Science vs. Religion (When It Comes to Love)

Some very heated discussion on the Ave Maria Gratia Plena blog following author Michelle's comments about oxytocin, bonding and premarital sex. It shows how attempts to understand how our biology affects our emotions gets mired in emotion.

In Why I disagree with promiscuity and fear for the FLDS kids that will be taught modern sex ed, she writes that she's worried that the children removed from the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints camp will be taught modern society's ways, including acceptance of premarital sex. She goes on to make some statements about how the bonding effects of oxytocin following sex and orgasm can cloud a woman's judgment about a man.

I think she makes some very valid points; I do agree with this:

Ever wonder why so many women are "in love" with total losers and won't end the relationship? O-x-y-t-o-c-i-n...
~ This is why so many marriages fail when the couples have slept together before being wed: a woman that is chemically bonded to a man is in danger of settling for a husband that is totally not compatible with herself. She can't see this because she is trapped in a bond she probably knows nothing about. (When do they teach girls about oxytocin in sex ed classes??)

However, framing these ideas with this really tragic situation makes it a lot harder to examine what she says. As commenters rightly point out, surely the situation these women, and especially the very young girls who were married to older men who had multiple wives, were in a worse situation than someone who finds herself "bonded to a total loser."

Still, many comments accuse her of ranting and twisting science. One wrote,

You made the claim that a woman is bonded to her sexual partner against her will by oxytocin. That a woman falls in love with a "loser" because of oxytocin. You cannot ask me to offer counterproof until you offer some credible evidence - other than a reference to Wikipedia - to support your statements. Then you'll get your "argument".

I really wish it weren't so, but there is plenty of credible evidence that both men and women become bonded to their sex partners -- and women more so than men. I wish we humans were able to create new forms of relationships and new societies based on our ideals, not our biology. But we remain deeply influenced by our animal natures.

It's completely proven that men and women release oxytocin during  orgasm. Following are some studies that, taken together, make a very strong case that oxytocin creates the bond of human love, and that estrogen increases oxytocin's effects:

Bale, Tracy L.; Davis, Aline M.; Auger, Anthony P.; Dorsa, Daniel M.; and McCarthy, Margaret M. 2001. CNS Region-Specific Oxytocin Receptor Expression: Importance in Regulation of Anxiety and Sex Behavior. The Journal of Neuroscience 21(7):2546-2552.

Bales, Karen; Lewis-Reese, Antoniah; Pfeifer, Lisa; and Kramer, Kristin; and Carter, C. Sue. 2007. Early Experience Affects the Traits of Monogamy in a Sexually Dimorphic Manner. Developmental Psychobiology 49:335-342

Carter, C. Sue; DeVries, A.C.; and Getz, L.L. 1995. Physiological substrates of mammalian monogamy: the prairie vole model. Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews 19(2): 303-14.

Carter, C. Sue. 2007. Sex differences in oxytocin and vasopressin: Implications for autism spectrum disorders? Behavioural Brain Research 176(1):170-86.

Chung, Wilson C. J.; De Vries, Geert J.; and Swaab, Dick F. 2002. Sexual Differentiation of the Bed Nucleus of the Stria Terminalis in Humans May Extend into Adulthood, The Journal of Neuroscience 22(3):1027–1033.

Cushing, B.S. and Carter, C.S. 1999. Prior Exposure To Oxytocin Mimics the Effects Of Social Contact and Facilitates Sexual Behaviour In Females. Journal of Neuroendocrinology 11(10):765–769.

Georgiadis, Janniko R.; Reinders, Simone A.A.T.; Van der Graaf, Ferdinand H.C.E.; Paans, Anne M.J.; Kortekaas, Rudie. 2007. Brain activation during human male ejaculation revisited. Neuroreport 18(6):553-557.


Young, Larry J. and Wang, Zuoxin, The neurobiology of pair bonding (Nature Neuroscience Vo. 7. No. 10, October 2004)

Zak, Paul J.; Kurzband, Robert; and Matzner, William T., Oxytocin is associated with human trustworthiness (Hormones and Behavior 48 (2005) 522 – 527)


Chocolate, Sex and Love

When we're lonely, depressed or bummed out, we reach for the chocolate. Especially for women, the liquor of this magic bean seems to spell relief from the blues.

Science hasn't figured out why, although, intriguingly, chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a substance that seems to be produced in the brain when we're in the throes of romance.

Personally, I think it's simply because chocolate provides sensual pleasure, while its fat stimulates a release of oxytocin into the gut and bloodstream via the vagus nerve. That oxytocin feels just like the oxytocin we'd get from making love or being close to someone we love.

At any rate, has a fun analysis of the satisfactions of chocolate, as well as a list of reasons why it's actually better than sex:

Chocolate will never ask you to wear a wig and scream "Who's your Daddy?"

BTW, I am experimenting with adding some affiliate marketing links to this site. If you clicked on chocolate here or above, you would be taken to If you bought something, I would get some money. No obligation, of course!

The Virginity Dilemma

Kaya at Afropologe riffs on a recent New York Times magazine article on True Love Revolution.

True Love Revolution is self-described as a "on-sectarian student-run organization at Harvard College dedicated to the promotion of premarital sexual abstinence. We strive to present another option to our peers regarding sex-related issues, endorsing ideas of abstinence and chastity as a positive alternative for ethical and health reasons. "

According to the NYT, the club's ideas include:

... the belief that “ ‘safe sex’ is not safe”; that even the most effective methods of birth control can fail; that early sexual activity is strongly associated with all manner of terrible outcomes, from increased risk of depression to greater likelihood of marital infidelity, divorce and maternal poverty. Premarital abstinence, on the other hand, is held up by True Love Revolution as improving health, promoting better relationships and, best of all, enabling “better sex in your future marriage.”

I think the current leader of the organization makes an important point:

Conventional feminism, she explained, teaches that control of your body means the freedom to have sex without consequences — sex like a man. “I am an unconventional feminist,” Fredell said, in the sense that she asserts control by choosing not to have sex — by telling men, no, absolutely not.

I was very involved in feminist culture in the 70s, and we did sometimes lose sight of the idea that freedom of choice includes choosing not to do what others are doing.

Kaya takes issue with one student's comments about wanting to abstain from sex with her boyfriend so she won't become too bonded and then hurt if they break up.

I think this may be an oversimplification -- and so may True Love Revolution's concepts, and/or the article's -- but she is very funny and her post is worth a read. She helps define the contradictions and confusion we all face in our ultra-modern society.

BTW, the folks at Afropologe have a no-quoting policy for their blog, which seems awfully weird and unbloggy, but whatever. 

What Are the Human Pheromones?

  Butt Sniffing Ying Yang 
  Originally uploaded by Tim Dorr.

This is slightly off-topic, but it fits in with the recent guest post, Sex, Love and Oxytocin: A Real Love Story.

Liquid Trust is now "enhanced with male and female pheromones." Now, the idea of human pheromones -- chemicals emitted by one animal that change the physiology or behavior of others of that species -- is not accepted science at this point. There have been a few studies that I find really convincing, and I'd bet that this is another case where we're not so different from the rest of the animal kingdom.

At any rate, I saw a mention of human pheromones in this article, which led me to a pretty good, science-based discussion of human pheromones: Y2K Man and Pheromonal Communication. According to the author, F. Ligabue Stricker, the human pheromones are (or are thought to be) androstenol-androstenone for men and copulin for women.

... in women were found compounds similar to “copulin” detected in Primates (Michael et al. 1971, 1974). Copulin is a blend of aliphatic acids (acetic, propionic, butyric,, isovaleric, isocaproic.) usually present in vaginal fluids of healthy women. They are under hormonal control and their fluctuations during the menstrual cycle communicate the ovulatory period (Mc Clintock, 1971). As in Primates,in fact, near the middle of the menstrual cycle their concentration is higher. The use of hormonal contraceptives reduces the production of copulin and its fluctuations.

In Man the “ musky “ odour ” (Kloek 1961), is due to metabolites of androstenone and androstenol, typically pheromonal substances produced by the testes and present with high concentration in urine, saliva and axillary sweat. The effect on social interactions is more constant and stronger than copulin one (Kirk-Smith 1978).. The higher intensity of the male odour compared to female odour is due to greater amounts of skin secretions and concomitantly more odorogenic microflora.

So, these are likely what's in Liquid Trust. I still wonder if there's enough of anything in this product to make a difference and if there is, how long it lasts after you open the bottle. 

But, if you want to buy it anyway, buy by clicking the link below and the company will pay me for the ad:

Sex at Work?

Oh, those crazy Italians. "Sexologist" Serenella Salomoni supposedly did a study showing that having an affair at the office made them happier and more productive. According to the article from The Sun (the UK version of the National Enquirer)

She said: “We discovered that people who had an office romance said they were happier, more energetic and more productive.”

Taking a break from his coverage of the Internet industry, Jason Lee Miller of WebPro News debunks this insubstantial little article, and then asks,

Is this going to affect our team-building activities? Because the three-legged race is already more intimate than I want to get with some people. 

Heh heh.

But seriously, I can see sex really livening up the workplace, and getting your energy up -- as long as your oxytocin response is weak. If bonding kicks in, an office romance can be a nightmare. Oh, yeah, and it also can be a big mess even if you don't bond with each other.

Using sex to relieve boredom at work seems like a really bad idea. Get another job or play Tetris.

Here's Salomoni's contact info; she's a psychologist and psychotherapist. But this study doesn't come up on Google Scholar or PubMed; in fact, neither of them turns up any studies.

Sex, Orgasm, Bonding and the Marital Blahs

Commenting on my post about how getting together with friends can provide a nice oxytocin boost that makes a woman happier in her marriage too, Dave said:

Over the years I have heard the importance of communicating, sharing non-sexual intimacy, supporting each other, etc., etc., but have rarely heard women openly say that sex is what bonds them to men. How about the more experienced couples (I don't want to say "older") - would most women who have been married 10, 20 years or more agree that sex is still the bonding element ? I believe it is, but do they ?

I think "ideally" is the operative word. Unfortunately, when it comes to sex and orgasm, the situation for women is far from ideal.

Orgasm can be problematic for women for several reasons. While this doesn't hold true for everyone, and I think our culture might be changing, many times:

Women are taught that sex is dirty or bad.

Women are not taught to get in touch with our bodies to learn what feels good, and what good sex should feel like.

Women are not taught to ask for what we want, in bed or out of it.

Pornography, as well as our soft-porn entertainment industry, portrays men and women as always sexually ready and available. Men can be really surprised, frustrated and bored  when a woman needs a lot of foreplay. I mean, we may be talking 20 or 30 minutes. How many men are, ahem, up for that?

Men get angry, annoyed, put off or insecure if women ask them to change what they're doing during sex, because  it makes them feel criticized.

Neither men nor women are taught anything about making love. We blunder through it at first, and often pick up bad habits.

Once a man and a woman become regular sex partners, it's not as *exciting*. So, the woman may actually need more foreplay or to be approached more slowly, while the man may feel he doesn't have to seduce her any longer.

As a man gets older, his erections may be less strong or less reliable. Our culture unfortunately expects men to be always ready sexually, so they feel shame if they don't get an erection right away. Instead of focusing on his partner and letting it happen or not, the man starts to focus more and more on his penis, making sex less and less pleasing for his partner.

So, a couple may start off with some bad sexual habits: He rushes things, she doesn't demand that he slow down, etc. Then,  after 10 or 15 years, when his testosterone dies down, sex begins to seem kind of pointless to her and she puts him off more and more.

They hopefully still will bond through sleeping together, hugging and other less sexual kinds of touching. We hear about couples who have sex into their 70s and 80s. I suspect they're the lucky minority.

Tips from a Matchmaker

Patti Stanger, CEO of Millionaire Matchmaker, runs a dating service that matches rich men with "the women of their dreams." I won't go there.

But the Newsweek article, TV's Hard-Nosed Matchmaker, is a fun read. And Stanger advises the women who use her service to refrain from sex until they're in a committed, monogamous relationship.

"Because as oxytocin [the "love" hormone] kicks in, you're bonded to him for life. That's why we're at risk and they're not," she says. "Men don't bond through sex."
She's wrong about men not bonding through sex. Men do bond through sex, it's just a bit different than from women.

I'd say that women do tend to feel bonded after sex, no matter what else is going on -- or isn't -- in the relationship. Men can walk away from a sexual encounter without feeling bonded; they need certain other things for their bonding instincts to kick in.

Because vasopressin, a neurochemical of attention and defense, also seems to be more involved in male mating, men are likely to feel more bonded if they're already invested in the relationship in some way, if they need to defend the woman from danger or there's just a lot of other kinds of excitement involved.

The perfect date to get a man to bond during sex: The car gets stuck in the mud on the way to your bungie jumping. He gets it out, both of you bungie, she's a little scared afterward. Just a little....

BTW, Stanger makes it clear that while she sort of advocates an old-fashioned approach to dating, she still thinks women should get equal pay.

Are You Addicted to Love?

Not a quiz, but a fun and funny piece from Ireland about love addiction. In That Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Caitriona Durcan writes about the obsessive stage, better called romantic love -- and how it can make you act really crazy.

From the article:

"Once the love bug bites, serotonin levels in the brain drop, triggering obsessive behaviour," says behavioural psychologist Ciaran Foley. "The neural circuits controlling social judgment are suppressed and stress hormones increase, leading to higher blood pressure and sleep loss."
As usual, the article doesn't differentiate between the crazy romantic love and the calm and connected true love. It's the latter that's based on oxytocin.

So remember, everyone. When the madness fades, you haven't fallen out of love. You've just fallen into a new kind.

Oxytocin Could Relieve Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder

A study released last week found that persistent genital arousal disorder can cause a variety of other psychological symptoms, including depression, anxiety and panic attacks.

Persistent genital arousal disorder (PGAD) is also known as persistent sexual arousal syndrome (PSAS). The PGAD moniker is newer and preferred, because it reflects the latest thinking that this is a problem of genital functioning, rather than of sexual desire. The study's lead author is Sandra Leiblum, Ph.D., former President of the International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health. (I'll write more about her research in the future.)

You wouldn't think they'd need to do a research study to figure out that symptoms such as intense sexual desire that intrudes at inappropriate times, lasts for days and can't be relieved would cause distress.

In our  sexist and hyper-sexual society, this malady isn't taken seriously by  many in the medical establishment, according to Jennifer Berman, an MD and director of the Berman Women’s Wellness Center.  According to this article

She argues that the medical establishment—particularly, the Food and Drug Administration—has traditionally not taken female sexual complaints very seriously. Says Dr. Berman, “Their attitude is, ‘Women can’t have orgasms? Who cares? It’s not important!’ But it’s going to be important; it’s a quality of life issue.”

Randall Craig, an endocrinologist in Phoenix, says he's successfully treated two patients with PGAD-like symptoms. He hypothesizes that there are four different types of this disorder, one being "endocrine associated PSAS." According to an undated letter he posted on the PSAS Support Group, it's

characterized by minimal or absent refractory phase after orgasm or by chronically elevated sexual arousal due to a hormone related disorder.  Women in this category would have PSAS beginning at the time of menopause, or would have increased PSAS symptoms during a specific phase of the menstrual cycle (usually for a few days before the onset of the menstrual period).  The three hormones which may play a role in PSAS are progesterone, prolactin, and oxytocin.

He suggests that an insufficient oxytocin release after orgasm could be responsible for the lack of relief and the persistent arousal.

According to Dr. Craig's paper,

It is conceivable that an absent or diminished surge of oxytocin would minimize or prevent resolution of pelvic congestion, or the subjective feeling of relief.  Women with oxytocin deficiency may experience very short refractory periods after each orgasm followed by a rapid return of intense sexual arousal requiring another orgasm for relief.  Hundreds of orgasms may be needed to eventually release enough oxytocin to diminish the state of prolonged sexual arousal.

In such cases, Craig says, inhaling oxytocin could alleviate the symptoms of persistent genital arousal. I've sent Dr. Craig an email requesting more information; hopefully, he'll respond.

See also The Amazing Vagus Nerve

The Limerence Position

Just for fun today, I'm highlighting a "radio comic strip" from 11 Central Ave. These are short multi-character plays that comment on life -- and frequently on love and lust, two things for which oxytocin is vital. (Re sex, oxytocin enables erection and engorgement of the genitals.)

This particular show is about limerence, that madly intoxicating state that precedes romance and love. (For more on limerance, see my post  Is It Love or Is It Limerence?

Susan Shepherd produces these for Chicago Public Radio, and they're distributed to other stations across the U.S.

Here's how she describes the series:

This four-minute radiostrip plays out in the kitchen of 11 Central Ave, the home of an extended family where a hodgepodge of other characters regularly drops in. As they rush around in the morning drinking coffee, reading the paper, looking for their shoes, they're talking about everything from the most compelling topics of our time (the Supreme Court nominee and his views on abortion) to the most ridiculous (mommy blogging), and everything in between -- covenant marriage, teens hooking up, the next pandemic, the fog of internet dating.

This could become a habit!