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Want a Capri Sun?" Those were the first words he said to her afterwards. Rachel White, age fifteen, had been anticipating this moment for at least a year. She'd sneaked out on a snowy school night, shoes in hand. Then, wearing nothing but her wet socks, Ginuwine playing in the background, it was finally happening! Oh my God, she told herself, this is sex! Just move your hips to Ginuwine. When it was over, he locked eyes with her, opened his mouth . . . and offered her a kiddie drink in a disposable bag.
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Nevertheless, delirious in the afterglow, Rachel shared all the details with her friends the following day at school. Soon though, her delirium morphed into a strange agitation. "He" wasn't her boyfriend or anyone particularly special. They had been "just talking"—her lingo for "just friends"—and since he was cool and good-looking, Rachel had picked him to be the one to whom she would lose her virginity. Once the deed was done, "I wanted something from him. I thought about him every five minutes." She called him repeatedly, several times a day, until finally, his weary mother asked her to please stop calling. Then depression set in. "I didn't want to go to school. I didn't want to eat. And if Ginuwine came on the radio—forget it."
Rachel later blogged about her experience and found she wasn't alone in suffering a post-sex funk. Kate responded, describing her first time this way: "He just sort of rolled off me, he was drunk and probably also high, and I just sat there for awhile and stared at the ceiling while he snored. I remember I got up . . . thinking, 'That's it? What the hell just happened?'" Others recounted stories of writing long, embarrassing love letters or drunken explosions at parties. Clearly, joining the sexually initiated doesn't always pan out as expected.
The Neurology of Sex
Any grandma or psychotherapist worth her salt could have told them that this was bound to happen. In Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex Is Affecting Our Children, OB-GYNs Dr. Joe S. McIlhaney, Jr., and Dr. Freda McKissic Bush explain, from a neurobiological perspective, why it happens and how. "Scientists are confirming that sex is more than a momentary physical act. It produces powerful, even lifelong, changes in our brains that direct and influence our future to a surprising degree," they write. A single sexual encounter sets off a cascade of changes in a young brain, and modern imaging technology allows researchers to observe those changes more thoroughly than ever before.
Hooked explains what they are discovering. Three neurochemicals in particular are especially involved in sex:
Oxytocin: Oxytocin is the "bonding" chemical. While it is present in both sexes, it's much more prevalent in females. When a boy and girl touch in a meaningful way, even something as simple as a lingering hug, oxytocin is released in the girl's brain, causing her to desire more of his touch and to feel an increasing bond to him. It also produces feelings of trust in him, whether or not he actually merits it. When sexual intercourse happens, the girl's brain is flooded with oxytocin, causing her to feel connected to him and to continue to need this connection with him, as Rachel discovered. Oxytocin is also released when a mother nurses her newborn, causing similar, though non-sexual, feelings of deep attachment. "The important thing to recognize," the doctors stress, "is that the desire to connect is not just an emotional feeling. Bonding is real . . . a powerful connection that cannot be undone without great emotional pain."
Vasopressin: Vasopressin is the bonding chemical for males. Often referred to as "the monogamy molecule," it hasn't been as thoroughly studied as oxytocin, but it is known to play a role in bonding, both to the female sexually and to the children that result. In an article titled "The Two Become One: The Role of Oxytocin and Vasopression," Dianne S. Vadney explains it this way: "Essentially, vasopressin released after intercourse is significant in that it creates a desire in the male to stay with his mate, inspires a protective sense (in humans, perhaps this is what creates almost a jealous tendency) about his mate, and drives him to protect his territory and his offspring."
Dopamine: Dopamine is the "feel-good" or "reward" chemical. When we do something exciting, dopamine floods our brain and produces feelings of exhilaration and well-being. Not surprisingly, it also makes us want to repeat the behavior that produced it. Active in both males and females, dopamine is values-neutral, meaning it rewards pleasurable or exciting behaviors without distinguishing between those that are beneficial and those that may be harmful.
Hooked by Sex
"Sex is one of the strongest generators of the dopamine reward," the Hooked authors point out. This is not inherently bad, but overstimulation can cause the brain to become relatively resistant to it, leading the indiscriminate to engage in more and more of the same behavior to regain the high, not unlike the spiral of addictive drug use. "For this reason, young people particularly are vulnerable to falling into a cycle of dopamine reward for unwise sexual behavior—they can get hooked on it." But when the relationships are short-lived, the losses due to breakup are felt in the brain centers that feel physical pain, and can actually be seen on a brain scan. It's not hard to see how multiple relationships, each with its own cycle of bonding and breaking, can lead to profound pain, anxiety, and confusion, especially among teens still far from emotional maturity.
The results can be devastating. A series of studies published between 2002 and 2007 showed that sexually initiated youth were three times more likely to be depressed than their abstaining peers. The girls were three times more likely to have attempted suicide, and the boys were a whopping seven more likely to have done so. The studies accounted for other mitigating factors in the teens' lives, ensuring an accurate comparison with their peers.
Rachel White, who now writes for Cosmopolitan, Jezebel, and other sex-focused outlets, offers this suggestion for avoiding the pain of disappointment after first-time sex: "Maybe we need to throw out the idea of virginity altogether. Maybe we need to toss away the idea that you 'lose' something from a single act. . . . Perhaps teaching this would help with those depression stats." In other words, devalue the sex act altogether, starting with the very first one. Lower your expectations, the dismal thinking goes, so you won't suffer the pain of disappointment.
Rachel can promote disposable sex until the cows come home, but it will never improve the depression or suicide stats. In fact, it will probably make them worse. It's impossible for the neurochemical aspects of sex to be turned off.
Here's a better idea: Ponder deeply the remarkable work of oxytocin and vasopressin. Consider how the biochemistry of sex appears to be marvelously fashioned for the purpose of forging marital and family bonds. See sex that way. And then act accordingly. Go with your natural chemistry instead of against it.
And finally, lest the cheap-sex authors convince you that sexual restraint equals sexual repression, reflect on the serendipitous, dual sex ministrations of dopamine. Only regular, monogamous sex keeps the dopamine rushes coming, strengthening the marital bond, infusing feelings of personal well-being, and smoothing the inescapable bumps that come with living together and, if fortune smiles, raising children. All that without the pain and fear of breakup. •
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