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Sexual imprinting is the process that sees animals, including humans, choosing or rejecting mates based on the similarities or differences they share with their mothers, their fathers, and other prominent adults in their early lives. This process occurs in early childhood.
When we sexually imprint on someone, we create a mental model of an influential person’s characteristics and use that as a template for finding a mate. Potential mates similar to the person or people we’ve sexually imprinted on are pursued, while those that are very different are rejected.
Heterosexual individuals tend to sexually imprint on the opposite-sex parent, leading them to choose mates that share similarities with this parent. Little research has been done on the sexual imprinting of homosexual and bisexual individuals. Sexual imprinting does not only occur among children and their biological parents. Studies have also shown adopted children sexually imprint on their adoptive parents.
The quality of the relationship a child has with its parents will also influence the degree they sexual imprint on them. A heterosexual girl who receives a great deal of emotional support from her father will be more likely to choose mates similar to him than a daughter who grew up without this paternal support.
Humans do not only sexually imprint on one another. If someone has a meaningful encounter with an inanimate object at an early age, he or she may sexually imprint on this object. This unusual type of sexual imprinting helps explain people with sexual attractions to statues and sexual fetishes for fabrics and items of clothing.
Sexual imprinting helps a heterosexual female choose a mate like her father. This increases the chances of producing viable offspring, including sons which will appeal to other heterosexual females, as her father appealed to her mother. If a heterosexual female grows up without a father, she may sexually imprint on her father or on other adult males in her life. This kind of imprinting helps her select mates which will result in viable offspring. However, it may not result in these offspring being sexually attractive to others.