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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. jmb2fly

    Well said Dannah.

    May 31, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Duke

      Nice to see a different perspective on CNN, isn't it?

      May 31, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  2. Drew

    This is a really well written article. Great facts and viewpoint from the author. Thank you for posting this.

    May 31, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  3. Elizabeth

    It';s also been scientifically proven that the more partners a woman has, the less oxytocin she produces during intimacy with each one. Friends with benefits is indeed possible, and it's incorrect to say that women all get attached to their partners. It's definitely possible to enjoy the chemical pleasure onb contact with another person without the emotional entanglement.

    May 31, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Nonimus

      That's interesting, do you have source? Sounds kind of like a tolerance effect.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Drew

      Actually Elizabeth, if you read the article, I think she just proved that it's biologically impossible to not have an emotional connection.
      I don't even want to know how many partners you need to sleep with to stop producing oxytocin. Have they even figured that out yet?

      May 31, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Big Walt

      Drew you're grasping at straws there. "It's biologically impossible to not have an emotional connection"? Really?

      May 31, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Drew

      Big Walt, I'd love to hear some data to disprove what the author has written here. If you have some, by all means.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Big Walt

      I just want you to show me where, "she just proved that it's biologically impossible to not have an emotional connection". I must have missed that part.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Grace

      I also would like to see the data on " the more partners a woman has, the less oxytocin she produces during intimacy". Seems to be another point against casual encounters. You end up attached to a bunch of partners you don't care about and then unable to attach intimately when you find someone you want a lasting relationship with.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Big Walt

      I'm going to guess you realized how dumb that claim sounded.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  4. stormsun

    Pseudoscience masquerading as science to make it more persuasive in achieving the finally stated goal: supporting the author's religious morality. How about this: the evidence is quite compelling from anthropological findings that men were not originally monogamous, and many are not even in the "modern era." This is the genetically-dictated survival strategy of your species' evolution at work. Does that make it good or bad? Guess it depends on your perspective. For what it's worth, I am firmly monogamous and I think multi-partner relationships are problematic for a number of reasons, but in principle, more partners would bond you to a wider community, family or "tribe." Various other species have different mating patterns; are some "right" and some "wrong?"

    May 31, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Drew

      Well obviously this depends on your view of morality, which can't be completely proven one way or the other.
      Although, I'm interested in why you think this is "pseudoscience"? You didn't give any reasons for thinking so. Is it just because you know this person is a Christian? I'm guessing if she didn't say anything about her faith, you wouldn't have called it "pseudoscience".
      It seemed like pretty hard facts and data to me, but since she's a Christian, it can't be credible, right? Because she's biased. And you aren't at all, right?

      May 31, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Drew,
      I'm not certain what 'stormson' was seeing but any time I see statements like, "Scientifically, though, that’s impossible" without some serious data to back it up, I definitely take it with a grain of salt.

      "The deep limbic system stores and classifies odor, music, symbols and memory. In other words, it’s a place for romance..."
      Not sure that actually follows logically.

      "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?'"
      What's this have to do with the "scientific"

      "In essence, it is a 'craving' chemical. It makes you want more. It creates addiction. Dopamine attaches you emotionally to the source of pleasure."
      I'd venture to say that Dopamine doesn't create an "addiction," by itself or on the first experience, else we'd all be addicted to chocolate. My understanding is that Dopamine is used as a reward/reinforcement mechanism in the brain, not just for addiction.

      etc.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  5. Jacaranda

    I once practiced abstinence. I din't even mast.urbate. God that was a looong afternoon.

    May 31, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  6. SciGuy

    I am simply astounded, what part of CORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION do these propagandists not understand? Best example of this is the strong correlation between ice cream consumption and crime; if we were to understand it the way the author is putting it, then we would also have to foolishly assume that eating ice cream CAUSES crime.

    May 31, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Colin

      Hear about what happened in Uniontown, PA today? Google it – maybe there is some merit to the icecream-crime link. -:)

      May 31, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  7. Mark

    Abstinence is "OK" being a virgin at any age is OK and I agree with the author.except about "god" Please leave god out of the equation. There is no god!

    May 31, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Howard

      I think it's O.K. to express your doubts about god, but be careful about stating with certainty that there is no god. Atheism is the ultimate arrogance, for how can any human make such a statement with authority unless he or she has knowledge that spans the length and breadth of the universe. No human ever had that kind of knowledge.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Homestar Runner

      Fair enough Howard, but don't forget that all believers in a god are also exhibiting ultimate arrogance as they cannot know for certain that a god exists. Just to clarify.

      June 1, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  8. Simon

    I don't see anything wrong with two consenting people engaging in some fun with "no strings attached". Unfortunately, most college kids are woefully unprepared for what the college environment is like. We don't prepare them for the level of freedom and indulgence they experience. I've had my own phase of random hookups and the sad reality is that someone always ends up getting hurt, either me or my partner. I wish I could communicate to younger people that ultimately, it really isn't worth the heartache.

    May 31, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  9. Laura

    AMEN! Which means....I agree! Thank you for sharing!

    May 31, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  10. Big Walt

    Don't even get her started on what happens if all those hookups are with same s-ex partners!

    May 31, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  11. ydobluv

    I know sooner or later the hate comments will start rolling in....its the nature of evil, so allow me to comment on and compliment on your article. Great job and even greater job in professing your faith (to GOD) so that all can see. So many claim to have faith but do not, others have faith but are afraid to say it and then there are the question marks.

    Good job and Praise GOD

    May 31, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • ydobluv

      ...ooops! I guess I was too late..evil works fast. It's funny how much people claim to not believe or care about Christianity but cant wait to post hate comments and read articles about it. Like pawns....

      May 31, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  12. HeavenSent

    Heaven won't send me a hookup. So I can't get STD's. God helps those who uh... help themselves.

    Amen.

    May 31, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Sin of Onan, phony HeavenSent.
      You just can't win.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  13. Caitlin

    "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."

    It is difficult to do so when the author's interpretation of any scientific knowledge in this article is so heavily based in her religion. It's also curious that for all the focus that hormones play in social behavior, there is no mention of the physiological effects experience.

    Without any of the data regarding oxytocin or vasopressin that Gresh used to base her conclusions, it's difficult to take this seriously as a sociological or anthropological piece. For example, how do oxytocin releases during orgasm vary among individuals? Do they vary in an individual's experience? Does it have an effect if the orgasm is achieved through masturbation? I would find any of the data regarding brain chemistry consulted for this article much more compelling than the statistics compiled by the Heritage Foundation.

    May 31, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Drew

      How is it "heavily based on her religion"? It looked to me to be based on scientific fact.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  14. Colin

    Christians use science like a politician uses public opinion. The readilly adopt and embrace it when it supports their pre-conceived views, but deny and reject it when it shows their primitive sky-superst-itions to be sheer nonsense.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  15. Joe

    This article is feel good fodder for Christians who do back flips anytime any of their arbitrary beliefs can be remotely aligned with legitimate science or rational thought. As a logic driven person, I regret wasting 10 minutes reading it.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • me

      As a logic driven purpose, you probably shouldn't need a whole ten minutes to read that.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  16. DBNY

    This article seems to say "casual hookups can lead to heartbreak/depression." How is that news? And how does that lead to "you should not have a casual hookup?"

    Serious relationships (including waiting until marraige to have $ex) can also lead to heartbreak and depression (and, the addicition to that partner).

    Based on the author's logic, it seems like you should never sleep with anyone (or take any risks in life), because you may suffer some heartache.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Jen

      Yes, and I am a Christian, and I have not ever found one person, not one, who can tell me what us single people are supposed to do. We don't believe in Nuns and "Fathers" so where does that leave us who may not be "marriage material"?

      May 31, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Colin

      Jen, you could alwyas try ignoring the religious authority figures and enjoying your natural self.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  17. Reality

    Two "bottom liners" regarding casual s-ex/hookups:

    o Bottom Line #1: The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.

    Bottom line #2-
    Currently, a perfect birth control barrier system does not exist. Time to develop one!

    In the meantime, mono-ma-sturbation or mutual ma-sturbation are highly recommended for hete-rose-xuals who need a contraceptive. Abstinence is another best-solution but obviously the se-x drive typically vitiates this option although being biological would it not be able to develop a drug to temporarily eliminate said drive?

    May 31, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • dave

      I'm glad I don't live in your reality.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  18. mb2010a

    Meh...

    May 31, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  19. Jaime

    I am much more impressed and moved by arguments made backed by science and research than by "the bible says and therefor". This article presents a well reasoned argument and even caveats the writer's own internal bias in an open and frank manner. To me, as a person who relies on reason for decision making, her prejudiced motivation DOES NOT DETRACT FROM HER ARGUMENT. Facts are, regardless of one's biases, and facts remain true, no matter who speaks them.

    I applaude the author for this well reasoned, well written, and openly transparent essay and find myself in agreement with it.

    I wish more religious people would frame their discussions based in fact while being honest about their biases. I have tremendous respect for the author.

    Thank you.

    May 31, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  20. Umer Hasan

    I am muslim by faith, but i must agree to all your points, and i haven't looked at it from the scientific perspective you gave, really opening the reality here.. Thumbs up x 100

    May 31, 2011 at 3:52 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.