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. san

    I have be searching for this lost picture of mine for last couple of months..Thanks CNN you found it..But i am angry that you post my pic....

    May 31, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Nonimus

      I thought it was a picture of the author Dannah Gresh, but if you say so...

      May 31, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  2. Nick

    Oh please. This represents an attempt by CNN to increase its market share with this Fox-worthy "article."

    May 31, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • Joanna

      'Fox-worthy' is right.

      May 31, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • aremis

      What's Jeff got to do with it?

      May 31, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  3. M

    And I tried to kill myself over being a virgin, too; reading this depresses me; thank you ghetto trash for taking away 18 years of my life that I could have had with normal humans

    May 31, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  4. Jesus

    Very unrealistic! How many guys have been in that situation? Maybe 2%! I was very active and on a rare occasion did a few ladies at once, but never THREE!

    May 31, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • Brad

      Try harder.

      May 31, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  5. bd

    We are all dumber having read this. The obvious bias makes reading this article painful. May god have mercy on her soul.....

    May 31, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  6. Gary Packwood

    The phrase HOOKUP CULTURE is just tossed around as gospel when in-fact there is no such factual basis for the phrase in the first place.

    Someone has a political agenda they are pushing in order to keep their job probably on a college campus or mental health facility.

    Where are the references about this 'CULTURE'?

    May 31, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • sealchan

      Duh, have you never seen a Woody Allen film?

      May 31, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • MSfromCA

      Look around you. The s e x u a l revolution is over and women and children lost. Women have thrown away the only real bargaining chip they have, so they are more and more desperate to try to somehow get a male in a long-term relationship before they get too old. They end up supporting some loser to avoid being alone while the men their age chase younger and younger women. Great result.

      May 31, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "Women have thrown away the only real bargaining chip they have"
      If that's MS for Misses, you are selling yourself short.
      If it's for MiSogynist, then you're right on track.

      May 31, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  7. OldPcGuy

    Sheesh... more stats that support some goofball perception of life... and relationships. The author forgot to add another disclaimer... she's writing from her perspective of not only her Christian faith, but her 'western' American culture, and socioeconomic level amount many other biases. She didn't feel inclined to include statistics for men/women in Islamic countries where men have more than one wife. Or about virgins who get married, divorced, then married/divorced several more times, and the last marriage lasts decades.

    It's bad 'statistics' to state that "having numerous partners" makes one more apt to 'wander'. The stats may simply indicate that 'wanderers' will wander, regardless of marriage.

    Lastly, monogamous marriage is a rather 'new' concept for humans... Most people, if examining it in a truly "scientific" way, could only agree that monogamy is not "normal" for our species... it just 'seems like the right thing to do".

    May 31, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  8. Lanfear

    "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."

    I disagree! I graduated from the "hookup scene" a few months ago when I met my current bf (and love of my life). He was basically a virgin – he lost his virginity a long time ago when he was drunk and never had s-e-x again until he met me. He is 21, I am 24. I've been with at least two dozen guys in my short life. Always been a very s-e-xual person... but my bf doesn't mind. He calls me his dirty little s-l-u-t and I call him my virgin boy. I must have done something right in this life-time to deserve him... I will never let him go. He is such a little treat.... 🙂

    May 31, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • Drome

      i'll give you six months. whatever you do, don't get married yet. sorry, but this one ain't gonna last.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • Adam

      It's funny 'cause you said you "graduated" a few months ago and somehow you know this current guy is "the love of [your] life"? Come on now, it takes longer than that, especially when you've been going from partner to partner for awhile.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Lanfear

      Marriage is NOWHERE on the radar, lol. I've been in love before, two relationships over 3 years each... I have more experience than you'll ever grasp. BTW – I've never dated anyone and had it NOT last. My last two relationships... there were kids involved and so much more, I KNEW it wasn't my path.
      And sleeping around as a female... men don't respect you. I was tired of being treated like shiit. Going out on a "date" or going to some strange guys house and having him immediately grab my @ss or boobs etc. I can't imagine going back to that lifestyle. It was the darkest period of my life. Then I found my light.
      I can't guarantee I will be with this guy forever. But I do love him, and it's beyond anything I've felt before.

      May 31, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Lanfear: I'm glad you found something that brings you such joy.
      As for the guys who didn't respect you... I don't think you're responsible for their lack of character. Sure if you go to strange guys' houses, you have a little responsibility for putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. But whether or not a woman sleeps around, gives absolutely no one the right to take advantage of her. If they expected something, they should at least be respectful about getting it.

      June 2, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  9. v

    I no longer seek dopamine. Everything is much clearer now.

    May 31, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  10. Faux Paws

    Wow. The Pink Monkeys sure had their cages rattled by this one. Sure is great to finally see some new/different names on today !

    May 31, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  11. Ian

    Complaining that strangers are doing something that makes them happy and doesn't affect you at all?

    Sounds like just more WHINING.

    May 31, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  12. sleepytime

    Ms. Gresh, why do you assume being a virgin at 24 is "good news"?

    May 31, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • Jesus

      It isn't! I've been with both and frankly don't want somebody who hasn't figured it out yet and doesn't quite know what to do with their private parts. It ruins the moment.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • 4mercy

      It's not "good news". It's great news!... Hopefully the percentage who abstain as young people will continue to rise and that will be fantastic!

      May 31, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • sleepytime

      4mercy: Why is it "great" news?

      May 31, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Vince

      Why do you assume it's not?

      May 31, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Timbo11

      Indeed. In what other aspect of life is inexperience considered a virtue.

      At a job interview "Sir, I have absolutely no experience in the position I'm applying for; that's a good thing right?" umm...

      May 31, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  13. Ben

    The age 15-24 virginity statistic is pretty worthless considering this is an article about college students. How about 18-24?

    May 31, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Jesus

      True! In my day few were doing it between 15-17, but almost everyone I knew got it done between 18-23. It's one of the great joys of life. Partake and LIVE!

      May 31, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Ben

      Do we know *why* the virginity rate is increasing? The author jumps to the conclusion that it's a good thing, due to her religious faith. It could easily be a a bad thing – more young people with little social interaction, shutting themselves in with their computers and TV.

      I'm not saying that *is* the reason, I'm just saying it's no less likely than it being a "morality" thing. More research is needed before this statistic can be used to make any actual claims.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  14. MSfromCA

    Why are the women in the picture asleep and the man looks ready for another round? In a more realistic picture, the dude would be trying to sleep and the women would all be in a giant cat fight. Nice fantasy anyway.

    May 31, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  15. Johnny Five

    I want to know who hacked my Facebook and stole this picture.

    May 31, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      hahahahaha, nice.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • aremis

      Don't you mean you Photoshop files?

      May 31, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  16. Parkerman

    This is true, Men and Women cannot be friends. S e x always gets in the way. Religious or not frequent casual s e x prior to a relationship creates a larger chance of infedelity. Whats wrong in dating to find a spouse instead of jumping from one person to the next for a quick fix. You need someone to be with you and take care of you the rest of your life, believe me in your later years you need that close relationship to go through the difficulties of cancer, surgeries, etc. We need each other.

    May 31, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Jesus

      It's not about "a quick fix" you putz! It's about enjoying this short trip to the max. When your in your 50s and above, you'll have beautiful memories to fall back on.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • John Richardson

      If YOU can't be friends with the opposite s=ex because s=ex always gets in YOUR way, then YOU have some serious issues.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  17. KnowYourMath

    BAM! Let's bump up this proof! Way to print obviously false stats CNN!


    Page 128, section 5.2.1

    May 31, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Andrew

      It is the same old arguement, show me a report that says one thing, and I will show you ten that say the opposite. So who is wrong and who is right?

      May 31, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • KnowYourMath

      I'm right. It's not a report, a poll, or an opinion. It's a proof. Look at it.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Jeff

      Again, does anyone actually think before posting here? Your link starts with the term "Opposite Gender Partners." The CNN article says nothing about that restriction.

      Maybe CNN is getting it all wrong - that wouldn't be that hard to imagine - but maybe it's just you.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • KnowYourMath

      Do you think before you post? You really think same gender behavior accounts for a 30% difference? And they seem to be talking about same gender anyways,

      And if you actually read it, you'll see multiple examples of organizations printing some version of this faulty statistic. CNN is wrong. That's my point. They printed something is not only provably wrong, but has also been printed incorrectly multiple times in the past. Don't they have a stats desk or something? Something that looks at numbers and says "gee, that doesn't seem right, let me check and make sure that's not a physical impossibility"

      May 31, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • KnowYourMath

      Simple version:

      Average number of partners for a gender = total number of partners / number of that gender. Number of men and women are roughly equal. Everytime a man has a partner a woman has a partner, so total number of partners is equal. Therefore, they should be about the same number. Again, see what I posted for formal proof.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • Jeff

      Sure, sure, of course you're probably right.

      But, throwing around the mathematical proof language is, err, I think the phrase is, well, wrong. Tons of study assumptions in there. Seemingly, we're only talking college co-eds right? Maybe college guys are intimidated by college girls? Maybe they only go for non-degreed females? If it only includes college hook-ups, and guys take twice as long to graduate (clearly the case), maybe the stats indicate the reverse of male promiscuity?

      Basically, with all that painful brainwork to do, do we really expect the CNN intern to nix this blog/study? This was probably his/her first day on the summer gig!

      May 31, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • KnowYourMath

      *Sigh* Do you really think those account for a 30% jump? Or is it more likely that CNN, like ABC and the NY times before them (see article), cited research with bogus methodology? Sure, there are edge cases. In the original case in the paper you can argue that men had twice as many partners because they were with droves and droves of foreign women, but the reality was that the organizations made an embarassing error. Same here.

      Very few things I read bother me, but a major news organization printing blatantly wrong things is one of them.

      May 31, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  18. 2 minutes i'll never get back

    this idea of an addiction is a joke. it's an absurd concept that you base largely on Christian author so and so, and your own opinions. admitting that your motivation here is your faith is hardly laudable. indeed, your insistence that one should "stick to the facts" is laughable, as you simply intersperse lines of scripture with very scientific sounding statistical references. this only decreases your credibility on a subject that would otherwise be worthy of discussion. if you want to preach to the clueless housewife in middle america demographic, switch over to fox or some other idiot-friendly forum; this is not the place for it.

    May 31, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Parkerman

      Then why are you reading the belief section. You know Christians can also base ideas of scientific fact as well as faith. Open your mind.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Christians may be able to do that, but they do not, as it could corrupt their faith.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Brian

      Christians can, as some of the most intelligent and advanced thinkers of our time have. Thats the difference between science and intelligent thought and throwing in largely empty statistics and numbers to try and prove a point.

      It would be like sending a mormon research group into a tailgaiting party at a football game and using those numbers to reference NFL fans as a whole on drinking moderation.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Andrew

      I don't think she is trying to mislead us with scientific facts. It is an interesting article, but I think I would really need to understand where she is getting her data from and how the study that supplied that data was conducted. I think this article could, at best, inspire us to search and discuss further the idea that what she says is true. And science and faith do not contradict each other. Fact of the matter is, both rely on faith.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • helloeyes

      Actually for women, the addiction part of it is real – but I would call it more of an obsession. It is like an addiction because we become obsessed with the person and looking for the next fix with them. I've been married 15 years and after a roll with my husband I can't wait until we do it again, and the day after I am sending him texts and wanting it again!

      May 31, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Timbo11


      Well see, if you had a friend with "benefits" on the side, you wouldn't have to wait for your husband. 😉

      May 31, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Jesus

      I'm "addicted" to life and all it offers. This author and other evangelical dolts are "addicted" to an invisible and imaginary friend in the sky. She thinks that her invisible friend doesn't want young people to bonk a lot of different folks. That;s the same invisible friend who (in myth) came to Earth and bonked a married woman (Mary). I think that the Christian invisible and imaginary friend wants us to partake to the max!!

      May 31, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  19. Tom

    "In the interest of full disclosure, my motivation here is my Christian faith." In other words, this article is garbage.

    May 31, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • xjdavid

      How so? Because she says she's Christian on a Belief Blog? So because you do not share her spiritual beliefs, you are unable to consider her point of view?

      May 31, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Duke

      Do you refer to everything you disagree with as 'garbage'? How about if from a Muslim?...

      May 31, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  20. cameron2k

    For someone with religious background, thats a very scandalous picture used for your article

    May 31, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Jesus Lover

      That is Jesus and his humans that love him! Look how pure and attractive he is!

      May 31, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Just Saying

      Well, at least it's only white folks. Wouldn't want anyone thinking that cross-racial fidaddling happened too.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:54 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.