June 22, 2014

How To Avoid Confusing Sex With Love


It's here, it's real, and it's manually overriding your emotions  

Whether you were an avid bookworm or doodling Spongebob in the back row of your biology class, you've more than likely grasped the basics. Meaning, you understand that hormones are an essential factor to the functioning of the human body.

I feel like it's one of those facts though, that while you know it, you don't really appreciate what you know until you witness it's ability to impact your reality. The way that we know we need oxygen to breathe in an on-paper kind of way, and it doesn't quite become real until we're in a situation where air and oxygen aren't necessarily the same. In moments like that I feel like reality bends and I get a flash back to the day I learned the now "real" fact in class, having a kind of ohhhhhh moment.

Now, back to hormones. If anyone knows how important hormones are, it's women. We all have slightly different experiences when it comes to our hormones and our bodies, but for those of us who are a little more sensitive (me!!!), we understand the importance of hormones because once a month from the time we are 14, our hormones decide to perform what I like to call Manual Override. 

In these cases, what you know as your reality no longer applies, because your hormones have taken over and subjected you to their reality.

Example: I love cheese. In fact, I love food in general, and apart from Mayo I've never met a food I didn't like. I love pizza. I adore grilled cheese sandwiches. And I'm not just a standard, American cheese girl. No. I love ALL the cheeses. I'll sit down and I'll eat a week's worth of sharp Gorgonzola by myself over an episode of Grey's Anatomy.

However, once a month, despite what I know about my feelings for cheese, I need to steer clear of it. Or more specifically, melted cheese. Pizza. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Omelets. The works. Because during that time, if I catch even the slightest whiff of melted cheese, that whiff will send me toward the bathroom at a run. It doesn't even smell like cheese to me during that time. It smells like...some other thing. Some awful thing. Some thing that is most definitely not cheese, and that I absolutely cannot stomach.

Hormones are tricky little devils. They trick your body into believing something else. Something that, even though it may not usually be true, becomes true when the hormones are in charge. And as much as we might like to ignore it when any sort of Manual Override occurs, to do so would be irresponsible. Because frankly, even though your hormones might temporarily alter your reality, it is still YOUR reality for however long or short "temporary" might be. It is the truth - albeit a likely-to-pass, chemically induced truth.

I bring this up because I want to talk about one of the hormones my body produces an abundance of that I'm personally not very good friends with. This hormone? - one of the trickiest devils of them all.

Ladies, I introduce you to Oxytocin.


Also known as the "cuddle hormone", oxytocin is the hormone that facilitates bonding, vulnerability, empathy, and trust. Women naturally produce more of this hormone than men, and, while men mostly experience a surge of dopamine during sex, women (along with the pleasure hormones) experience a surge of oxytocin.

What Does It Mean?

It means that sex can essentially trick your body into feeling a stronger than justifiable bond with someone. Note that it isn't intercourse [read: the mere act of penetration], but arousal/orgasm that triggers the activation of different parts of the brain and thus the release of these hormones. But still - you can have great sex and achieve orgasm once or seven times with someone that you're not necessarily "intimately bonded" with. Yet...

In other words: Oxytocin is the reason that women can easily confuse sex with love

This, to me, is troubling. Truly, truly troubling. It's almost as though biology does not want women to have casual sex. I'm a feminist, dammit. A full blown, it is a women's right to conduct herself in whatever way is consistent with the personal values that she has defined for herself, whether that means waiting for marriage, waiting for commitment, or waiting for him to pay the check so they can get the hell out of the bar. Her choice.

But is it? Is it really her choice? Is it really, when her body produces and releases a hormone upon arousal/orgasm (which from now on, we're just going to call good sex) that essentially causes her to "latch", with or without her consent?

I want to say yes. I want to say that it is still a women's choice to have casual sex if she so desires. Personally, I cannot. On more levels than one, I am personally incapable. But I've known women that can and do have casual sex and manage just fine. Usually...

Yes, usually. Because sometimes, something happens. Something odd. Suddenly, they find themselves a little more sensitive to a person than they'd originally been. Suddenly, even though she knows he isn't relationship material, even though she's possibly labeled him an assclown of sorts which led to his only responsibility being managing his erection in the first place, she finds herself developing feelings for this assclown. She finds herself upset or even hurt if he forgets to call or cannot seem to live up to expectations that she didn't even know she had. And for the life of her she cannot explain it, because if she's honest with herself, there really isn't anything in particular about him that justifies her sudden emotional attachment. In fact, if faced with the task of naming his pros and cons, the former may trail off awkwardly after, "Well, the sex is good...".

So again, I ask - Can a woman have casual sex? Can she really? Arguably as long as she isn't having multiple orgasms she isn't in any danger of Manual OverrideBut on the other hand, if the only way to avoid the oxytocin surge is having sex just as long as it isn't good sex, then what the hell is the point?

Mind Over Matter

If you're a woman, you may be thinking, to hell with this hormone shit. There is no way that I'm going to let some chemical release determine how I conduct my relationships with people. If I want to have casual sex then gosh-darn-it, I'm going to have it.

To this I respond: Remember the cheese?

Much as I might like to, I don't get to just decide that when I'm on my period the smell of melted cheese will not make me sick. I don't get a say in the matter. When I'm on my period, the fact is that the smell of melted cheese does make me sick, and if I choose to ignore this fact, fine. If I decide to stroll into a pizza parlor, fine. That's my choice.

But I'm also choosing to assume the risk of throwing up in public.

If you still decide to have casual sex even though you know that your body might not want it to remain casual afterward, that is your choice. But understand that whether or not you are okay with it, if you achieve arousal, orgasm, or both, once or especially multiple times with a partner, those hormones will get released. Will they make you fall in love? No, not necessarily. But they will make you more likely to trust that person. They will make you feel bonded and empathetic toward that person. Those hormones will manually tap your emotional guards on the shoulder and relieve them of their duties when you are around this person, leaving you open, exposed and vulnerable.

At that point, much like the melted cheese making me lose my lunch, it doesn't matter what you thought or felt about that person before the oxytocin! The days of before the oxytocin no longer matter, because this manually overridden state where your vulnerability is heightened and your feelings have deepened - this is your new reality. You can't think around it or decide not to feel that way.

The only choice the cheese gives me if I choose not to avoid it, is where to throw up. Not whether to throw up - but where. As in, throwing up is promised. It is a certainty.

Having good sex means you assume the risk of this perception of increased emotional connection, bonding and trust. There is no escape. If you're coming - so too will the feelings. The choice that you do get to make is not whether to experience and deal with the emotions, but how you deal with them. 

Admitting It Is The First Step

Denial is futile. If you woke up out of a peaceful dream to discover a man in a ski mask standing over you with a knife, would you close your eyes and pretend he wasn't there, or would you get ready to fight like hell for your life?

Situations that aren't preferable don't change just because you don't like them, or because you don't acknowledge them. That pesky ski mask man will still be standing there with his Dexter knife even after you close your eyes.

Similarly, your body is pumped with oxytocin whether you choose to admit it or not.

Admitting it doesn't necessarily mean accepting emotional attachment, though. It may just mean understanding and accepting the consequences of casual involvement. It may just mean mentally preparing yourself, and/or employing some self-checks.

Example: My animal instincts are a bit too prominent despite my human existence. One of the ways that I can tell when my hormones have caused me to "latch" is that I can smell that person keenly and clearly, even from a bit of a distance away. It's something that I have to be mindful of, particularly after a break-up, because even though my heart and mind may be ready to move on, my body seems to maintain an allegiance to that person independently of what I think and feel. Catching that person's scent can set off all sorts of bodily processes that are no longer preferable or welcome, and, not surprisingly, the intensity of my reaction to scent varies depending on the time of the month.

In this kind of situation, I try to a) avoid smelling that person, or b) if I do smell that person, or I catch myself having thoughts or impulses that are not consistent with my actual feelings (or what I think I know about my feelings), I take a moment to step back and evaluate things. I give myself some time away from the catalyst (him) and allow my body to self-correct.

AKA: I wait for the hormones to pass.

Once the hormones pass, the world is once again balanced and clear and I am not a slave to my body.

Also, I can eat cheese.

Thus, if you're choosing to have casual sex make sure you're doing so with a level head, with your eyes open and other senses sharp. Acknowledge your capacity to become vulnerable or attached due to sex alone, so that you can at the very least regulate your activities and, in turn, your hormone levels.

Also, be honest with yourself about who you are, what sex means to you, and other reasons why you may become attached during or after sex. Maybe you aren't getting attached due to Manual Override at all. Maybe you place a high value on sex and/or associate it with emotional intimacy and love. If that is the case, then casual sex may not be for you. And that's okay! It isn't for everyone! 

Prevention Is The Best Cure

So now that we know that as women we have the capacity to confuse (good) sex with love - and emotional bonding, trust, and vulnerability are some of the hallmarks of love - how do we prevent it?

Employing a self-check and regulating the frequency of your involvement to allow the temporary hormone surge to pass may work for casual sex, but how does this apply where relationships are concerned?

Where dating and relationships are concerned, Manual Override can still pose as much of a threat, if not more than it does where casual sex is concerned.

Often, what we're willing to put up with as people varies based on our level of involvement:

- If a stranger crosses a line or a boundary, they're immediately told off, put in check, or left hanging as we refuse to tolerate it.

- If a close friend or significant other crosses that same boundary, we may sit them down in a more caring manner and talk about the offense with the intention of hopefully reaching a compromise or resolution, as the preservation of the relationship itself is being given consideration. Still, even with a close friend or significant other, the option to walk away is the last card we have to play if the level of the offense warrants it.

- With family members, line-crossing is given the most tolerance because at the end of the day, we realize that like it or not, we have to see these people at least once or twice a year for the rest of our days over a hot, roasted beast.

Bottom line, the depth of your involvement in a relationship changes the way that you react if and when you are met with behavior that is problematic for you.

Why is this important? Remember what oxytocin does. It increases your likelihood to bond, to become empathetic, and to trust. It kicks up your level of involvement. It means that you may end up making allowances for someone that would normally only apply to someone you have real history or a justified connection with.

Dating is tricky, because people always put their best foot forward on the first or second date. Some people are so good at the early stages of dating that you can be dating the better version of themselves for months before you really meet them. But eventually people unfold, and if you aren't paying attention you may miss it when details about the person you're dating that give you pause or reason for concern emerge.

And why wouldn't you be paying attention? Well, if you're too busy humping like bunnies - that's one reason. But another reason is that if your emotions are already involved, or you've already developed a feeling of attachment, you may be reluctant to acknowledge the information that a clear-thinking brain would have usually processed and acted on. And if you do acknowledge it, you may be afraid or ashamed to admit that you made a mistake or moved too fast, and may hang around in a dicey situation in order to justify your investment, only to discover that your investment cannot be justified, because it was never based on anything tangible in the first place.

If you are on the road to getting emotionally involved with someone, understand that sex will deepen the connection that you feel. The last thing that you want is to have to decipher whether what you're feeling is real, or the chemically induced Manual Override effect. Or worse, truly believe that what you're feeling for someone is real, only to later realize that it was all an Oxytal Illusion.

Want to avoid confusing sex with love? Wait until those feelings develop without sex - this way there's no confusion as to where they came from. Or, if you're already having sex, take a step back and see if those deep, intense feelings remain in lieu of sex.

Again, there's no point in denying something that you know to be a fact. The best thing that you can do is open your eyes, acknowledge the man in the ski mask, and proceed accordingly.

Oxytocin is real, ladies.

Check thyselves, before thou wreck thyselves.


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