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. Peter V

    Excellent. Truths that many don't want to face, but which can help avoid a lot of pain

    May 31, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  2. ben

    LOLI agree with johnny orlando

    May 31, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  3. Joe

    Refreshing commentary.

    May 31, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  4. johnny orlando

    When i saw that it was written by a woman, i gave up on caring what she had to say. She probably got hit and dipped in college and is upset because she thought the boy actually liked her. Having just graduated from college I can assure you that all things are normal and all the hot girls are banging all the good looking guys and even the losers are banging eachother.

    May 31, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • james

      I agree buddy!

      May 31, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Ryan

      I would bet your not good looking, or even good enough to be a loser who gets laid.

      May 31, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
  5. Mike

    Everything you said only affirms my opinion that you should experience multiple partners before getting married. All of that chemcial release and interaction changes your way of thinking of your body in a big way. Why would you wait to experience all of this when you have already choosen your life mate? To me thats like never learning how to drive a car until you buy one...and you can only buy one. I would rather figure all of this out with my "friends" that way when I do find someone I can share the rest of my life with I am not a completely different person after our wedding night.

    May 31, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  6. MSfromCA

    Basically, humans are right in the middle of a perfect storm of evolution and culture. Human babies heads have evolved to the point that they can barely get out, meaning they are essentially still fetuses when born and helpless. Humans have a very long childhood compared to most animals. No other animals I can think of reproduce outside a "season" or when the female is fertile. This all points to one conclusion. Human babies need the father around longer, and woman have evolved to mate whenever to keep him around. Men have not evolved to want to stay around THAT long, so marriage was invented.

    May 31, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • KeeKeeDee

      Unless marriage was "invented" by women, your theory has a gigantic hole in it. Why, if men are dundering wanderers, would they invent something to keep them from wandering?

      May 31, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • MSfromCA

      KeeKeeDee – marriage could have easily been invented by women. I guess I need to add some more factors – how about scarcity of resources and hoarding of wealth across generations. Add those in and you could get the men on board. Without them, you have something like Polynesia before first contact.

      May 31, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • civiloutside

      In a paternalistic society marriage isn't designed to keep the man from wandering – it's designed to keep the woman from wandering. Women have no doubt whether any given child is theirs or not. Men, however, have no real assurance unless they can somehow control access to their mate. Marriage is a wonderful insti-tution for men from an evolutionary perspective; it helps to ensure that the genetic legacy they are protecting is, in fact, their own.

      May 31, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • KeeKeeDee

      Civil, that makes a lot of sense.

      And, timely, considering Arnold's kid's "father" thought it was his until 2 weeks ago.

      May 31, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • iServe

      Actually hes right, it was invented by "society" and this thing called "religion". I guess you never heard of concubines, mistresses, and polygamy? It's just like how not even a hundred years ago, marrying and having children with a girl of the age of 14-16 was completely and logically accepted. Even more so 200, 300, etc. years ago. And by all rights evolution would tell us this is the correct response otherwise there would be no meaning to the term "jail bait".

      Thats when this thing called civilization came about. And with civilization came religion. And with both civilization and religion came rules and orders that controlled mens primitive and chaotic impulses. Cultural revolutions are nothing more than a control mechanism to keep primitive and biological tendencies at bay.

      May 31, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  7. Terri

    Someone called this "tripe" better placed on Fox rather than a (supposedly) sophisticated network like CNN. Can you spell herpes or HIV or cancer caused by the pappiloma virus? If you can't connect to this story emotionally or morally, think about the creep and crud you can get from mindless hooking up.

    May 31, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  8. Robert

    Once again science and society indirectly prove what religion has been teaching for thousands of years: abstinence outside of marriage, and monogamy in marriage, are the best way to go.

    May 31, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  9. @"Jesus"

    @"Jesus"-A "few" and "three" are the same number.

    May 31, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • iServe

      And a couple and 2 are the same number 😉

      May 31, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  10. DM

    Part of going to college IS trying new things and seeing what "works" for you as a person. That may include mistakes.
    If a person feels that not engaging thusly is right for them, so be it, but to assume this to be a virtue, a universal "good" thing, no.

    People are redefining public concepts of relationships and marriage. In fact there has ALWAYS been a massive gap of dissonance between what people believed a relationship and marriage was, and what was actually going on.

    You assume this to be a degradation, a devolution of relationships, a stripping of ethics and morals from relationships. It is everything but. If you do not understand the subject, that is your right as well to take comfort, if not smug, in ignorance, but you do a disservice to both readers and CNN to stand up and pontificate your naive viewpoints.

    May 31, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  11. C'mon guys

    Notice how most of the people complaining about this article are men?

    May 31, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  12. Michael

    as a neuroscientist, I find your understanding of the science behind this to be quite trite. Honestly, serious neuroscientists don't even refer to "the limbic system" anymore, we talk about specific structures (the almond shaped one is called the amygdala, not the limbic system). Science to put forward a political position isn't science, you can't pick and choose waht you want to put forward, that's called manipulation and your dishonesty needs to be pointed out

    May 31, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Peter

      She said walnut, not almond 🙂

      May 31, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Trevor

      I don't think he's claiming to be a serious neuroscientists. Even if he was, he wouldn't write it in any technical manner because the article is for a lay audience.

      Also, for a serious neuroscientist (who I would assume is highly educated), you have quite a few grammar/spelling errors. Your use of "trite" at the beginning of your writing comes off as a leap into making yourself credible. It seems like you thought you could type a word not commonly used to try to make yourself sound smarter. Unfortunately, I wouldn't be surprised if you went to thesaurus.com and typed in "dumb". Are you really a neuroscientist or are you putting on a front to manipulate others, just as you claim the author of this article is doing?

      May 31, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Trevor: And I would think that someone who is so keen on facts would note that the author is in fact a woman. Also picking on the grammar of someone's post rather than dealing with the thought behind it is a sure sign that you have no credible objection to what Michael is saying.

      June 2, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  13. Frogist

    There are some logical leaps in this article that just takes the author's imagination to make reasonable in any way.
    It seems the author has already made up her mind about certain se-xual experiences. The entire article has this negative view of anything other than a "traditional" relationship. And that's certainly not a way to approach the topic "scientifically" as the author asserts she is trying to do.
    Why is it good news that more people are virgins?
    Why is it that she characterizes taking control of one's reproductive function as a matter of convenience?
    Why are we equating casual se-x with a lack of emotion? Certainly lust, joy, fun are emotional states of mind. To try to ignore these benefits of se-x because they are outside a monogamous marital situation is dishonest.
    The author mentions dopamine and oxytocin and the limbic system in order to lend an air of creedence to her assertions that se-x causes addiction to a particular individual. But it is absolutely a leap in logic from certain chemicals make us feel good to certain chemicals make us addicted to another person therefore monogamy is better than any other option.
    Since her only source for whether or not casual se-x is good or bad is a study that is about 14 – 17 yr olds, it is hard to take her conclusions seriously.
    Maybe the conclusions we should come to is that we need to do whatever we can to enjoy our limbic system by flooding it in casual se-x oxytocins and dopamine and forget the whole concept of monogamy. That conclusion is just as valid as the one the author comes to by her same "science".

    May 31, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  14. Pieter

    Seems like the majority of complaints about this article come form guys... just sayin'

    May 31, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • Pieter


      May 31, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  15. elgost04

    every single article in the health or belief section had a comment that goes like this:
    "really cnn? is this news?"
    or something like it. Now a message for those insuffereably stupid people:
    its the belief section, and the content deals with....wait for it...beliefs!!!! not news!! i know i know, its waay to much to for your brains to handle.

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

      Thanks for saying it. But why call people "morons?" That's harsh.

      May 31, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Lou

      Hate to point tis out to you, but this bit of fluff was posted under FEATURED at the top of the CNN page, not under "health" or "Beliefs". There is not hint that this is a religous belief article until you are actually into the article itself.

      I have no problem with the article, but CNN needs to do a much better job of grouping their material into appropriate forums. This piece clearly does not belong with featured news.

      . . . and that is my opinion!

      May 31, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • elgost04

      @KeeKeeDee I do apologize for sounding harsh and @ Lou yes I respect your opinion. I see it as a news organization has the responibility to inform and thats was CNN is doing by posting this authors opinion. It is necessary to create and intelligent conversation to know the opinions of others wether you agree or not. As far as the grouping there is a difference between Featured article and Breaking News. A featured article is merely bringing the article to readers attention however the Beliefs label at the top of the screen should suffice serve as the disclaimer. But that is my opinion.

      June 1, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  16. BW

    BREAKING NEWS: Milk given away for free–Cow purchases dive. News at 11.

    May 31, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  17. Square

    This pretty much sums up college:


    May 31, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  18. Dannah Gresh Thumps Bibles

    Really CNN, really? Shouldn't tripe like this be on Fox News?

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

      'Thumps Bibles'. Wow, what a remarkably intellectual comment. If you don't like it, don't read it. I have to put up with truckloads of liberal tripe from CNN.

      May 31, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  19. Bim Tyes

    Jesus faced a lot of persecution in his days and so will this article, but it is the truth. I feel sorry for most people commenting here.

    May 31, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Yeah, I'm gonna download this article and nail it to a cross! Oh, you christians have it rough! A mere two millennia of cultural domination is just an appetizer, after all. You guys want the MEAT!

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

      Jesus is a myth, a fantasy, a collage of Mithra, Horus, and Krishna....READ and discovcer the truth about your 1st century Voodoo.

      May 31, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  20. Ian

    One of my best friends is a woman. We've hooked up in the past, and don't regret it. We're still good friends. Nothing bad came of it. This author doesn't have a clue.

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

      Same here! This author is disturbed.

      May 31, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • albert

      More than likely you are lying. It's funny how science is like religion. People only take the pieces they want to believe to be true and then call the rest stupid.

      May 31, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Albert, what is your source of information that you are calling Ian a liar? Do you know him or his friend? Or are you just baselessly accusing him of a falsehood to make yourself feel better?

      May 31, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
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About this blog

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.