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. Angela

    Thanks for sharing a topic not talked about enough in the Christian community!

    May 31, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Artist

      Angela, a little more action and less talking. If only more christians would losen up on such things, they would be less uptight.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Jesus had 12 boyfriends and threw dinner parties.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Christy A.

      The Jackdaw.... of course you wouldn't put your name to such an offensive comment because you have no balls.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • Artist

      The Jackdaw

      Jesus had 12 boyfriends and threw dinner parties.

      Not to mention he liked hanging out with wh or es and children. Oh jesus had the it ch.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      My name is James and I'm more than willing to back myself up.

      May 31, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  2. The Jackdaw

    is this in the belief section because they are virgins for Jesus? What gives?

    May 31, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      What a bunch of touchy feely pro-Jesus bunk. How about not sleeping around because you will get bumps on your scotters. If you need a false diety to remind you not to get herpes, you need more help than this website can offer.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  3. DrFronkensteen

    This is like creationism.... Trying to back up your bs morals that are tied to your religion with junk science. How about you live your life the way you want to, and I'll live my life the way I want to.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • killyourgod

      here here!

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

      Romans 6:19 "I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves."

      May 31, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • jo

      junk science? give me sound scientific research that proves her point wrong...seriously, try, i would like to see it if it exists.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  4. Meggles

    You can't 'have a relationship without having a relationship'! The very phrase is totally nonsensical and illogical.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  5. Paul

    Thanks for this article. I'm in college now, and this has helped me immensely! Keep up the good work!

    May 31, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Paul, why are you looking for relationship advice on the internet? CNN of all places! Are you into boys or something?

      May 31, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  6. Lisa

    Thanks for a lot of great information! Dannah put it out there supported by facts not just faith! So appreciate her honesty & ability to be up front!

    May 31, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Bing

      I am offended by her lack of honesty.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Duke

      Bing, lack of honesty? You must have been reading another article.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  7. Vaman

    All I got to say is that the GUY in the picture is one lucky son of a b.....lol
    WIsh That was me, Damn

    May 31, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  8. WooHoo!

    I have slept with well over 130 different women, (I stopped counting at 130) and I am not addicted to any of them.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Duke

      If you ever wanted to meet a walking collection of STDs...

      Proof that the theory of evolution is diametrically opposed to current cultural norms.

      May 31, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  9. They found it!

    Yes they finally found a way to remove emotions from hookups! All we gotta do is destroy that limbic system thing and were good! I bet they are developing a drug to do that right now!

    Of course the side effects will probably turn society into a scene from Dawn of the Dead, but hey . . . Go Team!

    May 31, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  10. AntMan

    "In fact, the only other time as much oxycotin is released as during orgasm is when a mother is breastfeeding her baby."

    You can get oxycotin when breastfeeding? I bet Rush Limbaugh would like that

    May 31, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • what?

      Its OXYTOCIN (a natural physiologic hormone) not Oxycotin (a narcotic drug)

      May 31, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      You are probably confusing oxycotin (a natural chemical release by the brain) with oxycontin or oxycodone, which are prescription drugs.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  11. DH

    Quick poll among the men... Would you rather be the guy in the picture at the top of this article, or the virtuous virgin?

    May 31, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Someone Else

      I'm guessing the "male model" in the photo is gay, so not sure that would such a wonderful position to be in.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • David in Corpus

      I have been that guy many times. Don't let anybody fool you into thinking it ain't cool. It rocks! Very exhausting though.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Duke

      Stupidity is a stubborn habit, isn't it?

      May 31, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  12. Nicole

    Thanks for this very insightful article. I love the author's insightful mix of faith with science, the two really do complement each other nicely. And I absolutely agree- "...mind-blowing pleasure and an incredible intimacy–without all the baggage of a broken heart" is well worth the wait!

    May 31, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  13. MJ


    May 31, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  14. CM

    Maybe I'm nuts, but isn't there some middle ground between abstaining until marriage and hooking up with anything that moves in college?

    May 31, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • SR

      Yes there is...but it doesnt make a good story

      May 31, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Chris

      Yes you're absolutely right, which is why crazy promiscuity and abstinence are both stupid ideas. I graduated from college last spring and I believe the "hook up culture" is a result of the binge drinking culture going on right now. It's a fun time to be a college student

      May 31, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • CS

      Yeah, it's called a relationship

      May 31, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  15. NoCred

    Your credibility reporting on a scientific issue went down the toilet when you admitted that you come from a religious perspective. To me, your religious views presuppose the conclusion regardless of evidence. It always does. Otherwise, we wouldn't have a Creation Museum in Kentucky trying to twist mountains of contrary evidence into a fairy tale written in the Bronze Age. You shouldn't even be writing about science for CNN.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Z

      If all people are judged by the worst examples of those you associate them with, nobody will have any credibility. Science and faith are not incompatible even if the loudest voices in the discussion tend to come from mutually exclusive points of view.

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

      Your credibility went down the toilet when you decided all religious people are the same. Generalizing like that is absurd. And everyone has beliefs about something (even if it's an atheistic belief, it's still a belief), even scientists, but they can still be objective scientists.

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

      So simply because someone comes from a religious background they are impossible of stating science? If she had never said that she came from a religious background would you have said that she had credibility? I think that you're the one with less credibility because your believe or disbelief of information is based entirely upon who is presenting the information rather than the information itself. Sure, take everything she says with a grain of salt, do your research, acknowledge the bias. But don't dismiss everything as inherently wrong because she has one idea you don't agree with. Doing so makes you an intense hypocrite.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  16. Bing

    Dannah Gresh begins this with some scientific facts. I thought I was reading an interesting and well-researched topic. Then, she discards science and concludes with religion. Science is her disguide to advance a religious point of view. I feel cheated. Why can't she just start by stating her religious motive and then backing up with science? I would feel it would be honesty and nobility in her writing were she to write only in the spiritual milieu.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      While I agree that her scientific conclusions are inaccurate, look at the very top of the article: see the word "Belief"? This is CNN's belief blog; it isn't the Science section.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  17. WooHoo!

    I feel sorry for anyone who cannot do the deed just for the sake of the deed itself while checking useless emotion at the door where it belongs.

    There is nothing better than that hooking up and having a super hot encounter knowing that you will probably never go any further with that person.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      Hooking up is fun, I agree, but "There's nothing better"?

      I feel sorry for anyone who has not also experienced the physical pleasure accompanied by a deep emotional connection. S-ex is a lot of fun; making love is even better. There is a difference.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  18. M.

    Hmmm...I am a neuroscientist. And like many of my colleagues, I am really, really annoyed at how often our research gets twisted into shallow, know-nothing articles such as this one. To draw the conclusions stated in this articles requires meticulous cherry-picking of the data, absolute ignorance of the broader context which determines the effect any activity within the brain will have, and, frankly, a predetermined agenda.

    As for anyone reading this, please remember that Dannah Gresh cannot be trusted when speaking about science. If she mentions that something is "scientifically impossible," you can immediately assume that she's simply guessing.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  19. Barney Stinson

    Yeah, I think not. I'll stick to being awesome and suiting up!

    May 31, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  20. CRC

    Good article, well put together and I appreciate the connection between reality (science) and religion (Christianity) since some people pretend that they are not connected.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:33 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.