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My Take: There’s nothing brief about a hookup
May 31st, 2011
11:58 AM ET

My Take: There’s nothing brief about a hookup

Editor's Note: Dannah Gresh is author of What Are You Waiting For? The One Thing No One Ever Tells You About Sex.

By Dannah Gresh, Special to CNN

Recent studies have revealed some good news in the sex culture among college co-eds: there are more virgins among them now than was the case a few years ago.

These days, 29% of females and 27% of males between ages 15 and 24 claim to be virgins, up from 22% of both sexes in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

But among the college students who aren’t abstaining, we’re seeing more sex, thanks to casual hookups. According to recent research from Stanford University, the majority of college co-eds are still having sex, with an average 9.7 sexual partners for men and 7.1 for women.

Thankfully, we have more scientific information about casual sex than our parents did when they drove their Volkswagen buses to Woodstock for a dose of the sexual revolution. They wanted to think—as many of those cruising along the New Millennium highway still do—that we can engage in the act of sex without the emotion.

"Emma wants a relationship without the relationship. She just wants the sex,” actress Natalie Portman said of her role in the recent movie "No Strings Attached." “…I’m tired of seeing girls who want to get married all the time and that's all they're interested in. I think there is a wider vision of how women can conduct their lives and what they want."

Sounds so easy.

Just like the hippie culture found a pill that conveniently removed the “inconvenience” of pregnancy, today’s hookup culture believes it has found a recipe for removing the inconvenience of emotion: friends with benefits.

Scientifically, though, that’s impossible. We know that thanks to what neuroscientists have learned about a walnut-sized mass in the brain called the deep limbic system.

The deep limbic system stores and classifies odor, music, symbols and memory. In other words, it’s a place for romance, capable of processing a splash of cologne on your lover’s neck, a particular iPod playlist or a bouquet of red roses.

The brain chemicals associated with romance and sex wash over the deep limbic system during a wide variety of sexual experiences, according to research from the Medical Institute for Sexual Health.

Holding hands, embracing, a gentle massage and, most powerfully, the act of sexual intercourse work together to create a cocktail of chemicals that records such experiences deep into the emotional center of your brain.

It’s why we remember sexual experiences and images so clearly.

One of the critical neurochemicals released during sex is dopamine. Dopamine makes you feel good; it creates a sense of peace and pleasure. Anytime your body experiences pleasure, whether it’s good for you (working out) or bad (doing crystal meth), the limbic system gets washed in dopamine.

In essence, it is a “craving” chemical. It makes you want more. It creates addiction. Dopamine attaches you emotionally to the source of pleasure.

Another critical sex hormone is oxytocin, the subject of recent books like "The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy and Love." The chemical is released during sexual expression. A tiny dose is downloaded during intimate skin-to-skin contact; a much bigger dose is released during orgasm.

In fact, the only other time as much oxytocin is released as during orgasm is when a mother is breastfeeding her baby. The mother feels its release and is bonded to her child, and the baby’s brain learns for the first time to enter into relationship by connection. I’d say the chemical’s job is to bond us for life.

The knowledge of sexual bonding is nothing new.

“Do you know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body?” the apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament. “Do you know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’”

Christian author Lauren Winner translates those verses this way: “Don’t you know that when you sleep with someone your body makes a promise whether you do or not?”

The bottom line is that you get “addicted” and “bonded” to the people you have sex with, even if they are “just friends.”

That helps explain why Stanford sex researcher Paula England has said that “Some people are hooking up a bunch of times with the same person but are not calling it a relationship.” Maybe these people are not as unattached to their “friends” as they would like to think.

Here’s where the hookup culture starts to be a problem. What happens if you get caught up in the friends-with-benefits-game and have multiple partners? What happens when the partners you’ve become addicted and bonded to are gone?

You experience withdrawal symptoms in the emotional center of the brain.

Young women, especially, are likely to spiral into a depression when the source of their addiction isn’t interested in another hookup. A 2003 study from the conservative Heritage Foundation found that 25.3% of sexually active teenage girls experienced depression, compared to 7.7% of sexually abstinent girls.

The study found that 14.3% of sexually active girls attempted suicide, compared to 5.1% of their virgin peers.

And when a person graduates from the hookup scene and tries to have an intimate relationship with the person they want to spend the rest of their life with, things can get complicated.

There are already a lot of other people he or she will be addicted to, and that creates more chaos for the exhilarating but challenging task of building a life of intimacy together. The Kinsey Institute notes that one of the five factors that predict infidelity in a relationship is “having had a high number of prior sex partners.”

Casual sex is happening. We shouldn’t ignore it. That’s especially true of the faith community. But when we talk about it, we should use science. There’s nothing biologically brief about a hookup.

In the interest of full disclosure, my motivation here is my Christian faith. I believe sex to be an incredible gift from God, meant to transcend the physical to discover something emotional and spiritual with another person.

But since my faith may alienate some of you from my message, I ask you not to think too hard about religious differences. Stick to the facts.

The good news is that we are seeing an ever-so-small rise in the number of young people choosing abstinence.

What are they waiting for? Some mind-blowing pleasure and an incredible intimacy–without all the baggage of a broken heart.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dannah Gresh.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Opinion • Sex • Sexuality

soundoff (846 Responses)
  1. Ryan

    Excellent article, author is dead-on.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  2. Billy

    Finally a Good Logical Article on Se-x! We need more data / numbers published like this to educate teenagers.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • quipner

      No, we need moar se-x!

      May 31, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  3. Mildred

    This is a your mileage may vary thing, from my experience and observation.

    I'm at the point where I'm not looking for random hookups, but I do love each of my partners. Yes, partners.

    I can't be with each one all the time, based on our different life situations. But I do want to talk each one of them, chat with each one of them about their day, their hobbies, political views, etc. I want to hold hands with each one of them, spend quiet time with each, and be with each one whenever it's possible. And they want the same things with me.

    I also know people for whom there is "the one" that they've found and they're happy.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  4. Nate (Seattle, WA)

    Why does a Christian author even bother going into the details about "chemicals" and "statistics"? Why doesn't she just say, "that's the way God made it". Such flimsy evidence has never been a problem for 85% of the world before.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  5. Julia

    Thank you Dannah for a well written article based on facts and Christian values. Working in a college environment I have seen first hand the emotional damage these relationships can cause and it can and often lasts a lifetime. Keep up the good work!

    May 31, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  6. DC

    I have a problem with the author's conclusions from the stats on depression and suicide. If she's really quoting the use of science, then please repeat after me: CORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • Leowic

      what do you think about global warming?

      May 31, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Leowic,
      I'm not arguing one way or the other but implying that Global Warming/Climate Change is only based on correlation is like saying that teen depression and hormones are just a correlation, but there is no interaction.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  7. Jarno

    I do like the scientific approach, but I wonder whether the author is – like religious people often are – very selective with what science they accept, and what they deny. The very same science presented here – findings about brain chemistry and neurology are what thoroughly undermine the religious idea of the dualistic nature of humans as having brains and souls. All the evidence points towards there being just one substance; the brain, and our thoughts, emotions and experiences being the electro-chemical activity of that brain.

    I know that the idea of the soul isn't necessarily implied in the Bible – it is rather adopted into Christianity from Platonic philosophy that influenced Christianity greatly – and that there are Christians who scoff at the notion of there being a soul separate from the body, but the vast majority of Christians I've discussed these matters with do believe in there being a soul. Those same Christians generally aren't aware of the findings of modern neuroscience, and generally aren't interested in learning about them – and are often categorically dismissive of the science, despite knowing very little of it; the same way creationists dismiss the foundations of modern biology.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  8. B

    People's personal decisions are their own to make. There are more important problems to deal with in the world.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • likeaboss

      Great comment! she is clearly not a college student (from the picture displayed) and also never stated if she had first hand experience on the topic. So I ask what's her motive? People who dont mind their buisness are the number cause of stupid wars and blood shed. I'll find scientific data to back my argument later haha.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  9. scrumbugy

    Why is the 30-something guy pictured with a bunch of high school girls?
    Is this an article about Pedophilia?

    May 31, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Brian

      Different states, different laws of consent.
      Up here in Massachusetts they're thinking about lowering it to 14

      May 31, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Doubt he's 30, but yes they do seem a bit young.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  10. Doug

    I think this was a great article. I wish I would have read it 20 years ago.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  11. hookupmaster

    This writer is Retarded! She Is out of the loop. She uses the word "Hookup" over and over again. I would rather read a note passed from 2 kids then this.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Big Walt

      "In the interest of full disclosure, my motivation here is my Christian faith." – I wish this would have been the first sentence of what she wrote. WOT.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  12. JPD

    Awesome article, Dannah! As the wife of a youth pastor of 150+ teenagers, I agree with you 110%

    May 31, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Big Walt

      That's not possible. 100% is the maximum amount of agreement you can have.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  13. Tina

    Thank you for your boldness to speak the truth to so many lives. You are amazing and so appreciated. Your voice and what God has revealed to you needs to be heard.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  14. Tony

    Shap...that is soooo shallow. Who taught you Christians should reject facts?

    May 31, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  15. William

    Like the writer's facts first approach- you don't see it often in religious discussions.

    5% of virgin girls attempt suicide? Maybe I'm just ill-informed, but that number seems a bit high

    May 31, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Q

      Yeah, now that you bring that up I agree. If you say there are 300 million people in the US and that 50% are women (150 million) and all of them at some point were virgins than that means 7.5 million women have attempted suicide. Really? Seems we have a bigger issue there than who is "hooking up"

      BTW...just because you use numbers does not mean the approach was scientific. She clearly used her faith to form an argument for her POV. I read a study that said the number of partners a women had showed had no bearing on how faithfull they would or would not be.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  16. Dennis Brower

    Very good. Thanks for such a honest review of science and morality. They truly compliment each other.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  17. holycow

    Virginity until marriage is not gonna happen for most people. "Frequent casual $€x is a bad idea in the long run" seems obvious. Come on, America, let's figure out MODERATION, for the love of Pete!!!

    May 31, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  18. HR

    So what do you do when it's too late to be abstinent?? I agree that some people are able to have random hook ups and not feel attached, I know many people that have. I am not one of those people. I have had some random hook ups too but I always felt guilty or just regretted it after, either because I was hoping it would lead to at least dating for a while or just because I wish I hadn't done it to begin with. What are people like me supposed to do now that it's too late???

    May 31, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Brian

      They're probally supposed to stop asking for life advice on CNN. If you want answers, go read a poem

      May 31, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Deist

      First, learn to forgive yourself.
      Second, don't repeat the mistake.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • holycow

      Do like normal people: pick yourself up, dust yourself off, learn from your mistakes, keep things in perspective, don't act like you're in a made for tv melo-drama and spend time with real friends you don't hump.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • justaman

      Ask God to forgive you for your sin. He will give you peace for only He can wash away your guilt.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Lutheran Pastor

      It's really quite simple and yet so many find it impossible to do. Confess your sins. "If we confess our sins, he (Jesus Christ) is faithful and just and will FORGIVE us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9) That means that your sins will be as far as east is from west to you. They are gone in the sight of God by the power of his Son. You are forgiven and cleansed by the only person who can. Then go out and live the righteous life you were created to live!!

      May 31, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • BB

      HR, It is never too late. The bible teaches us that those who give their life to the Lord Jesus are a new creation–the old is washed away. As Lutheran Pastor states, confess your sins to God, confess with your mouth and believe with your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, then you will be saved. Go and live the life God created you to live. Find a good bible believing church family to help support you in this fallen world, and do your best to help others not fall into the same traps you did. God will bring you the Godly husband you desire.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  19. Clark Nova

    Quoting woman-hating Paul in this article is a pretty good clue as to just where this author is coming from. It must be horrible to be a woman and quote Paul to back up your specious arguments.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • holycow

      what I got out of the article was that frequent hook-ups are bad in the long run. The scientific slant to this long held belief seems normal to me.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Lutheran Pastor

      Woman hating Paul? Have you actually ever read Paul? How about this; "Husbands LOVE your wives, just as CHRIST Loved the church and gave himself up for her...Husbands ought to love their wives as their OWN bodies..." Paul wrote this to the church in Ephesus (Eph. 5:25, 28). Paul doesn't hate women, that is just pure liberal nonsense by people who don't want to submit to God's will and law.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • Joe

      Yes Paul Loved his wife like he Loved his donkeys, favorite sandals and other personal property: "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything." (Ephesians 5:22-24) – It's ok to be property as long as you are LOVED! We need not have ended slavery, perhaps just LOVED our slaves a little more. And by Liberal, I'm assuming you mean people that make up the blue states where 90% of our commerce, art, science and higher education takes place. And I'm sure you've studied all the worlds great religions and made an intelligent, informed and conscious decision to be a Lutheran and are not just banging on about the truth of your particular flavor of religion which you arbitrarily believe because of where you were born.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • LEB

      @Lutheran Pastor - Apparently you skipped the passages where Paul ordered wives to submit, and said that women aren't allowed to speak in church but rather ask their husbands questions when they get home. A loving husband doesn't demand that his wife should serve him. A respectful man would never order women to be silent, or to try to block a woman from obtaining knowledge. That is the farthest thing from love.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  20. Mrs. B

    A well written article. Factual, regardless if you buy into what is being said. What goes around, comes around. In other words, your past will catch up with you. The seemingly brief encounters, as said in the article, do leave their mark on both men and women.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      And your hands on experience with multiple partners is? As you call yourself Mrs. B I assume you have none. Few women now a days think it is anyone's business whether they are married or not. It is an irrelevant designation to show of the landing of a man. It serves no other purpose in the 21st Century. I am not very nice when some one asked if I am Miss or Mrs. None of your business. Look at me. Female. Ms.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.