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. Laura

    Thank-you Dannah, for your insightful article. I fully agree with you. Keep up the good work you are doing.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  2. Michael

    this is absolutely spot on. i'm an atheist but i wouldn't want to be with a girl thats slept around... it would just feel cheap knowing she was sharing something that was suppose to be intimate between me and her with other people freely.

    no way. of course, if a girl wants to sleep around and she's the type that will snarl at this, all the more power to her. just not for me.

    June 6, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
  3. Bjarne Holmes

    A very nice debunking of Dana Gresh's article, written by a group of relationship scientists. Read this: http://www.scienceofrelationships.com/home/2011/6/3/our-take-on-theres-nothing-brief-about-a-hookup-the-devil-is.html

    June 5, 2011 at 6:22 am |
  4. Bjarne Holmes

    A very nice debunking of Danah Gresh's article, written by a group of relationship scientists.

    June 5, 2011 at 6:20 am |
  5. Texan86

    Im not a christian, im an atheist, but boy is this true! Being a believer in evolution i believe that one of the strongest emotions that we have, which is (or atleast was) necessary for us to survive, is jealousy. Thats why it is just so much better to wait until marriage. The interesting thing about jealousy is that it is the only known emotion that may not deminish in intensity. We are a species not meant to sleep around!

    June 4, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  6. Hanna

    Dannah, thanks so much for your article. I, like so many other commenters have been redeemed from my past mistakes. Thinking I could separate the physical from the emotional, it didn't take long before I discovered just how wrong I'd been. I'm always thrilled to find scientific evidence that backs up my EXPERIENCE and I now know I'm not just an exception, incapable of doing what so many others seem to be able to do...we all leave a bit of ourselves behind, it's just a matter of whether we've faced that truth or not.
    Thank you again for your honesty and courage to publish the truth of what culture clearly doesn't want to hear. There are so many of us that need to see that truth wins, popular or not!

    June 4, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  7. Arla

    This is what I wish more young women would get and truly understand. These women bond themselves to men that are not right for them and have a hard time recognizing it and leaving the relationship because of the bond. Waiting is so worth it! The marriage is started with a clean slate and you have so much room for growth unhindered. You can learn from each other to create the perfect relationship for you both....no baggage, no hang ups!

    June 4, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  8. Debbie

    Thank you for this rational commentary. The problem with the criticisms of this commentary is that they want to throw out rational thought in the name of the "science" of defending what is hurting so many women. Casual hookups have done nothing to help women in their relationships. Just look at the statistics of broken marriages and hurting women. Monagamy works and there is a history to support it! Our recent culture wants to abandon what truly does work if we work at it. The best path is not always the easiest path. Thank you Dana Gresh!

    June 4, 2011 at 6:50 am |
  9. Brittany

    I hope people will read the following article from LEGITIMATE relationship researchers. They point out all of inaccuracies of Gresh's article, who is clearly more interested in pushing her agenda rather than presenting facts.


    June 3, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • frank

      Gresh fails at thinking.

      June 4, 2011 at 12:02 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      If you can say "Gresh fails at thinking", then you must be failing in all understanding. Period!

      June 4, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      Brittany, if D. Gresh never wrote the article, and if no one ever dared to raise their voices about devastating consequences our society is suffering because of pro-mis-cuity, immorality and se-x-ual perversions practiced in our midst... if none of them ever spoke out, it would be still an undeniable fact!
      The website you referred to is no less bias then what they accuse Gresh to be....
      The bottom line is, it DOES NOT matter how many studies are and have been sponsored, and how many experts are paid to do them... Our society, our people are hurting, and their lives ARE forever altered BECAUSE they have been sold a lie, and like a dumb herd of sheep, have swallowed it hoo-k line and sinker! So have you!

      I won't say any more to you, but on last few pages of this blog I've written few posts. And there you will find the meaning of what I'm saying.
      My posts are not for cowards, nor are they hateful , as some would like to brand them, but the message in them can be painful , because the truth to those who avoid is offen-cive.
      My stance is spoken in boldness because it is The Truth, and truth is not depended on, but stands above any man's opinion.
      Finally, what Ms. Gresh wrote, is the truth. But the reason she is being rejected by so many is because she is openly professing her Christian faith. I am co-nvinced through my many observations, that so many who have hatred for Jesus Christ and for anyone who professes faith in Him, would rather drink a cup of po-ison served to them, then take one that helps them from someone who professes Jesus Christ! And that's exactly what they are doing, literally, take po-ison that's slowly killing them! ....That's the kind of sentiment they have!

      Therefore, the rest is NOT hard to guess!

      June 4, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  10. Kelli

    Awesome!! Thanks for sharing the message!

    June 3, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  11. Ruthanne

    Having lived a life of impurity and dealing with the consequences of that, I am grateful now for The Lord's saving grace in my life. I have always been a Christian – but my defition of that was go to church every week & volunteer too. The Lord broke me of that in the midst of a very deep depression after I was married and had children, and finally understood I didn't have a real faith. I recommitted my life to Christ and decided to actually LIVE OUT what HE tells me in The Bible, relying on His Holy Spirit to help me each day. It is not a perfect life, but a redeemed life & as I pray and ask The Lord to help me out of my depression & brokenness, He has shown me the better way – train up my children in His Word to protect their purity and innocence and guard their heart. He has such a better plan than any of us – of course, b/c He's the One that created us!

    June 3, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
  12. FairGarden

    So it's true America is heading towards polygamy with a Mormon President. CNN helps a lot.

    June 3, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • Honest

      FairGarden–your statement is evidence of your ignorance.

      June 3, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
  13. James Black


    June 3, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • Texan86


      June 4, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  14. Julie

    Thank you Dana for posting this article. Praising the Lord for His amazing forgiveness given to those who choose to turn away from a life of sin. Living in His safe, everylasting arms is a much better life!

    June 3, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  15. Elaine

    Thank you, Dannah, for this objective article. Our culture is much too casual about such an intimate union.

    June 3, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  16. Charge Nurse Betty

    Why is it that the photograph is that tops this article is "acceptable", while one with a woman, and three men, in exactly the same positions would apparently not be, and (obviously), not chosen ?

    June 3, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Mrs. M

      It has nothing to do with "acceptability." The TRUTH is that when you put one woman and three men (or even two) naked in a bed together, the men haven't the first clue about what to do.

      June 3, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Ituri

      Wow. Just wow, on that logic. Three men wouldn't know what to do, but three women naturally would?

      Its no wonder you can't offer an actual argument. Mysoginism also doesn't make your argument for you. Talk about vapid opinions.

      Second hint of the day. Men know perfectly well what to do with each other. They've all got the same parts, and they know how they work.

      June 3, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Charge Nurse Betty

      wait, wait, wait......
      I think you misunderstood my question. I completely AGREE with both of you, which is why I asked it ?!
      The question was more one of "discrimination" (by CNN), than performance, (Mrs. M).
      I didn't offer an opinion, I simply asked a question.
      BTW I agree Ituri, "takes one to know one". 🙂

      June 3, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  17. Ituri

    How is it that being a virgin "longer" is somehow equated to "better?" Yet more vilification of normal development in relationships. Being a virgin at 24 is, sorry to say, kind of strange. Not saying its even bad, but it is abnormal to not go through normal se xual development in your teens. Simply putting it off until later just means less experience, less knowledge about it, and less ability to function with your age group in the sack.

    Most people will have se x before they are 16. This is a biologically supportable fact, and when we realize there's nothing wrong with that, maybe we can get past this villification of se xuality and start teaching young men and women to prepare for it properly, rather than scaring them into perpetual virginity for the sake of behavioral control.

    June 3, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Mrs. M

      How unfortunate it is for you that you can't accept statistical data as more factual than the fantasy ideas in your own head? Perhaps, reading the entire article (instead of the headline or the first paragraph) might make you less combative and prompt you to have something relevant to say.

      June 3, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Ituri

      Awww, look at the entire lack of reply and the host of personal insults. I'm sure that'll make your argument sound very good, won't it.

      Hint. It won't.

      I read the article, and my comment stated biological fact, not an opinion. The villification of se x, especially women who have se x, is a toxic effect on our society and on the individual. Ignoring the reality about se xual relations causes irrepairable harm to uncountable numbers of people, and PC fluff like this does nothing to help.

      If you can't counter my comment with something intelligent and relevant, don't bother commenting back. Personal insults and witless retorts on your part only demonstrate your own failings.

      June 3, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  18. Liz

    A wonderful article backing up God's design. Thank you for posting it.

    June 3, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  19. Friend

    "Adelina (the real Christian one)" is a fake. She never used that phrase.

    June 3, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  20. Jennifer

    Thank you for publishing this article. It's one that we need to hear and tell.

    June 3, 2011 at 1:04 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.