Posts Tagged ‘oxytocin’
A duckling, newly emerged from the shell, immediately looks for something with which it will bond. In the absence of the mother duck, the hatchling forms an attachment to the closest moving thing, whether human, animal or even an inanimate object like a ball; in a process called imprinting. Our sexual response is often the result of our own imprinting. We may not even know why certain things turn us on and others don’t, but they are often the result of earlier experiences and the feelings we associate with them.
We are complicated creatures, but we are also amazingly simple. As researchers study human sexual response, there are new findings on why we like what we like, but some of it just seems obvious. For instance, a recent study showed a tendency for us to gravitate toward partners who bear certain similarities to our opposite sex parent. Freud would say it’s Oedipal, but it’s not that complex. We adapt to what is familiar. Americans eat fries with ketchup, but Europeans prefer them with mayonnaise. I don’t even like ketchup much, but because it’s what I’m used to, I like it better than mayo on my pomme frittes.
In the same way, our ideas of physical attractiveness are mostly the result of cultural conditioning. Across the globe, beauty ideals vary greatly. We may prefer smooth skin, beautiful teeth, or hard bodies, but there are places where scars, gold teeth and soft bodies define desirability. Our preferences may seem personal, but they are largely influenced by what we’ve become accustomed to.
Consider the colors you like. It is likely you have a favorite. Maybe you’ve assumed color trends are launched by hipsters or designers, or that your response to them is a matter or personal taste, but the reality is that they are largely shaped by teams of professionals in the color industry, who work to change your preferences, in an attempt to influence what you will buy. They begin by choosing palettes (also called color forecasts). These palettes are then used to to create the things you are likely to see in stores. What we may think of as color “trends” are actually an orchestrated effort to make you like what they’re selling. Their effort relies on exposing you to colors repeatedly, until you first become accustomed to them, then fonder of them as they become more familiar. (They are also counting on you to tire of those colors, in time for their next round of picks.)
Our brains are very malleable, quickly responding to things around us. Neurons and synapses are constantly readjusting according to exterior stimuli. Often called our largest sexual organ, it should come as no surprise that the chemical and electrical activity of the brain not only reacts to, but also alters our sexual response. The brain continually records and categorizes experiences, creating a mental database of positive and negative perceptions. Eventually, those associations trigger reactions ranging from arousal to repulsion. It is still not completely understood why some develop odd triggers or fetishes, but just as the deformed and putrid flesh of bound feet were once considered the height of erotica in China, our sexual response is largely the result of conditioning.
Because of the way our brains recall previous experiences, things we have found pleasant or arousing before, can become sexual triggers, but unpleasant experiences can also rework our sexual response. This is particularly true in cases of coerced sex, violent sex, or shame-inducing sex. An individual who has been raped or molested, may have trouble getting past the fear or anxiety associated with predatory sex. In fact, those who have suffered sex in a traumatic context may develop a negative reaction to what might be considered normal sex. (I’m not about to attempt to define “normal”, but for this example, let’s define “normal” as he kind of sex we can imagine Claire and Cliff Huxtable having.) A gay man I know, recounts being encouraged as a child, to have sex with a female cousin for the pleasure of voyeuristic adults. After which, the residual shame made it impossible to even think about sex with a female.
In theory, the chemicals (like oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine) released when we have physical contact with another, are supposed to help us bond to and enjoy a long relationship with a single person. However, in a culture where casual sex has become increasingly common, those same chemicals can fuel a kind of anti-monogamy addiction. Those who bounce from bed to bed, may not even realize they are reprogramming the brain to reject monogamy, as they become conditioned to the rush of new encounters, making longer relationships, less attractive and less sustainable.
Because healthy relationships require both an emotional and physical bond, relationships based primarily on sex tend to be short-lived. Casual sex may be satisfying in the short-term, but without the emotional validations we crave, sex isn’t enough to sustain a long-lasting relationship. It is an example of how what we want, may not be what we need. Even in arrangements like “friends with benefits”, the ongoing effort for both parties to balance the differences between their sexual and emotional needs, usually makes the arrangement temporary, at best. Unfortunately, without a significant emotional connection, sex for the sake of sex, becomes little more than a series of thrill rides. Even Cosmopolitan magazine, which has long advocated free sexual expression, recently cautioned men that excessive masturbation can diminish their ability to respond to sex with a partner.
What we want, isn’t always what we need. Sometimes getting what we want, prevents us from getting what we need. The reasons may be complicated, or simple, but like Pavlov’s dogs salivating for a bell, rats conditioned to endure electrical shocks in exchange for a few grains of food, or a baby duck waiting for a dog to teach him to swim or fly; we are all subject to imprinting.
The monkeys died.
Remember Psych 101, the sad lesson of the Rhesus monkeys who weren’t touched and failed to thrive? From this we learned the importance of skin-to-skin contact. Remember, Maslow’s conclusion that after basic needs of food, shelter & safety, human beings needed to feel a sense of value, belonging & esteem?
Humans cannot go long if the needs of the body are not met. If we don’t get oxygen, nourishment, water, exercise, and sleep our body systems will begin to fail. After just a few days without sleep or water, our organs will begin to malfunction or shutdown. We are very aware of our bodies need for basic care and feeding, yet we often go without that which killed the monkeys.
Our society has become hyper-sexualized, yet we touching less than ever. Non-sexual touch seems to be reserved for small children, but the need to be touched is one we never outgrow. A lack of physical affection, will affect our sense of well being–and like the monkeys, either we or our relationships will fail to thrive.
Our society has become so hyper-sensitized over sexual harassment, we have become over-cautious about touching each other. Teachers no longer touch students, kids no longer touch their peers. What used to be acceptable, has become taboo. Sadly, new findings show that children who are touch-deprived tend to be more aggressive. Adolescents who are touch-deprived are prone to more inappropriate sexual behaviors. Simply stated, we crave touch.
The subject of hormones is mostly limited to those that affect gender differences. The effects of estrogen & testosterone are blamed for every unpleasant behavior between puberty & menopause. It’s as if we forget there are other chemical compounds affecting our moods and behavior. The hormone we don’t talk about enough is oxytocin–AKA the bonding hormone.
Oxytocin is a hormone often associated with pregnancy and breastfeeding, but it is a naturally occurring chemical in both both men & women. It plays a vital role in sexual arousal and satisfaction, and has also been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and increase our feelings of affection. The mere act of touching increases our levels of oxytocin. It is the reason we feel different when greeted with an embrace, instead of a handshake.
Here’s the point. Better sex starts with non-sexual touch. Women are more enthusiastic about sex when they feel fond of their partner. Regular non-sexual touch promotes both our feelings of attraction and affection toward our partner. Men generally do not touch as much as women, causing more distance in a relationship, because for men touching tends to be sexually motivated–instead of intending just to convey or nurture affection.
An inherent problem is that when young males have their first physical contact with girls, it is usually at an age when all touching makes them think “sex”. By the time a man is engaged in a long-term relationship, he may have little experience with non-sexual touching and have fallen into thinking, SKIN + TOUCH = SEX. Where as women instinctively communicate affection through touch, men become conditioned to think all touching is foreplay.
In order to recondition men to touch more, a woman must understand some of the basic qualities of men.
1. Men are big, tough, strong and fragile.
They need to be reassured and need to know we adore them for whatever they do well. (Even if what they do well is really lame.) A sincere & gushy compliment will disarm him, and cause him to feel all studly again. When men feel appreciated they are more affectionate.
2. Men are really, really smart and clueless.
Acknowledge and show gratitude when he does things you like such as rubbing your shoulders when he knows you’ve had a hard day or holding your hand in public. If he never does those kinds of things naturally, spell it out. Men do surprisingly well when given clear directions. Telling them you want him to put his arm around you when you watch TV is way more effective than waiting for him to come to that conclusion on his own.
3. Men are competent–when properly trained.
You gotta give to get. If you want him to touch you, you have to touch him. To keep him from immediately assuming that every touch means, “She wants me.” Use touch in situations where it is impossible to misconstrue intent. Greeting him with a hug, holding his hand at a PTA meeting, or giving him a kiss when he volunteers to run to the store, conveys affection causing him to start dimming the lights. When he feels loved, he is more likely to respond in kind.
For the men readers, here is the summation. She doesn’t want you when she doesn’t like you. If you’re wondering why you’re not getting any, think outside the box. Touch, stroke, embrace. If you want hot-monkey love, you must make sure all your pet’s needs are properly met.