally as juveniles, but mount females almost exclusively as adults. Having ejaculated with a female better predicted this transition to female mounting partners than did increased pubertal testosterone (T). It is proposed that increased pubertal T stimulates male sexual motivation, increasing the male's probability of sexual experience with females, ultimately producing a sexual preference for females. Eliminating T in adulthood reduces male sexual motivation in both humans and rhesus monkeys, but does not eliminate the capacity to engage in sex. In male rhesus monkeys the effects of reduced androgens on sexual behavior vary with social status and sexual experience. Human sexual behavior also varies with hormonal state, social context, and cultural conventions. Ovarian hormones influence female sexual desire, but the specific sexual behaviors engaged in are affected by perceived pregnancy risk, suggesting that cognition plays an important role in human sexual behavior. How the physical capacity to mate became emancipated from hormonal regulation in primates is not understood. This emancipation, however, increases the importance of motivational systems and results in primate sexual behavior being strongly influenced by social context.

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