Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Kiss Is Just a Kiss? Men, Women, and Oxytocin

Kissing kittehs from I Can Has Cheezburger?

One of the hallowed traditions of Valentine's Day is polishing up all the old chestnuts about men, women, and romance. So when I saw a headline in yesterday's Columbus Dispatch proclaim "Kissing a stress-buster for both men, women," I was pleasantly surprised not to get a rehash of the usual stereotype - that girls and kissing go together like, well, love and marriage, while boys view kissing as a necessary step toward getting what they really want. Which of course nice girls like me wouldn't want. Right?

The study behind the article - led by Wendy Hill, a professor of neuroscience at Lafayette College - didn't stop at busting just that one stereotype:
Kissing, it turns out, unleashes chemical changes that ease stress in both sexes and encourage bonding in men, though not so much in women. ...

In an experiment, Hill explained, pairs of college students who kissed for 15 minutes while listening to music experienced significant changes in their levels of oxytocin, which affects pair bonding, and cortisol, associated with stress. Their blood and saliva levels of the chemicals were compared before and after the kissing.

Both men and women had a decline in cortisol after smooching, an indication their stress levels declined.

For men, oxytocin levels increased, indicating more interest in bonding, while oxytocin levels went down in women. "This was a surprise," Hill said.
But what a cool surprise! For the past few years, conservative hand-wringers have told us that young women are screwing around like bonobos, and that oxytocin - the bonding chemical - sets them up for heartbreak. Women produce more oxytocin than men, and therefore our biochemistry programs us to be devastated emotionally by casual sex. Or so worry scolds like Laura Sessions Stepp. (In lieu of a direct link to her, here's a critical overview of her argument at Campus Progress.)

While I don't share Stepp's concerns that young women are permanently messing up their lives through casually hooking up with guys, I do think that brain chemistry matters. Oxytocin provides a pretty compelling explanation for the instability of friends-with-benefits relationships. And it's true that women produce more of it.

I've just never been convinced that only women are vulnerable to our hormones and biochemistry. After all, most men eventually want a committed relationship. I've wondered if men's pair-bonding impulses might be more sensitive to low amounts of oxytocin, much like women's libidos are more sensitive to low amounts of testosterone. I'm not a biochemist, so all I can do is speculate, but I'd love to see a study on this.

Conservative fretting about women's unique vulnerability to the emotional hazards of sex doesn't hold up well to scientific evidence suggesting that men, too, might be wired to feel that sometimes, a kiss is not just a kiss. (No word on whether a sigh is always just a sigh. The experiment was conducted in a student health center, so frankly, I'm amazed that any love chemicals were measurable.)


Mark said...

Nice article, Kittywampus. And, of course, there is also the fact that there will be big difference amongst individuals that may far-transcend gender stereotypes. For example, my wife hates kissing. I love it.

- Mark

John Pine said...

I think all problems boil down to the mind-body problem, or the soul-body problem. Each successive psycho-chemical discovery seems to make us step down from agape through philia into what seems the most relentlessly chemical: eros. Then the Selfish Gene (oh, no!) - in other words we're all in a hopeless mechanical free-for-all: we might as well make the most of it and get as much as we can.

Enter sexual politics?

George Berkeley took the nicely Sanskritic view that spirit is primal (the chemicals spring from, or rather are, mind, and not the other way round). Of course the link is so complex that we can hardly dehypnotise ourselves from the compelling "tandemness" of mind and matter (in particular brain and mind): the link cements and conceals the ultimate riddle. But how can we believe that the chemicals which seem to make us up are more real than WE are?

Even Berkeley had to make a joke of it ('What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind) and spent the last part of his life recommending coal-tar remedies.

Science used to transcend superstition and force us to reason from first principles. All religions start that way! Notice how science is now developing its own cosmogeny and making statements beyond the provable: scientists are beginning to enjoy the salaries and adoration of priesthood.

So it's worth reconsidering two great insights of Christianity (before it got drunk on priesthood) based on first principles: 1) History is degraded by tit-for-tat and the only escape is forgiveness. 2) Love is a cosmic portal.

But what kind of love? Eros/philia/agape and the eighty-odd Sanskrit words for it are only a start. There is the proverbial Black Widow and the Praying Mantis who eat their mates - but there is also the octopus who gives up her body as food for her young.

Why was Shakespeare so furious in his defence of love in the Sonnets? It was his sine qua non.

There are octopus moments when you value somebody else's life more than your own. You become conscious of being conscious. Consciousness is profoundly non-biological. Machines work in darkness. Consciousness is not dark. How can people not be surprised at being conscious? (maybe they aren't?)

Social turbulence and the poor fractured moribund condition of families is tied up with these questions. Forgive my rant.

Sungold said...

Thanks for the kind words, Mark. You're right, too, that individual differences within a gender are likely to be much greater than any average gender-based differences that may exist. I'm sorry, though, that you and your wife experience it so differently. That is a real loss.

John, science seems to concentrate on the biochemistry of eros because it's, well, sexier than studying other forms of love. My recent experiences have dramatically brought home to me how much our biochemistry circumscribes our personalities, relationships, etc.

I don't at all believe that our chemical soup negates free will, personal responsibility, and all that good stuff of which morality is made. (The exception to this is cases of serious mental illness or cognitive impairment.) I do believe that our brain chemistry imposes some serious constraints.

Those chemicals aren't "more real" than "we" are. They are an integral part of us. Body and mind are not wholly separable. And so our brain chemistry plays an essential role in constituting the self.

John Pine said...

Eros may be sexier, but philia is more philling and the other of course will leave you agape.

I don't think consciousness and body are like bits of Lego stuck together.

I've got four models in mind: 1)The images on a cinema screen which show an illusory life with its own misleading internal logic. 2) The light falling on a sculpture without which it wouldn't be visible at all. 2) The radio waves which bring the programme to a television: a fault in the television (cf madness, alzheimer's etc) can apparently distort or obliterate the content which nevertheless still exists in space. 3) a computer connected to the net that can both send and receive data, can even have its hard drive damaged by a virus coming down the line, but to a passing three-year-old appears to have real miniaturised people inside it.

John Pine said...

Sorry I can't count.

amy009 said...

Actually I disagree. I don't think men want a committed relationship!

It is getting harder and harder to find a commited relationship in this generation of "hooking up".

Guys arn't going to buy the cow when they can get the milk for free!

I hate casual sex, girls that participate in the hookup culture perpetuate it and this disourages dating. But the girls are usually just getting used and tossed out, under a false sense of "liberation".

I think casual sex IS emotionally devastating for many girls (me included!!)

Mark said...

Hey Amy, don't give up on us just yet! Remember, half of all married people are men! :)

amy009 said...

"Conservative fretting about women's unique vulnerability to the emotional hazards of sex doesn't hold up well to scientific evidence suggesting that men, too, might be wired to feel that sometimes, a kiss is not just a kiss. (No word on whether a sigh is always just a sigh. The experiment was conducted in a student health center, so frankly, I'm amazed that any love chemicals were measurable.)"

* Posted by Sungold.

Sunglold, I don't know what rock you have been hidding under... but there is a massive difference in the way men and women think and feel about sex (and kissing).

In my experience, men and women are worlds appart when it comes to sex!

Men have at least 10 times more testosterone than women, and testosterone inhibits bonding and increases interest in casual sex and sex with a variety of partners.

Theresa Crenshaw, co-author of a leading medical text on sexual pharmacology, thinks the source is testosterone: “The ‘loner profile’ of testosterone is absolutely crucial to understanding what men are all about.… Testosterone motivates the male to strive for separateness in ways a woman is not designed to comprehend.” Indeed, “It is fair to say that it causes a compelling sexual urge that spurns relationships, unless they represent a conquest or acquisition of power.… It makes you want sex, but it also makes you want to be alone, or thoroughly in control of sexual situations—so it specifically promotes masturbation or one-night stands.”

In contrast, Female sexuality usually functions as a means of expressing affection to someone in a committed relationship. Women’s sexual fantasies dwell more on romance, commitment, non-sexual caressing, and story line. Women strive for attatchment, bonding, love and commitment. Women can't understand why men don't have more feelings for them. But put simply, men just don't have as many feelings as women.

The increased acceptance of casual sex and the rise in casual sex has taken it's toll on women, and lead to new degrees of heartache for women (me included!!).

Sungold said...

Thanks for popping by again, Mark! I guess you and I live under the same rock? The one where people are people, and though we may note some gender differences, we're humans first and foremost? :-)

Amy, I may address your remarks in a separate post. I'm not going to delve into them in detail on an old post.

For now, I'll just say I'm sorry you've been hurt. If casual sex is not for you, then you absolutely should say no to it. My problem is with anyone who wants to define your desires for you. Only you can be the expert on that.

Otherwise - Mark said it best, I think. Funny how half of married people are men. I don't think every last one of them was bludgeoned or blackmailed into wedlock!

And wow, what a bleak view of men - evidence, yet again, that while some feminists may have anger toward men, no one holds men in such contempt as do anti-feminists.

amy009 said...

Sungold, obviously you and I have had very different experiences with men. Neither is a more or less valid way of feeling about men, just different.

Of course half of all married people are men, it's also interesting to note how much marriage has dropped off since sex became more easily available to men i.e. "Sexual freedom", which in my experience just lead to a lot of girls getting used and tossed out.

Personally I am really sick of players that lie and hurt people. They don't have any respect for themself or others. I don't have time for people like that in my life.

Many guys are determined to boycott marriage and children - at least as long as possible - they don't really have any desire for children. Men DO however enjoy rooting around.

All I can say is, you are very lucky if this is not your experience with men.

amy009 said...

In my experience, men have far less feelings than women and they normally kiss as a means to an end - a way to try to gain sexual favours.

Normally when men get to about 35ish he will start to get bald/fat and will usually start to look for a wife or a "main squeeze" that will do the cooking and cleaning and ask few questions about what he gets up to.

But before that men want to lie and play games to avoid marriage and commitment. They want to get as much "pussy" as they can.

If this is not your experience with men you are a very lucky female!!

Sungold said...

Amy, there are assholes in the world. You have no obligation to spend time with them. This isn't a matter of luck. It's a matter of you deciding who to hang out with. This includes your female friends - if all the men they know are jerks, then you might need to widen your circle of friends to include women whose male friends are *not* jerks.

I just put up a post responding to the generalizations in your comments that I think are not just unfair to men but potentially traps on your path to your own happiness. I'm not going to respond further here, because this post is six weeks old!

I'll just end by saying there are plenty of men who do want relationships. They're not all 35 and bald. It's true that men get more settled as they grow older, but so too do women. Maybe you need to meet a nice man in his mid-20s? At any rate, I wish you well in your quest. And I hope you'll *never* sleep with someone unless you really want to. Saying yes when you mean no is bound to make you unhappy.

Good luck!