It’s that time of the year again. Valentine’s Day is upon us. It’s the festival of romantic love, and a time in which we are reminded by our friends, relatives, and Hallmark that we all need to be in love. However, the millennial generation isn’t looking for a long-term relationship. A recent study by the nationally renowned polling agency, the Pew Research Center, shows that the proportion of millennials married at age 18 to 32 is at an all time low (only 26%), and 31% of unmarried millennials want to be single forever.
Instead, young people are replacing committed romantic relationships with casual sexual ones. This is a result of a cultural revolution in which hookups, “brief uncommitted sexual encounters between individuals who are not romantic partners,” have become a societal norm. Recent data from the American Psychological Association shows that between 60 and 80 percent of North American college students have had some sort of hookup experience, and 70% of sexually active 12 to 21-year-olds report having uncommitted sex.
Now here is where it get’s interesting. We have the combination of people who (a) don’t want a long-term committed relationship, and (b) are seeking casual, no-feelings-attached sex. Yet these two components may not be mutually exclusive. This is where we run into the problem of people “catching feelings”. It happens all the time: two people begin a sexual relationship with “no strings attached”. Then all of a sudden, BAM! You find yourself emotionally attached to your partner.
This begs the question of: Can people really have sex without catching feelings? Let’s take a look at what science has to say about the issue.
It is commonplace for people having sex to say that they are in love shortly afterwards. So is sex creating feelings of love? Not exactly, but the biology of sex does a good job of mimicking the feelings of love. A researcher from Concordia University in Canada even showed that “there is an overlap between sexual desire and emotional love in the brain”.
Oxytocin, often called the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, increases feelings of love, trust, and security. It has been widely believed that this hormone is involved in bonding and the formation of trust and connections. In both sexes, oxytocin levels rise dramatically during orgasm. This leads to many people saying “I love you” for the first time, and also sparks people to engage in “pillow talk,” which both contribute to catching feelings.
Dopamine is also released during sex, which creates a strong sense of pleasure, excitement, and well-being. Dopamine helps facilitate the reward circuit in your brain associated with the “pleasure center”, which lets you know when something is enjoyable. It’s not just associated with sex, but also with things such as laughter and drug use. Additionally, dopamine release is addictive, and leaves you constantly wanting more (and more and MORE) of your partner after orgasm.
The combined effects of these two hormones cause you to feel attached, and to associate your partner with pleasure, trust, and happiness in your brain. But, are you really in love? Afraid not: you’re just on a biochemical high. Turns out “your love is my drug” might actually hold more merit than being just a catchy phrase in a song.
It goes without saying that not everyone will react the same way. Obviously, there are some people out there who can have sex without any feelings of attachment. However, for most of us, our biology just simply won’t let it happen.
Even though the hookup culture is expanding far and wide as it becomes more and more destigmatized to have uncommitted sex, it doesn’t mean that we’re capable of doing so. Biologically, we are hardwired to feel close to someone we are sexually intimate with. And that my friends is why we just can’t stop [catching] the feeling[s].
Jonathan Waring is an Athens native and an undergraduate student studying Computer Science at the University of Georgia. When he’s not watching Netflix in his room, he can be found watching Netflix in his friends’ rooms. He aspires to pursue an advanced degree in Medical Informatics and to one day work on disease tracking software at the CDC. As a reminder he is just one person: not statistically significant nor representative. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @waringclothes. More from Jonathan Waring.