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What happens during sex? As amazing as the physical part of sexual intimacy is – what happens on a chemical and brain level is awe-inspiring! Sex can do amazingly good things for us, or when participated in wrongly, can destroy us.
In fact, part of the the injustice of current sex education is that it ignores what I contend is the most important part of human sexuality – the benefit of sexuality to who you are as a person.
During any human sexual interaction there are some critically important things going on inside each person – unless the person has casually engaged in sex so often that they have damaged their abilities to benefit from this.
There are chemical and brain consequences that occur during not only sexual intercourse, but during virtually any form of sexual activity, that have the potential to do great things for your relationship – or destroy you. These consequences are a gift that were obviously designed to help enable couples to maintain a strong relationship for the long haul.
But there is a catch. This same gift of sexual intimacy and the attendant benefits can become a curse when used indiscriminately. Let’s take a look at a few of the chemical actions that occur during sexuality.
What Happens During Sex? Dopamine Flows – Addictions Form
Dopamine is a fascinating brain chemical. When we do something that is very exciting (snow-skiing, roller coasters, etc.) or intensely rewarding (high personal accomplishment, kissing, etc.) our body floods our brains with this chemical; physiologists and scientist who study this call this a “dopamine reward.” This causes us to have an intensely pleasurable sensation or a feeling of well-being. It also produces a desire to repeat the behavior. This chemical can also flow during other risky behaviors such as driving too fast, illicit drug usage, or perhaps even during the accomplishment of a crime (if done for the thrill).
In other words, dopamine is values neutral. It is neither bad nor good, it produces its reward regardless of the morality of the activity. It is a vital element of human behavior, as our motivation to take proper risks (getting married, having children, endangering your life to save another) is dependent on the courage and impetus provided by the feelings of well-being that result. But because you can receive a dopamine reward for both good and bad experiences, a mature level of caution needs to be applied; the old adage of “If it feels good, do it” is obviously wrong. Drug abuse, rape, robbery, and other harmful activities can produce a significant dopamine-induced “good feeling,” so we must use wisdom in order to make proper decisions in life.
In no area is it more important to choose wisely than in the area of sexual intimacy. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is the last part of the brain to mature, typically reaching what one might call adult status at around age 20-21. This is the portion of the brain associated with mature and complex decisions. Early involvement in sexual activities outside of marriage (once again, not just intercourse, but just about any kind of sexual activity imaginable) triggers one of the most intense dopamine rewards known – thus strengthening the tendency in the future to get this reward outside of the primary significant relationship. This forms, with the help of dopamine, the neural pathways which can trigger habitual behavior, such as high-risk types of sex.
Here is how the authors of the book Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children stressed the significance of this:
“…sex is one of the strongest generators of the dopamine reward. 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 the beneficial effect of dopamine for the married couple is that it ‘addicts’ them to sex with each other.”
Due to the true reality of the daily nature of long-term relationships – you need this addiction to your married partner to make a relationship last a lifetime. With the challenges of earning a living, changing hormone levels, health, child-raising, and other realities – there will be times when this addiction to each other will be essential in getting your relationship through the hard times. Not every moment of a relationship is like the movies – a breathless, panting, feeling of love and affection. Like we said in an earlier unit, feelings of love come and go – but love is something you choose to do anyway.
But when you have only sexually bonded with one person, and have received the dopamine reward from only one person, the resultant addiction will drive you back to that person to feel good. Even when times are rough, this addiction will make you desire to heal the relationship in order to have that feeling of well-being you desire. It is the way our Creator made us; isn’t it wonderful?
But misused, statistics show, that those who were sexually active prior to marriage have far greater rates of unfaithfulness (cheating) and divorce. Showing the wisdom of the ancient text, the words of Solomon to his son say, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23) We do indeed need to keep our hearts!
What Happens During Sex? – Oxcytocin Flows, Bonding Results
Oxytocin is the chemical that really threw me off my game when my wife and I first started having children. Before I knew how oxytocin worked, I felt like a socially inadequate person. My wife would have a child, and it would seem that within an hour or two she and this child were just wrapped around each other, not just physically, but emotionally. You could see a strong and true loving bond between her and this new tiny addition to the family.
As for me, even for weeks and sometimes months later, I would still feel a little awkward holding this child. My brain knew it was ours and that I should love him or her, but my heart just took a while to make it happen.
What I did not understand was that the Maker of us all had given my wife an amazing advantage in bonding with our children: Breastfeeding! You see, when the little baby would start to suck at the breast shortly after birth, receptors in the nipple and through the skin to skin contact would cause oxytocin to flood my wife’s brain – thus causing a near instantaneous bond with the new child. How cool is that? The God who made this whole process caused something to happen between an mother and a child to cause this woman who has just suffered tremendously through the birth process to instantly and strongly love and protect her fragile newborn! Praise God!
You know something? God did the same thing for each of us in our sexuality, if we will trust Him enough to engage His plan for our blessing.
Although oxytocin is most active in females, it is vitally important to men as well. In fact, the time when oxytocin is most active in men and women is during sexual intimacy! From the first moments of intimate touching which normally precede a sexual encounter, oxytocin begins to flow. That is why hugging, even if it just a dog, cat, or a stuffed animal, is so pleasurable. Oxytocin rocks! The previously mentioned book Hooked says this:
“…when a marriage is intact, it is rare to a woman to have sexual intercourse with anyone except her husband. This remarkable stability is undoubtedly in part a result of the effect of oxytocin. And the significance of this is that the bonding of a mother and father greatly increases the chance for a child to be raised in a nurturing two-parent home, which studies have shown provides a child the most advantageous environment for growing into his potential.
The most important thing to recognize is that the desire to connect is not just an emotional feeling. Bonding is real and almost like the adhesive effect of glue – a powerful connection that cannot be undone without great emotional pain.”
What the writers of Hooked discovered is that like dopamine, you can either make the amazing bonding effects of oxytocin work for you, or destroy you. Oxytocin is value-neutral, thus in even a short-term casual sexual encounter, this powerful bonding occurs. So even if both “casual” partners having sex consider each other not desirable for marriage, the impact of the oxytocin bonding may cause them to stay together and get married, even though it may be an undesirable relationship. In fact, the bonding effect of oxytocin is so powerful that one neourpsychiatrist noted:
“From an experiment on hugging, we also know that oxytocin is naturally released in the brain after a twenty-second hug from a partner – sealing the bond between the huggers and triggering the brain’s trust circuits. So don’t let a guy hug you unless you plan to trust him.” (Louann Brizendine, as quoted in Hooked, New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children)
So in the discussions on “how far should I go” in dating relationships, based on the facts, it becomes clear. Until the wedding night, I need to proceed with extreme caution. It turns out that the “old fashioned” and “outdated” guidance of God through the Bible was right all along. Although we may not have understood the why behind the restrictions on only sharing our sexuality within marriage, it is vital to do so if we desire to let the wonderful benefits of sex work on our behalf! We must save sex for marriage to reap the full benefits of it.
What Happens During Sex? Vasopressin Flows – Commitment Results
While oxytocin is more active in women, vasopressin is primarily active in men. Vasopressin is released during sex and causes the man to become strongly bonded to the lady in the act and any offspring (children) that are produced from the relationship. Researchers call this chemical the monogamy molecule.
Researchers have also noted that men who have multiple sexual partners lose their ability to bond effectively. They liken it to a piece of duct tape. When you put it on a cardboard box, it will hold that box together securely for decades. But each time you pull it off of a surface and try to reuse it, it increasingly looses its ability to stick at all.
What a tragic consequence sex outside of marriage has. While many of us men may have bought into societies notion of gaining experience or just being a young guy by having sex before marriage, the long term consequences will be a lifetime of broken promises and infidelities. Any children produced from future relationships will likely suffer permanent relational, social, and emotional harm as the man made incapable of long-term relational commitment wreaks havoc in every relationship he begins, but fails to sustain.
Once again, if we understand how the magnificent God who gave us life intends to bless us through our sexuality, we can live in such a way as to reap a lifetime of blessing through sex. But this requires wisdom (not just knowledge, but the proper use of knowledge), discipline (self-control, an outgrowth of God living through us, see the “Finding Faith” section under our “Resources” tab of the menu on how to access the personal help of God in your life), and a trust in God (called faith) that He has our best interest in mind – so we can follow His guidance even at times when it doesn’t feel right.
Is Sex a Blessing or Curse? It’s Your Call
The first time I was exposed to this amazing information I was thrilled. I had been married for about twenty years at the time and had been working with teens and young adults, as well as married couples for a number of years. I had seen the impact of both proper and improper sexuality. But this research suddenly put it all in perspective. The loving God who created us made sexuality as a wonderful gift to help us endure almost any hardship, and as a refuge from the inevitable hard times of life. Physical intimacy can be such a shelter and comfort from the challenges and hurts of life, much more than I could ever express to my faithful wife through the years.
I intuitively knew there was more to sex than just a physical interaction of bodies and parts. There was more going on than just a good orgasm or an erotic high. On a spiritual and very personal level, there is a healing and bonding reaction that occurs that causes, over time, two individuals to become one in essence. The beauty of this truth in my life today brings joy to my heart.
This is what I pray for you; a lifetime of relational blessing and comfort, made stronger and more sure through the amazing blessing of what happens during sex.
Save it for the right time, get the blessing that lasts a lifetime.
What Happens During Sex? – Assignment – Unit 4
1. Read Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children. It is available in the Love University Bookstore, and possibly at a local library. If you want to live well, with wisdom, then you must read. I’m not trying to sell books here, I’m trying to share the blessing of a life lived in accordance with truth.
2. In view of the information on what happens during sex, make the tough decision now about when you will become sexually active. You must decide in advance whether you want to reap the benefits of what your Maker intended, or if you are going to pursue your own path. But realize, no one invents “their own truth,” no matter how popular that idea is. You either uncover the truth that has been known from long-ago, or you foolishly think you are more intelligent and wise than the One who made you.
3. If you are already sexually active outside of a marriage relationship, choose to work your way with God’s help to healing. The same research we have just covered also shows that bad habits built through the same chemicals and resultant neural pathways may be defeated by a form of starvation. By keeping your thought life pure and refraining from sex until you are married, with God’s help you can restore a proper bond and a healthy sexual relationship.
4. Once a dating relationship becomes serious, sit down and talk over this material. Set some tough accountability guidelines to maintain your purity until your and your partner’s wedding night. Realize that you may be dating someone’s future husband or wife – don’t sabotage their chances of a healthy relationship by becoming physical now. Wait for the best.
1. Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children. Joe S. McIlhaney and Freda Mckissic Bush. Northfield Publishing, Chicago, IL 60610, 2008. (Available in our Bookstore)
2. Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. William Struthers, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. 2009. (Available in our Bookstore)