Myths about the “love hormone” oxytocin that could ruin your love life

People often make weird claims about oxytocin, sometimes called the “trust hormone” or the “love hormone,” and sex. Scarleteen’s Heather Corinna researches the real neuroscience behind oxytocin and breaks down the myths.

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The more young people are told – usually by adults who know from their own experience it’s not true — that sex outside of marriage, outside long-term, monogamous relationships, or with any more than one partner in a lifetime, will always do them terrible, irreparable harm and make them damaged goods forevermore, the more we get questions about oxytocin, one common staple in that messaging. So, around a year ago, I started excavating.

Anyone who regularly reads Scarleteen knows we don’t feel there’s one model of relationship, or any right or wrong number of sexual partners, that will or won’t lead to satisfaction, happiness or a lack of hurt or harm for everyone, and that we don’t feel it’s sound for us or anyone else to suggest that there is. At this point in human history and social science we’ve all the evidence we need to know we’ve pretty much tried every possible kind of relationship and social set of “rules” and strategies there are, and none have generated any identical, satisfactory or unsatisfactory results for everyone who has tried them. We also don’t feel that consensual sex of any kind or in any one context is right or wrong for everyone and don’t think suppositions to the contrary are sound. We stand firmly behind the understanding of people as incredibly diverse, and know that our relationships, sexuality and what we each want from those things and find is right for us is also incredibly diverse. So, while we really shouldn’t have to say it, for the record, nothing I’m about to say here should be interpreted as any kind of suggestion or evidence that any one way or model of having sex or relationships, or anything a given person wants, needs, finds ideal or non-ideal when it comes to either of those things is right or wrong according to me or according to science.

There are a lot of links packed in here. If you want to dig into this topic a bit more, click away. If you’d rather have the basics, I spared you as best I could. But all the links alone should make clear that anyone who is making pat claims about oxytocin is probably either a) lazily parroting what they heard someone else say without doing any qualitative reading themselves, and/or b) dismissing the complexity actual study and the diversity of human experience has shown us about oxytocin and all of human behavior in order to further a social or personal agenda, or in order to further their hope — as sometimes we’re all wont to do — that some of the most complex and confusing parts of our lives could be magically made simple.

The oxytocin-and-sex bus seems to have really gotten its gas with Dr. Erik Keroack, a popular lecturer for the National Right to Life Committee and the National Abstinence Clearinghouse. Ex-President Bush appointed him to head Title X, our national family planning program, for the Department of Health and Human Services. There are about a hundred reasons why that appointment made a lot of people feel stabby, but the biggest one is that Keroack was strongly against family planning. It was a lot like putting an anti-gun activist in charge of the NRA. Keroack was also particularly fond of talking about oxytocin and making claims about it (claims unsupported by science) to support his own agenda, such as that, “People who have misused their sexual faculty and become bonded to multiple persons will diminish the power of oxytocin to maintain a permanent bond with an individual.”

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.