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. chris

    "My Take: There’s nothing brief about a hookup"
    Because your a women and women ALLLLWAYS make emotional connections. As guys we can just hit and quit if we wanted to.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • p.l.

      yes, and it takes a woman for u to be able to "hit and quit". maybe u should move ur "hitting" to another gender

      May 31, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Elise

      Learn how to spell or no one is going to want to let you "hit it and quit it" as you so eloquently wrote.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Bender

      Hi Elise – what are you wearing and are you free between classes?

      May 31, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  2. ErinBrooke

    Never a truer article. I've seen so many people hurt through "hookups". There is NO such thing as friend with benefits. Emotions always creep in whether we like it or not! And to the neuroscience professor, I and many other women have experienced the truth of these comments so maybe you should do some more research before you call it false.

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

      And your experience is not what everyone else experiences. Blanket statements about anything never work.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  3. John Richardson

    Sublime: You're getting through fine, The problem is your point isn't sound. If, for instance, the general public had a 40% divorce rate and Christians had a 4% divorce rate and the overwhelmingly majority of the intact Christian marriages were demonstrably happy, you'd have a point. Hey, they aren't PERFECT, some do divorce and others are unhappy in marriage, but they seem to have gotten it a lot more right than the rest of us! But that's not what the stats say at all. It's not that you aren't PERFECT, it's that you in all your self-supposed wisdom are UNDERPERFORMING vis-a-vis the general public regarding the divorce stats alone. What we might find out about the happiness level in those homes where the marriages are technically intact but possibly loveless, who knows?

    May 31, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  4. Michael Sawyer

    Given her christian faith has already predisposed her to the conclusion before the research, I will still ask the obvious question: did she ever to think to interview and talk to people who WERE satisfied with FWB's and casual hook ups? Did she ever think of considering a different perspective. I know the answer is 'no' because of her christian faith, but still, you can tell she did not because she made zero reference to it in her article, something a scientific paper WOULD have addressed to make the article less variably weak.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  5. lmen

    Thank you Dannah for bringing to light what most of us know in our hearts. Love is precious and should not be thrown away and cheapened. The truth can sting, but it allows us to evolve into better people. Thank you...

    May 31, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  6. First Hand

    So true. My wife was quite the little ho in college. Since we have been married, she has constantly asked to invite other men into our bedroom. I guess I am addicted now as well since the myriad of 3-ways and 4-ways we have hosted. I even let her do a g-bang with a group of college guys from Boston University last summer. Must have been 18 guys involved.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Only 18? The lack of Jesus in my life has lead me to get tag-teamed by at least 40 at a time on several occasions. I get sore, but I figure, "hey, Jesus dont care".

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

      I know what you mean and how seriously and deeply too many partners can change someone. I have burned out every relationship I have every had since I just can be satisfied by just one man anymore (at least not for long). I am almost 40 and am worried that unless I can get past this need for simultaneous partners, I am doomed to growing old alone.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Samantha: Maybe the problem is sticking a relationship concept that simply doesn't suit you. Monogamy doesn't fit everyone. Maybe polyamory is more your thing.

      June 1, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  7. JB

    Leave your fake religion out of my bedroom, but you can still come. Thanks!

    May 31, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • The Jackdaw


      May 31, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  8. ASH

    Great article.. Nothing has changed since Abrahamic times except for electricity . people were immoral then just as they are now , i do believe that the world will end with a large majority of folks still trying to commit adultery with their neighbors wife or with their friends. the author clearly mentioned "STICK WITH THE FACTS IF YOU DON'T SHARE MY FAITH" but unfortunately there are some degenerates here who have nothing to add, so therefore attack Christianity . feel sorry for yall ,, . anyways nice article Im sure there's at least one individual out there who reads this and decides to change before its too late. the article has most definitely not gone in vain.. i would also like to add , that what happens in America happens ten fold in other parts of the world . For some apparent reason what happens in America doesn't stay in America. if one girl decides to act promiscuous, a million girls all over the globe starts too. I guess that's Americas real power. soft power to be precise. Therefore guys and gals in the (promised land) be aware, your being watched, watched by a butt load of mindless morons all over the world. cheers

    May 31, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  9. JB

    Leave your fake religion out of my bedroom. Thanks!

    May 31, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  10. Jack

    The picture at the top is like the old Marlboro cigarette commercial making the guy look cool, macho, etc. But it doesn't show the end result of that kind of life, which is missery. When you've slept with 30 people and then try to settle down with one, it's very difficult to be faithful. The end result of that will be a destroyed marriage. And, sadly, a lot of these exwives and kids end up in poverty while the exhusband is out pursuing more exciting "babes." If you're the guy who can see nothing but lust, you'll fail to see this sadness there, but if you're a child watching your mother cry night after night, not knowing how she's feed the kids, keep paying the health insurance while not loosing her very modest house, then you know how sad this can be.

    God made the desire for physical intimacies to be very strong because He intended them to be part of bonding two people together for life. They are more valuable than gold and diamonds, but sometimes people "play marbles with diamonds," and pay the price when they loose their diamonds in the storm drain. Along with sacrificing the exclusivity on the alter of selfishness, they loose the intimacy, the life-time relationship and romance, their integrity... and their credibity, especially in the eyes of their children.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  11. Jack

    P.S. I've heard people who grew up in the church say a variety of things. Some believed in chasity until marriage, and were very glad that they waited. Some didn't way but had multiple lovers, and were very sorry later. Others divorce and sleep with 10 or 20 people until they marry again, and think nothing wrong with it. According to the Bible, they are not considered to be real Christians. (A Christian is not perfect, but is someone who has turned from his sin and fled to Christ for forgiveness. He does sin, but he confesses it. If he will not confess sin, he is not a Christian. (See the first letter of John, chapter 1.)

    May 31, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  12. GIbby

    I am a neuroscience professor as well, and these comments could not be more wrong. These claims do a disservice to science.

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

      Thank you for pointing out the irrationality of Jesus freaks.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Gary

      Disagree, not from a neuroscience standpoint, but from a personal experience standpoint. What this article claims is true.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • interested

      can you elaborate a little more? I am not doubting you, I just want to know a little more.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • DaTruth

      Thank you for not providing anything scientific but your own opinion. I'm gonna take a pass, thanks.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  13. Doc Vestibule

    One of the problems with taking an "abstinence only" approach to s.ex education is that it gives no foundation for dealing with the emotional consequences of physical intimacy.
    The same goes for demonstrating the hormonal/neurological/physiological processes involved. Explaining the mechanics is just intellectualizing what is, at it's core, an instinctive and emotional act.
    There is no effective intellectual response to an emotional argument.
    Or in other words, there is no equation that can heal a broken heart.
    Young people are going to make rash decisions. We all did it – so did our parents and so will our kids!
    To keep heartbreak from turning into morbid depression (or suicide) takes a healthy, nurturing support system of friends and family... especially parents!
    I'm a parent and know that it is often difficult to offer support and empathy without judging or condemning, but when the time comes for my kid to suffer pain and heartbreak, I hope she feels safe enough to come to her parents.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Gigi

      I wish I had felt safe enough to go to my parents. Thank you for taking a stand and still holding high expectations for your kids.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  14. greg brady

    That's my little brother Peter in the picture...and wait...is that Marcia, Jan, and Cindy? Where's Alice? Oh, that's right, she's sleeping in my bed. Woot woot.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  15. mike tyson

    Challenge your beliefs. Read 'There is a god – How the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind', by Antony Flew.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      You must have had your head punched in if you are going to buy into that kind of bunk, Mike.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • ScottK

      and so we should all take reading advice from a guy with half a face tatoo?

      May 31, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  16. Jeffrey P

    I can say that the addiction that is love, (lifelong, passionate, romantic love, some call it finding "the one") is very different from the feeling you get being around someone you may have had relations with previously, but do not Love. You may still have lust for a person you have slept with but do not desire to see them talk to them, be with them whenever you can. But your heart will tell you when you have found the one, without question. I can tell you the addiction that is true love is far stronger than the addiction that is lust.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  17. Nade

    Intimacy is a gift from our Heavenly Father and it was intended only for married couples. Marriage is also a gift but unfortunately we live in a world where marriage is becoming a bad word. This hook up culture has experienced many complicated and complex problems. I know many young people who are suffering emotionally because of believing that hooking up is OK. I have seen a marriage destroyed because the husband and wife had multiple partners before meeting one another.
    Hey it's ok to be commitment to one individual, marry that person and have a wonderful intimate loving relationship. Marriage is alive and well. Give it a chance.

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

      "I have seen a marriage destroyed because the husband and wife had multiple partners before meeting one another."
      I have seen multiple marraiges destroyed because the husband and wife did not have multiple partners before meeting each other. You have no point.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Artist

      marraiges <<< typo my bad

      May 31, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Jazzy

      I agree with Artist. My husband and I hooked up with other people while we were in college (before we knew each other) and I think it has helped our relationship. Having different types of intimate relationships helped me to understand who I was and what I needed to be happy. Having those casual hookups allowed me to "get it out of my system" and to be ready for monogamy. My hubby knows my history and I know his; we're both fine with the past because we're commited to the present and future

      June 1, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  18. j l

    why is religion a problem if it's scientifically factual? her point is that there is something better than lame casual hook-ups. period. being offended at her use of religion is just an excuse to throw out a sound argument.

    GROW UP!

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

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

      May 31, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      No argument backed by religion can be sound.

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

      I'm sorry, I must have missed that part of the article that was "scientifically factual". I notices several other peoples reasearch was paraphrased or statistics cherry picked from the "conservative Heritage foundation" but when did she prove "there is something better than lame casual hook-ups." I'll admit, lame casual hook-up's are as you so deftly put it, lame. But what about the awesome ones?

      May 31, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Doug

      "paraphrased or statistics cherry picked"

      I guess this is a one way street.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  19. Romix

    Instead of thinking much about hormons' work, we should think about God's intention to grant us with a simple animal like way of living and in the same time to show us His own image that we may follow Him into His perfection

    May 31, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      There is no god. Get an education and welcome to the 21st century.

      May 31, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Thomas

      The Jackdaw –

      Are you claiming you are more educated than every single Christian?

      May 31, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • The Jackdaw


      May 31, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  20. Don

    CNN..you may want to turn on spell check..Is it supposed to be..... In fact, the only other time as much oxycotin is released as during orgasm....or How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy and Love."
    oxycotin ?
    Oxytocin ?

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

      Oxytocin is a hormone that helps facilitate social interaction...obviously the body does not create/release Oxycontin (which isn't even a drug, it's a brand of oxycodone.)

      May 31, 2011 at 2:01 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.