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Sexual Bonding Demystified…Sort of

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This is, at a basic level, the narrative of cats. Were it not for experiments on felines that led to the discovery of oxytocin, we might disregard sacrifices from the animal world that have taught us about human sexual relationships.

  The Big O

Of all the players in this story, oxytocin may be the biggest enigma. Oxytocin is a polypeptide, which means that it’s a chain of proteins; secreted by the pituitary gland (the master endocrine gland located roughly in the center of the brain), it acts in the brain as a neurotransmitter and in the blood as a hormone.

More recently, it’s been reported that the ovaries, testicles, heart and blood vessels make their own oxytocin; receptors are found throughout specific regions in the brain and body, including the reproductive organs.

In part, it’s this dual blood and brain activity and multiple site secretion that complicates our understanding of how oxytocin influences arousal, desire and emotionality.

The name oxytocin derives from Greek and means ‘quick birth,’ a reference to the early discovery of oxytocin’s function in labor and delivery. For a long time, scientists thought it was mostly a maternal compound, and nothing more.

Since then, we learned that oxytocin helps mothers bond to their newborns, gives male rats erections, makes prairie voles act nurturing, improves certain social behaviors in autism, increases trust and feelings of empathy in the workplace, and modulates fear and pain among other things (including some less loving expressions, discussed below).

Because of its role in sexual arousal, oxytocin soon earned a few popular monikers including the ‘cuddle-hormone’ or the ‘love drug.’

Gender differences in levels of oxytocin were thought to explain why women and men respond differently to sexual encounters. Post-coital, he wanted a good nap while she fantasized about a future together because her levels were higher than his.

That the research in animals was inconclusive, researchers cautioned against applying what they learned about oxytocin in animals to people sex, and human studies were scant, was lost in the media frenzy to hail oxytocin as the next best thing since multiple orgasms, or maybe the invention of the pill, depending on who you asked.

Bottom line is that many hoped oxytocin was going to be the solution to love-obsessed lonely hearts everywhere…or at explain our neuroses and withdrawal-like symptoms after love had gone wrong. It still may do so, but first we’ve got to exercise a bit of prudence.

What we know for sure is this: Oxytocin is hardly alone in mediating our brains during these favorite pastimes Vasopressin, dopamine and serotonin matter as much to the gray matter of humping, bumping and loving, but how and to what degree needs to be elucidated further before we hold any of them responsible for what happens in our intimate affairs). But it’s a strong candidate thus far thought to intensify romantic attachment cues.

  Bonding 101

Bonding behaviors are usually subconscious, deeply primal and very effective, a part of our social milieu that helps to lower defensiveness and signal affection and emotional connections. One primary purpose is to form attachments between caregivers and infants; in lovers, the behaviors take on different hues with several parallels that point to their importance, pleasure and potency.

Eye gazing, skin-to-skin contact, listening, smiling, touching, sounds of pleasure, kissing, stroking, hugging, suckling nipples and ears, holding hands, massaging or placing your hands upon your partner’s body are typical examples of attachment or bonding cues.

Marnia Robinson, founder of Reuniting: Healing with Sexual Relationships identifies how gestures between lovers differ from those that aren’t sexual in nature. First, she explains that in order for them to sustain an intimate union, they must occur frequently. Daily is best, though if the bonding behaviors aren’t offered genuinely and ‘selflessly’ they won’t be effective.

It’s essential not to confuse bonding with foreplay. “Foreplay is geared toward building sexual tension and climax. In contrast, bonding behaviors are geared toward relaxation,” and work best by calming our primitive brains (And though she writes primarily from the perspective of monogamous couplings, I can’t help but imagine that one reason cuddle parties rose in popularity is because they give goers some of the same benefits of non-sexual nurturing touch).

Finally, “there’s evidence that the more you use bonding behaviors, the more sensitive your brain becomes to the neurochemicals that help you feel relaxed and loving,” Robinson writes. Those neurochemicals including oxytocin, of course.

  Serial Cuddling

Anyone who’s fallen in love recalls those early days during which you cannot seem to get enough of your new lover, though over time it’s common for desire to wane as newness becomes replaced by the familiarity of love. One reason the idea of oxytocin excites us is because of the potential to extend the passionate life of our liaisons. Can serial cuddling stave off sexual doldrums? And if so, how does oxytocin affect this whole process?

A July 2011 Kinsey Institute study of 1009 heterosexual couples in long-term committed relationships in five countries (Japan, Brazil, the US, Germany and Spain) surprised many when it revealed that men who reported frequent kissing or cuddling with their partners were on average three times as happy with their relationships as men who reported limited snuggling. Both men and women who reported more frequent touching, kissing and hugging reported better sexual functioning and satisfaction with their sex lives, and sex got better over time.

Overall sexual satisfaction for women included relationship duration and sexual functioning, whereas for men, happiness was a factor of longer relationships, physical health, good sexual functioning and their partner’s sexual satisfaction.

In these long-term relationships, the Kinsey Institute study was hailed for suggesting that men needed cuddles, maybe more than women. This counters current cultural views that, at least in Western modern society, women crave the touchy feely love stuff (not always the case as ancient Greeks would argue). It also puts a wrench in the idea that higher oxytocin levels are directly related to attachment behaviors. Why? Because women generally have higher levels than men (or so the science suggests thus far).

  Bonding Begets Bonding

Anecdotally, there’s another important factor to consider. “Cuddling causes the desire for more cuddles,” wrote one husband on Robinson’s blog . The idea of this ‘beneficent biofeedback machine’ further advances an association between the affection we seek, the behaviors we engage in, and rewiring of our brain chemistry ala oxytocin.

If bonding begets more bonding and serial cuddling isn’t your thing yet, Robinson suggests you schedule it as part of your daily routine. “It’s as critical as an exercise regime, should a person have decided they like the outcome of exercise. In this case, assuming a couple likes the idea of feeling as close and as in love as parent and child or star crossed teenagers, time and effort have to be employed.”

Think of it as another way to exercise your love muscles.

  ‘Approach-Related Social Emotions’ or I Want That Too!

Finally, it also turns out that oxytocin can increase gloating and envy, hardly the emotional bastions for warm fuzzies and any sexual sidekicks. These ‘negative social emotion’ studies are requiring researchers to rethink the simplistic model of oxytocin = cuddle hormone. Maybe oxytocin promotes social emotions in general, both negative and positive; or maybe it promotes something called approach-related emotions, emotions that have to do with wanting something as opposed to shrinking away.

Andrew Kemp and Adam Guastella of the University of Sydney recently co-wrote a paper on the dark side of oxytocin. Kemp explained that, "if you look at the Oxford English Dictionary for envy, it says that the definition of envy is to wish oneself on a level with another, in happiness or with the possession of something desirable. It's an approach-related emotion: I want what you have."

It’s easy to understand how attachment is about ‘approach;’ understanding emotions from this point of view helps explain how some less pleasant experiences like ‘gloating’ are about wanting something too. People who are gloating are happy about having more and about someone else’s misfortune.

The analysis by Kemp and Guastella may clarify some of the unknowns in oxytocin levels and human emotional experiences, both pleasant and not so pleasant.

  If A=B and B=C then A = C?

By now you should understand the biology of bonding is considerably nuanced. Specifically, there’s no clear causal relationship between oxytocin and attachment cues. Higher levels in the blood vs. higher levels in the brain may modulate bonding in different ways between humans and animal models, or in ways that can’t be gendered specified.

Yes, women generally have higher levels of oxytocin men; but new research shows that men may need cuddles more than women; and negative social emotions such as envy are associated with increased levels of oxytocin too. All together, this suggests that oxytocin is more than just a ‘love-drug.’ It’s vital to our emotional experiences, modulated by our brains and hormones, and part of what makes our sexual and non-sexual relationships so dynamic.

It’s just that we are a long way off from explaining everything with one single little magical compound. Figuring out the neuroscience of sexuality is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with multiple identically shaped puzzle pieces that are slowly revealing their secrets. When those sexy science geeks finally map the whole kit and caboodle, more than cats will be purring.



nice review



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