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. Reality

    The dangers of casual se-x: PREGNANCY/ABORTION AND/OR A ST-Ds

    For those who partake some statistics of epidemic proportions:

    from the CDC-2006

    "Se-xually transmitted diseases (S-TDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psychological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with S-TDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars."

    And from: http://pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com/2011/02/20/yes-o-ral-se-x-is-se-x-and-it-can-boost-cancer-risk/?npt=NP1

    "Yes, o-ral se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-

    Here's a crucial message for teens: O-ral se-x carries many of the same risks as v-a-ginal s-ex, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of o-ral cancers in America in people under age 50.

    "Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about," said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. "They view it as a way to have intimacy without having 'se-x.'"

    And this: "CON-TRACEPTIVE METHOD CHOICE (Guttmacher Insti-tute data)

    Cont-raceptive method use among U.S. women who practice con-traception, 2002

    Method........ No. of users (in 000s)........ % of users
    Pill ..................11,661 .................. 30.6
    Male condom ...6,841................... 18.0 "

    The pill fails to protect women 8.7% during the first year of use (

    i.e. 0.087 (failure rate)
    x 62 million (# child bearing women)
    x 0.62 ( % of these women using contraception )
    x 0.306 ( % of these using the pill) =

    1,020,000 unplanned pregnancies
    during the first year of pill use.

    For male condoms (failure rate of 17.4 and 18% use level)

    1,200,000 unplanned pregnancies during the first year of male condom use.

    The Gut-tmacher Inst-itute notes also that the perfect use of the pill should result in a 0.3% failure rate
    (35,000 unplanned pregnancies) and for the male condom, a 2% failure rate (138,000 unplanned pregnancies).

    o Conclusion: The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the pill and male con-dom have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or con-doms properly and/or use other methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs

    May 31, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  2. Steve Robs

    That picture on the top is of a winner!

    May 31, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Artist

      I have been in the above scenerio (picture) before married and have zero regret. No expectations, no surprises no hurt feelings...just simply enjoying the moment. 🙂

      May 31, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  3. Flushing

    I'm from Flushing, Queens. Home of the U.S. Open, the NY Mets, the Unisphere, etc. The average age for us to lose our virginity was 13-14years old. By the time, I entered Flushing High School in 1991, I was one of the last virgins. I went to Rachel Carson Middle School, the gym was where ALOT of the girls lost their virginity. Till this day, the staff is absolutely clueless. If your a virgin by the time your in High School, you're a joke.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  4. gimie a break

    i highly doubt they are virgins in your since of the word...........to most kids / young adults if it aint going in the baby maker it isn't s_e_x! they are still pulling, sucking, licking, and grinding their way through college!

    May 31, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • ScottK

      There's more than one way to skin a cat...

      May 31, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Flushing

      "in your since of the word" roflmao. You need to go back to school.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  5. dan

    Following Hollywood example is not a good idea. Unfortunately, lots of people are influenced by...

    Old way works: Don't have se-x before you get married, get married and stay married, love your spouse, keep loving your spuse, talk to each other and work things out, forgive, stay commited, build a strong family, have kids, educate them, transfer good values, live a good godly legacy to your kids and grand kids => strong flourinshing socienty/ good and trusting politicians. God help us!

    May 31, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Flushing

      yeah, i guess Maria should forgive Arnold. lmao at your ignorance.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • radam82

      I agree with you, but there is no sweet without the sour. Every lifestyle serves its purpose. We need variety.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Ben

      Hope there were few people with your thinking in USA. Spouses/partners are being changed like shirts. Truly God save us.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • civiloutside

      Ah yes... The good old days when all people were loyal to their spouses and all politicians were good and trustworthy servants of their consti-tuents and the public trust. During which years were those again?

      May 31, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  6. dean

    I don't know why he is giving the thumbs up. None of them are good looking.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • hmm

      the one on the right could be a makeup 7-8.5

      May 31, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Don't know what Planet of Amazon Goddesses you're from, but they all look lovely to me.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • You have to be kidding

      but 3 "7's" = 21... I'll take a 21 anyday!

      May 31, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • erick

      im sure dean has never had a 7 before...i would take the blond anyday

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

      you, sir, are completely full of lies

      June 2, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  7. CNNis Censoring

    Type anything here that is pro-christian or pro-jesus and watch how quickly CNN will censor it. Free speech? Go ahead and try it.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • John Richardson

      No, CNN doesn't censor content. They censor supposedly naughty words even when they are innocuous parts of other words. It's really, really lame on their part, but not a conspiracy.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Give it a rest

      Freedom of speech means the government has to let you voice your opinion. It does not mean CNN has to give you a platform from which to do so. Why is it always people who don't understand their rights yawlping about how their rights are being infringed?

      May 31, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Nonimus

      John R. and Give it a rest are both correct.
      You can always start your own news organization.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      CNN has automatic, preprogrammed filters through which our comments are passed. It isn't a CNN person sitting there reading your comments and passing judgement. It's a program that looks for certain words that CNN thinks may be "naughty" or just controversial. If you comment contains one or more of these filtered words, it will be tagged with "awating moderation." It's nothing personal.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Jessica

      First "Free Speech" is protection from the government trying to quash your speech, not any one else. If your pro christian posts denigrate any other group it will be censored whether or not you want it to be by CNN. Also any idiot can click on the "Report Abuse" link and they are removed pending a look at by CNN but they probably don't have all the time to look at all of them they get.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  8. John

    Mmmm...I'd hit it. She looks good.

    But in all seriousness, you lost total credibility when you mentioned that imaginary character in the sky. That should not be your motivation for anything. Your motivation for doing good on earth should be based upon compassion, empathy, and an understanding of other people. Has nothing to do with your imaginary friend. Grow up and give up your juvenile nonsense.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Lucy

      I agree entirely. I like to think of Jesus as Santa Claus for Adults. Sure, he'll forgive you for all of the bad stuff you do so you can feel better about yourself....

      May 31, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Jonny Ninja

      The writer's motivation for providing this SCIENTIFIC INFORMATION is not at all relative to the validity of said information. In other words, just because I happen to believe that God created the blue sky and you think that it just magically appeared doesn't make it any less blue or real. Stick to the issue. If you are going to argue a point, argue against the science, because it is the backbone of the point the writer makes. Your intolerance of religion has got such strong control of your emotions that you can't even be intellectually honest. And I thought you "atheists" were the "enlightened" ones? Please.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Marie

      John, I'm wondering why you think you're a more reliable source for truth than the source Dannah ultimately relies upon. I'm all for empathy, but where'd you get that standard? From yourself? What happens when your empathy or kindness violates someone else's standard? You live in a contradictory world without an absolute standard outside of yourself, my friend.

      August 5, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  9. Jesus of Nazareth

    I don't think you can really tell if you like someone until you've slept with them. At least for a man, it clears the fog that makes you want to sleep with every woman. After you've slept with them, then you can tell if you like them.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Um, I like, even love, a lot of women in my life who I don't even want to sleep with and who I'm sure don't want to sleep with me!

      May 31, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Jason


      May 31, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  10. dan

    Following Hollywood example is not a good idea. Unfortunately, lots of people are influenced by...

    Old days: Don't have se-x before you get married, get married and stay married, love your spouse, keep loving your spuse, talk to each other and work things out, forgive, stay commited, build a strong family, have kids, educate them, transfer good values, live a good godly legacy to your kids and grand kids => strong flourinshing socienty/ good and trusting politicians. God help us!

    May 31, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • John Richardson

      More nostalgia for what never was.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Oh please

      Don't forget staying in loveless or abusive marriages,

      May 31, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • ScottK

      The Reallity:
      Old days: Don't tell your parent's that you had se-x before you got married, get married and stay married even if you hate each other because otherwise your parents will disown you, love your spouse on the outside, beat your wife behind closed doors, keep loving your spouse in public, yell at each other and work things out in private, forgive your wife for the fact she's a woman, stay commited to making sure no one finds out the dirty family secrets, build a strong illusion around your family, have kids, rely on free teachers and possible predators to educate them, transfer good values but make sure they keep their mouth shut about pervy uncle Danny, leave an ungodly legacy of debt and frustration to your kids and grand kids => a weak, racist, violent society/ good for nothing and untrustworthy politicians. God help us indeed.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • John Richardson

      And we all know that all those monogamous men never had mistresses or s-ex with secretaries or other underlings, including SLAVES. And there was no graft or corruption amongst politicians back then. No way. And they never abused their powers to brutalize the less powerful, Never EVER happened! It was the golden age and the only reason that I'm not living in an extension of that golden age, as I of course DESERVE to, is those danged hippes. Or something like that.

      It is indeed one of the recurrent themes of world mythology that there was some sort of golden age from which things have degenerated. It was BS then and is BS now.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  11. John Richardson

    There clearly are cases of s-exual addiction. But using the mere existence of such cases is an argument for pushing abstinence in a general way is like saying that the existence of alcoholism means that no one should drink at all. (Of course, equally stupid things are said about other forms of drug use ...)

    May 31, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  12. Blaqb0x

    Am I what? Oh yeah, I am a virgin. Wanna be my first?

    May 31, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  13. Joe

    I think she really overreaches with her conclusions, and it's her faith that leads her to do it. The idea that you will have difficulty forming a bond with your eventual life partner because you are actively addicted to a number of previous partners at the same time is utterly rediculous. I had about 10-12 partners before I met my wife and we have been happily married for 21 years. I have fond memories of my life before I met my wife and wouldn't change anything (except for a few mistakes on my part). My wife and I have had no problem "bonding" emotionally or otherwise.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • ScottK

      I agree. She is not a doctor, just a woman who has sold alot of books about faith which by definition are not based in fact. And the few study's she references are cherry picked to make the points she is attempting to make, not to have a real debate about s-ex in society.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  14. Philip

    Excellent article. The more we look the more we find that science and actual life experience reinforces the plan that God set in motion.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • speedro


      May 31, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • come on...

      yes, god's plan was a planet of 6 billion morons buildings things up and tearing them down, like emotional ants.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @speedro You get the "precise, concise and incisive" award for the day!

      May 31, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Lucy

      that's ridiculous reasoning. If you believe "God" created everything, wouldn't everything discovered HAVE to be his plan? And since you believe that, you would just naturally attribute everything discovered to being part of God's plan. There's no logic in that.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Lindsay

      I agree with you, Philip!

      May 31, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  15. eek

    the scary thing is i have the same face as that guy, never knew i could look so creepy.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  16. Megan

    "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 don't crave my last hook-up. I crave hooking up itself. Big difference, Jesus.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Actually, you have a good point here. And one should also note that ALL pleasures create cravings for repeats, not just s-ex.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Mike

      Megan...if you are in NYC give me a holler we can hook up I can be reached at petelichi y a hoo .com

      May 31, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  17. Valgal

    I appreciate the author's honest "full disclosure" and while I'm sure that causes the article to be bias'ed, I do not feel that it discredits it.

    May 31, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  18. Tim

    I smell moralizing masquerading as science reporting. While some of the facts in the article are true, the author's conclusions are far from grounded. This reads like other articles where a writer is picking science facts and over-interpreting them to prop up their social and religious views. YAWN

    May 31, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      There's no masquerade here. This is the Belief blog, not the Science section. That said, Ms. Gresh's conclusions regarding the functioning of the limbic system, i.e., that we become addicted to our s-exual partners, is ridiculous.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • EZPablo


      May 31, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Jonny Ninja

      As if you atheists don't try to promote your views in public and in everyone's faces all the time....And yes, atheism is a religion...It requires belief in something that cannot be proved...

      May 31, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • civiloutside

      Jonny Ninja: no, atheism is not a religion. It does not require a belief in anything. All it requires is not believing in gods.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  19. Katie McWilliams

    leave your faith at home. your motive for writing and researching an article has nothing to do with your thesis.

    May 31, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Jason

      On the contrary! It is good practice to reveal your biases and motivations, especially when you are discussing science.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  20. Jack

    I think the most ridiculous thing about this ridiculous article is the ridiculous picture they selected for it, which undercuts all the misguided sincerity of her solipsistic position. The look on that guy's face is hilarious.

    May 31, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • killallthewhiteman

      lHaha. You are so right.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Authors generally don't select their own headlines. I'm guessing the author didn't select the pic. But you are right. The photo doesn't fit. Indeed, multiple simultaneous partners, same s-ex or otherwise, isn't even what this article is about.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Jonny Ninja

      yeah i seriously doubt the writer selected the photo.. looks like some idiot intern selected it.. oh i'm sorry? that wasn't an intern? It was a staff member? shocking.. not..

      May 31, 2011 at 2:12 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.