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. ...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.)
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.
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.)