This Is Your Brain On Sex

Whether you’re in a happy and committed relationship, you’re
hoping to get lucky tonight, or your only plans involve Tumblr, your bed, and a
bottle of wine, you can’t ignore the fact that today is Valentine’s Day, and
suddenly your relationship status, whatever it may be, is in the spotlight.
Naturally, when I think about Valentine’s Day, I immediately turn to the
sexual aspect of relationships. While the notion of Valentine’s Day sex conjures idealized images of partners looking deep into each other’s eyes during some variation of missionary while scented candles flicker in the distance, my favorite Valentine’s Day memory is of my hands
being bound to the bedposts of my first-year residence hall room while my partner licked whipped cream off of my body.

These memories, along with romantic Valentine’s Day ideals, prompted me to wonder what it is about food and bondage, discipline, sadism, or masochism (BDSM) that people (myself included) find sexy? Why do others prefer slow, eye-locked romps? Seeking some explanation, I turn to science … in the form of TSL resident science columnist, Warren Szewczyk. We sat down to have a conversation about the intersection of sex and science. 

C. Frisky: I explored some of the
emotional and theoretical principles behind BDSM (which encompasses bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism) in my column last semester,
but coming from a scientific perspective, why do some people like to feel pain,
domination, or submission as part of the sexual experience? Is there something
actually pleasurable about feeling pain?

Warren Szewczyk: Unfortunately, there
isn’t much scientific literature that addresses BDSM practices specifically and
why they are popular among certain groups of people. There is, however, a large
body of research involving pain and the body’s response to pain. Your brain has a menagerie of naturally produced neurotransmitters, known
as endorphins, dedicated to reducing pain and enhancing pleasure. Drugs like
heroin and morphine take advantage of these systems by acting like the endorphin
molecules your brain produces on its own.

One theory behind the pleasurable aspects of sadomasochism and sex is
that, by pairing a painful experience with orgasm, people who participate in
BDSM are increasing the endorphins released by the brain, since the brain’s
endorphin system is triggered during both orgasm and intense pain.

Other chemical systems may also be involved in the science of
BDSM, including the neurotransmitter dopamine, which modulates the reward system in your brain. Opiates
like heroin and morphine are highly addictive because they mimic endorphin
release, increasing dopamine levels in the brain and making you more likely to take pleasure in an activity and do it again.

Finally, submission and domination role-play likely causes spikes
in adrenaline, the chemical responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response.
Adrenaline release causes a rewarding subjective high that is so powerful that
people jump out of airplanes just to feel it; perhaps they let someone dominate
them with whips and chains in order to feel it as well.

Psychologically speaking, it may be tempting to think that people
who engage in bondage are simply acting on psychopathic fantasies in a safe setting,
but recent research contradicts this baseless idea. In fact, a 2013 study in
the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that BDSM practitioners were “less neurotic, more extroverted, more open to new
experiences, more conscientious, [and] less rejection-sensitive” than controls who engaged in more traditional sexual

It seems, then, that BDSM activity is not
fundamentally different from “vanilla” sex, which also involves endorphins,
dopamine, and adrenaline release. Rather, BDSM may constitute a particular
flavor of sexual activity that is favored by a particular flavor of person.

CF: It’s
interesting to think about the stigmas behind BDSM knowing that it’s not all that
different chemically from the scented candle, missionary, vanilla-flavored sex
I described before. Speaking of flavors, while I have incorporated food into my
sex life in a playful way, I know that some people are genuinely aroused by the
thought of either watching people consume or play with food. Has there been
any research to point to why food has been fetishized?

WS: You’re
talking about sitophilia, which is when
a person fetishizes the combination of food and sex. Unfortunately, there’s
literally no scientific research into this fetish, possibly because it is too
rare to warrant attention from money-starved researchers. There is an
infinitely broad range of fetishes out there, and they almost undoubtedly all
come back to brain chemistry. For some reason, people who fetishize food have
formed a unique connection in their brains, one in which food triggers the same
or similar pathways as sexual pleasure.

CF: I’ve never personally been
aroused by inanimate objects, but incorporating food into sex has always been
really fun. While my aforementioned favorite
Valentine’s Day sex memory might not sound incredibly romantic, I do recall
waking up the next morning feeling that my partner and I had become a lot
closer. Is it all that eye contact that makes those romantic feelings develop, or is it something else?

WS: Beyond the
neurotransmitters we’ve talked about, there is another chemical released during
and after sexual activity that has a more long-lasting effect on the mind and
body. This hormone, known as oxytocin, plays a crucial role in intimate sex and
the formation of attachments, and has a diverse set of prosocial functions, which promote bonds between humans.

A 2008 study in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that subjects who had
oxytocin squirted up their nose were afterward more likely to look at the eye
region of a person’s face. In 2009, a group reported in Hormones and
that intranasal oxytocin increased ratings of attractiveness and
trustworthiness when subjects were shown pictures of random faces. Oxytocin may
even be an effective treatment in high-functioning autism, as was reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010.

As it promotes feelings of trust and attraction, it’s no surprise
that oxytocin is involved in sexual relations. It was shown in 1986 that
injections of oxytocin in the cerebrospinal fluid of rats caused spontaneous
erections and other sexual behaviors, and a 2001 study in The Journal of
found that it also promoted sexual activities in female rats. In humans,
oxytocin levels increase significantly after orgasm. Be careful, though,
because those high levels can produce artificially strong feelings of love,
trust, and attraction, which might be why the morning after usually leaves you
with a lot more questions than answers.

CF: It is interesting to think
that those feelings of love and attraction might be artificial, but that raises the question: What constitutes “real” feelings? Oxytocin might be a
conversation for another time. As far as Valentine’s Day goes, whether you
cover your partner with chocolate sauce, bust out a pair of fuzzy handcuffs,
dim the lights and snuggle, or watch Netflix in bed with your cat, I hope you
have a great one.

Have fun sexploring,

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