Fear Learning in Genital Pain: Toward a Biopsychosocial, Ecologically Valid Research and Treatment Model

Marieke Dewitte*, Ann Meulders

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal(Systematic) Review article peer-review


Although fear learning mechanisms are implicated in the development, maintenance, exacerbation, and reduction of genital pain, systematic research on how fear of genital pain emerges, spreads, persists, and reemerges after treatment is lacking. This paper provides an overview of the literature on pain-related fear, integrates the ideas on learning and sexual arousal responding, and specifies the pathways through which compromised learning may contribute to the development and persistence of genital pain. In order to refine theories of genital pain and optimize treatments, we need to adopt a biopsychosocial framework to pain-related fear learning and uncover potential moderators that shape individual trajectories. This involves examining the role of physiological processes, subjective experiences, as well as partner and relational cues in fear acquisition, excessive generalization and impaired safety learning, extinction of fear, counterconditioning, and return of fear. Recent methodological advances in fear conditioning and sex research are promising to enable more symptom-specific and ecologically valid experimental paradigms.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Sex Research
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 17 Jan 2023

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