Promiscuous sex is for physical pleasure only, without emotional connection, often it’s a one-time occurrence. Increasingly this behavior occurs in teens. In some situations, it involves total strangers who meet online—with only a false profile name, no knowledge of one another and no plans for a relationship. To the contrary, the hook up is intended to suppress the development of any type of relationship. Often it is arranged through the misuse of technology and remains hidden from parents.
This type of reckless sexual behavior has been glamorized in movies and on television leading many teens to believe that it is normal and acceptable. Internet dating and social media sites, smart phones apps along with easy exchange of pornographic material (sexual selfies) have made it easy for teens to arrange a hook up.
Neuroscience research has uncovered useful information about how sex affects the human brain. Using MRI technology, scientists have gained a clear picture of what takes place within the brain during sexual activity. Although it is not new knowledge, science confirms that the use of sex can either give us wholeness—or damage us, possibly for a lifetime particularly when the problems begin during adolescence.
Joe McIlhaney and Freda Bush, both medical doctors, have taken the current neuroscience research and have written an easy-to-understand book titled Hooked. These two medical professionals have much experience in working with teens and young adults and have seen the damage done to our youth as a result of the improper use of sex.
In the book, these physicians address the emotional and psychological damage promiscuous, casual sex does to young, developing brains. Neuroscience studies are confirming that sex is more than a momentary physical act,” they write. “It produces powerful, even lifelong changes in our brains that direct and influence our future to a surprising degree.”
Sexual activity triggers a biochemical process within the human brain. Three different chemicals flood the brain from initiation to completion of the sexual act: dopamine and oxytocin in females, and dopamine and vasopressin in males. Dopamine is known as a feel-good chemical rewarding us when we accomplish something thrilling or exhilarating. Runners often experience dopamine highs during exercise. Dopamine has an addictive property that causes us to want to repeat whatever we have accomplished.
Oxytocin is present in both males and females, but it has a far more important role in the life of a woman. Science has known for some time that oxytocin is present when a mother nurses her baby. It aids and accelerates the human bonding process between the mother and child. During sex, the release of oxytocin in the female brain helps a woman bond with her mate. Vasopressin serves a similar function in males.
McIlhaney and Bush emphasize that parents need to understand the role these neurochemicals play in sexual activity. Concerning dopamine and young people having casual sex, they write: “It seems that the dopamine reward signal is working very well in these young people. Once they experience sex, they want to repeat it again and again. We have discussed elsewhere how sex is similar to drug, alcohol, or nicotine addiction; it is understandable that a young person would want to experience that same rush again” If a teen gets a thrill out of risky sex, the dopamine reward will encourage the repetition of the risky behavior.
The bonding biochemicals oxytocin and vasopressin are just as powerful as dopamine. Neuroscience shows that these hormones are released with intimate physical contact. McIlhaney and Bush explain: “When two people join physically, powerful neurohormones are released because of the sexual experience, making an impression on the synapses in their brains and hardwiring their bond. When they stay together for life their bonding matures. This is a major factor that keeps them together, providing a desire for intercourse, resulting in offspring, and assuring those offspring of a nurturing two-parent home in which to grow”. Although not new knowledge, science confirms the immeasurable value of monogamous sex within marriage.
Science also affirms a destructive downside to Promiscuous sex. The doctors explain: “Every time a person has sexual intercourse or intimate physical contact, bonding takes place. Whenever breakups occur in bonded relationships there is confusion and often pain in the brains of the young people involved because the bond has been broken.”
A pattern of promiscuous sex can result in a loss of human connectedness. McIlhaney and Bush warn that in fact, the emotional corrosion caused by casual sex makes people less than human: “It may sound blunt, but if we try to eliminate this connectedness from sex, we remove the uniquely human aspect of it, and the sexual act becomes nothing more than raw animal behavior.”
Matt is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been working in the field of youth treatment and psychotherapy since 1995. He did his undergraduate work at BYU and earned his M.S.W. at the University of Utah. He has worked in a variety of treatment setting in his career ranging from wilderness therapy and residential treatment to outpatient treatment and state government.