Alternate Means of Functional Assessment for Sexually Inappropriate Behavior

by Sorah Stein, M.A., BCBA, CSE


When working with individuals who engage in socially inappropriate behavior, it is important to assess for and identify the variables maintaining the behavior (Carr & Durand, 1985; Meyer, 1999). Once we do so, we can more accurately target our interventions and maximize our success instead of taking proverbial shots in the dark.  Though it might be tempting to assume that behaviors that by topography suggest automatic reinforcement, it is essential to conduct functional assessment of these behaviors as they may be maintained by social consequences, such as attention or escape (Mace & Belfiore, 1990).


One method of assessing situations in which a behavior reliably occurs is antecedent analysis (Carr & Durand, 1985; Stichter et al., 2009). For example, Meyer (1999) conducted functional assessment of antecedent events, specifically looking at attention and difficulty of presented tasks as probable antecedents to target behavior. In another study, both descriptive and functional analyses were completed. Examining antecedent events suggested demand and attention as reliable antecedent events, while experimental functional analysis confirmed escape as the function (Mace & Belfiore, 1990). Once antecedents eliciting or occasioning behavior are identified, antecedent intervention to modify behavior can be utilized (Stichter et al., 2009).


Aside from socially inappropriate behavior, environmental events reliably elicit and occasion all forms of behavior, including sexual responses. In animal models, we see effects of classical conditioning in the development of Conditioned Place Preference (CPP) (Pfaus et al., 2012; Pfaus, Kippin & Centeno, 2001), Conditioned Ejaculatory Preference (CEP) (Pfaus et al., 2012), and sexually deviant behavior (Akins, 2004). CPP is said to exist when the animal voluntarily spends more time in an environment associated with sexual pleasure (Pfaus et al., 2012; Pfaus, Kippin & Centeno, 2001). CEP establishes a preference for the specific environmental stimuli paired with ejaculation (Kippin & Pfaus, 2001). Because of ethical concerns and inability to control all necessary variables, much of the research on sexual behavior is conducted with animals (Akins, 2004; Pfaus et al., 2012). And, while we need to employ caution when generalizing from animal to human models of behavior, both CPP and CEP are observed in humans as well (Pfaus et al., 2012).


Fyffe et al. (2004) conducted an experimental functional analysis on the inappropriate sexual behavior of a 9-year-old boy with traumatic brain injury. Their results indicated the function of the boy’s grabbing behavior was attention. No other recent studies address assessment and identification of the variables maintaining inappropriate sexual behavior.


While Fyffe et al. (2004) were able to determine the function of the participant’s behavior via standard functional analysis procedures (Iwata et al., 1994), it can be difficult in many cases to separate sexual pleasure from other contingencies that may maintain the inappropriate sexual behavior. In these cases, antecedent analysis, assessing any reliable precursor behaviors, and examining the environmental context in which the behavior occurs can provide the information needed to facilitate effective intervention.



Akins (2004).  The role of Pavlovian conditioning in sexual behavior: A comparative analysis of human and nonhuman animals. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 17, 241-262

Carr & Durand (1985). Reducing behavior problems through functional communication training. JABA 18(2), 111-126

Fyffe et al. (2004). Functional analysis and treatment of inappropriate sexual behavior. JABA 37(3), 401–404

Kippin & Pfaus (2001). The development of olfactory conditioned ejaculatory preferences in the male rat. I. Nature of the unconditioned stimulus. Physiology and Behavior, 73, 457-469

Mace & Belefiore (1990). Behavioral momentum in the treatment of escape-motivated stereotypy. JABA 23(4), 507-514

Meyer (1999). Functional communication and treatment of problem behavior exhibited by elementary school children. JABA 32(2), 229-232

Pfaus, Kippin & Centeno, (2001). Conditioning and sexual behavior: A review. Hormones and Behavior, 40, 291-321

Pfaus et al. (2012). Who, what, where, when (and maybe even why)? How the experience of sexual reward connects sexual desire, preference, and performance. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 31-62

Stichter et al (2009). The use of structural analysis to develop antecedent-based interventions for students with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 883-896







This piece was originally published as a part of the Summer 2013 STEP SIG Newsletter.

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