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. Colin

    Christianity is the belief that an infinitely-old, all-knowing being, powerful enough to create the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, has a personal interest in my $ex life.

    Atheism is the belief that the above belief is ludicrous.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • holycow

      I find it intellectually unfulfilling to reduce and polarize complex issues into over-simplified "so take your point of view and shove it"-style slams. The existence or inextence of God has been considered and debated by greater minds than you and me.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Heavensent

      holycow you are a wimp and you are wimping out by taking the easy cop out. God hates cowards. If it weren't for cowards like you and gays we wouldn't have tornadoes.

      Take your lack of a point of view and shove it.


      May 31, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  2. Cygne Blanc

    For some reason, committed Christians are virtually incapable of enjoying $ex for $ex sake and want to prevent anybody else from doing so. Jealosy with a halo?

    May 31, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Cypher20

      Read this article again. It's about providing a more fulfilling love life not getting rid of all the "fun".

      As a matter of fact any Christian worth their salt is not about sucking out the joy of making love but about fulfilling its full potential by following God's way. After all, God created $ex, He didn't make Adam and Eve, sit back on His throne and suddenly go "Whoa, hey! What are they doing down there?!"

      May 31, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Mike

      Ha ha ... your funny!

      May 31, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Colin

      "by following god"s way". I assume you mean gays, les.bians, bis.exuals and transge.nder folks are out and are somehow "sinners". Oh, and that contraceptives are out, as are $ex aids.

      Oh, and , BTW, Adam and eve was a myth. Universe if 13,700,000,000 years old, the Earth, 4,000,000,000.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      "He didn't make Adam and Eve, sit back on His throne and suddenly go "Whoa, hey! What are they doing down there?!"

      Isn't that exactly what he did, what with the expulsion from Eden and all?

      May 31, 2011 at 3:19 pm |

    All this article prooves is that there are more liars in college.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  4. David, CA

    Pass laws to ban these people from getting married!!!! It is dangerous to marriage!!! Hookups are against the Bible!!!! (thumpthumpthump)

    May 31, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  5. GoodShowChap

    What a hilarious stock photo. I remember seeing it a few years ago. A shame that guy must be dead now from being so awesome.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  6. c

    Great article and very important points made.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  7. aaron

    lol @ hippie culture inventing the birth control pill

    May 31, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  8. Oreo

    the guy in the pitcure looks like he is had a blast.

    p.s. smoke sh!t instead, mon

    May 31, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  9. dtcpr

    as a woman in my 20s I was recently in college and I feel that this article is a misrepresentation. While some people simply write her of because she is religious, I don't. We all have our bias, we all cherry pick what we want. I think that this is not necessarily true from personal experience. My freshman year I got out of a terrible relationship and just needed to not be in a relationship with anyone, but a girl has needs and I slept with a male friend and you know what I was not attached or addicted to him. I think that is totally ludacris. We were friends, we continued to be friends and he moved on and slept his way though my friends, and I never had an ounce or regreat or remorse, nor was I depressed that he slept with someone else.... let's be real. If you set limitations and know up front what you really want then it can be done. Where people get in trouble is when they like someone and think sleeping with them will blossom into true love... That's ridiculous.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • reyrey333

      don't worry, you'll realize you love him when you 're in your 30s.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  10. Bender

    I wonder how many college guys are pounding some strange broad right now. Man thats something I miss. Even F'ing when you were bored still turns out great.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  11. Fluidity

    Oh....and how does this article make sense when applied to P*rn Stars? They're able to do this as their job with NO attachments. What's the scientific explanation behind that? I know....there's something "wrong" with them,I presume?? Haha. Gotta love the nature of human hypocrisy.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  12. justcurious1

    I truly appreciate this article. It takes guts to tell people what they don't want to hear. This is probably the most loving (in the real sense of the word) article I've ever read on CNN.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  13. ian

    thumbs up is so dumb

    May 31, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  14. jdgo

    a little religio-bias in this article I surmise....typical though

    May 31, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  15. Zeus

    chris, you are dead on correct haha

    honestly, of my friends, i'd say the ones who arn't hooking up are more hurt about it because they feel inadequate. besides, it's a lot of fun and usually has little consequences when the rubber is combined with the pill.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  16. Dan

    "a pill that conveniently removed the “inconvenience” of pregnancy"

    Your Christian Judgement is showing.

    May 31, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Bender

      Thats the best line ever!!!! I would give that sentence as a name for a band its so good.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:30 pm |

      It appears you don't understand the biblical meaning of 'do not judge'.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Dan

      Then I am on the same plane as christians

      May 31, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  17. jonhinge

    What is her opinion on std vaccinations. Against, I presume, so that these young women are punished for their sins!

    May 31, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  18. lordpet

    As long as people are upfront about not wanting a relationship, the little slings and arrows are more than made up for by the good times.

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

      As long as I mommy and I are happier when we get a divorce, who does it really hurt? As long as I want to drive super-super real careful after an evening at the bar, whose to say I can't do it safely? As long as I want to smoke 4 packs a day, my second hand smoke won't make any difference. No judgements here. It's just that, as a counselor, my life's work is helping people deal with decisions they made where they were quite sure that a few slings and arrows would make up for their temporary happiness. Food for thought.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  19. Dave

    Being in an open relationship, even a pseudo-relationship, leads to possible heartbreak. More news at 11

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

      Dude. You're right.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  20. SAR

    Dannah, there are a lot of negative comments on here...But this is NOT one of them. Thank you for continuing to speak truth into today's kids. And anyone reading this, please, if you're not a follower of Christ, take a second and rethink your decision. Because if you're right and the message of the Bible is not true, then I lose NOTHING. But if it IS true, and you refuse to believe it and not put your faith in Christ, then you lose EVERYTHING! Just something to think about. 🙂

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

      Unless of course the Hindus are right. Or the Buddhists. Or the Jews. Or all the other religions that have millions of followers, just not in your hometown.

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

      By that logic, maybe you shoud just believe in the Easter Bunny. If you are wrong, you will be fine, but if you are right, well just think of all that wonderful candy you'll get!

      May 31, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Dave

      You should be worshiping Zues. If you're wrong about him, and he does exist, you will spend eternity in Hades. Don't you want to be in Elysium?

      Just something to think about 🙂

      May 31, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Matt

      SAR, I hope I understand your logic correctly when I say that you think that believing in God carries a lower risk (if God exists) than not believing in God (if God exists). Assuming that is correct, your belief is commonly reffered to as "Pascal's Wager". It seems like your belief in God is one that is designed to benifit you at your death. I would argue that a true believer would not have internal and selfish motivations such as yours–in fact I would argue that your reasoning is completely immoral and that your beliefs are entirely self-serving. Did God design you that way?

      May 31, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • David, CA

      "Because if you're right and the message of the Bible is not true, then I lose NOTHING. But if it IS true..."

      Soooo you're not really believing in doing the right thing because it is right, but because you're hedging your bet "just in case" ... how self serving and arrogant.

      May 31, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Artist


      Dannah, there are a lot of negative comments on here...But this is NOT one of them. Thank you for continuing to speak truth into today's kids. And anyone reading this, please, if you're not a follower of Christ, take a second and rethink your decision. Because if you're right and the message of the Bible is not true, then I lose NOTHING. But if it IS true, and you refuse to believe it and not put your faith in Christ, then you lose EVERYTHING! Just something to think about.
      The person of no faith speaks.....lol

      May 31, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • ready2leave

      Wow, I find many of the posts on here from the "anti-religious" to be quite... childish? I don't know what other word would work best. It would seem that many individuals hate the emotional apologetics of the religious because they do not use logic, but when a religious individual uses a logical conclusion of thinking, you hate them all the same.

      I don't see anything negative in SAR's post against the non-religious. SAR makes a point based upon his/her world view that you can take at face value, or ignore. However, I do see negative comments from the non-religious against SAR... as far as to even attack who he/she is as a human being. From a post? Really?

      Whatever the case may be, SAR makes a logical argument based on the "Yes there is" vs. the "No there isn't" argument. If you so choose to attack SAR for using logic in a theoretical quandary, then that is your failure to understand the basis for all philosophy. The greatest innovators of all time explore all options before ruling them out... to not explore other possibilities leaves you weak and foolish... even if those other possibilities turn out to be wrong.

      And to you SAR.... good use of logic!

      May 31, 2011 at 5:34 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.