The sexual preference of female rats is influenced by males' adolescent social stress history and social status

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Abstract

Ongoing development of brain systems for social behaviour renders these systems susceptible to the influence of stressors in adolescence. We previously found that adult male rats that underwent social instability stress (SS) in mid-adolescence had decreased sexual performance compared with control males (CTL). Here, we test the hypotheses that SS in adolescence decreases the “attractiveness” of male rats as sexual partners compared with CTL rats and that dominance status is a protective factor against the effects of SS. The main prediction was that females would spend more time with CTL males than SS males, and that this bias would be greater for submissive than for dominant rats. Among dominant pairs (n = 16), females preferred SS males, spending more time with and visiting more often SS than CTL males (each pair tested 5 ×), and SS males had shorter latencies to ejaculation, shorter inter-ejaculation intervals, and made more ejaculations compared with CTL males. Among submissive pairs (n = 16), females spent more time with, visited more often, and displayed more paracopulatory behaviour with CTL than with SS males, and differences in sexual performance between SS and CTL males were modest and in the opposite direction from that in dominant pairs. The heightened motivation of SS males relative to CTL males for natural rewards may have attenuated differences in sexual performance in a paced mating context. In sum, the experience of stress in adolescence leads to long-lasting changes in males that are perceptible to females, are moderated by social status, and influence sexual behaviour.

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