Sex is Chemistry, and It’s Never Casual

January 12, 2010

Hooking Up Smart has a fairy godmother, she just doesn’t know it yet. I cite her frequently, because she is doing the most interesting work around on relationship science. She is Dr. Helen Fisher, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. Recently she joined (a subsidiary of, where she is the chief scientific advisor.

One of the reasons I really like her work is because she produces findings using the scientific method. No women and men yelling accusations at each other, saying “You just don’t understand!” No anecdotal evidence that can be twisted and turned every which way. We may not always like what she learns, but there is comfort in facts. Once we know what it is we’re really facing, we can begin to map out strategies to deal with it. Action always feels better than inaction. Movement feels better than inertia.

Dr. Fisher’s recent work actually highlights some good news, for both men and women. Check out her recent TV appearance on Fox:

Here’s the detailed information from her web chat:

Q: Seems like casual sex varies a lot for men and women. As a recent college grad, seems like I saw a lot of young men using it as a tool for empowerment and in turn, young women feeling used. Despite outward appearances, do you think engaging in casual sex is ultimately negative for men, too?

  • Casual sex can be very disappointing for men, as well as for women.
  • The data show that men get less depressed about a failed hook up than women do, perhaps for a Darwinian reason:
    • A man who has failed to trigger romantic love during a hook up with a would-be partner has still had the potential opportunity to spread his DNA.
    • A woman has endangered her reproductive future by possibly getting pregnant during a brief encounter.
  • Men are just as romantic as women are. In fact, men are far more likely to kill themselves when a relationship fails, and they tend to be more dependent on their partnerships than women are, because they have fewer intimate male friendships.

Q: How do you think modern “hook-up culture” affects relationships?

  • Having sex escalates dopamine in the brain and can trigger feelings of romantic love.
  • With orgasm, the release of oxytocin and vasopressin can trigger feelings of attachment.
  • Casual sex is never casual: unless you are to drunk to remember it, something happens–a person is either turned on or off.
  • In one recent study, some 50% of those who hooked up, did it to start a relationship–and 1/3 succeeded. So I think a lot of men and women initiate or engage in a hook up to start a partnership.
  • But it can be damaging. Many fail to achieve what they set out to do, and then feel used.

Q: Is there any hope for an on-again, off-again romantic relationship that’s been going on for five years without either person willing to make a commitment as in proposing marriage?

  • Sometimes, one partner finally gives up and leaves and the other suddenly realizes what they have lost and decides to make the commitment.
  • Or some sort of other event occurs that makes both partners come to their senses, such as a death in the family, an illness, or a long time apart. But I don’t advise trying to make something work forever. I would recommend you set a deadline for yourself, and if he/she can’t commit, you find love with someone who will.
    • Life is short, it’s not a dress rehearsal, and there are other fish in the sea.
    • People who won’t commit generally have a reason.

Q: I care for my girlfriend very deeply — indeed I love her. But I don’t feel a hugely strong passion or raw attraction for her. Is that an impediment in the long run? Can we still build a long-term bond?

  • The intense passion of romantic love actually dampens several areas of the brain and can make you blind to the problems in a partnership.
  • If you have a calmer, more stable feeling for her, you can see more clearly what she will be like years down the road.
  • If you love her now, you are likely to keep on loving her.

Q: Is it possible to be in love and in lust with someone at the same time?

  • These two brain systems are very well connected. Lust is driven by testosterone and romantic love is driven largely by dopamine.
  • And testosterone and dopamine trigger one another.
  • This is why you feel so sexually attracted to someone as soon as you fall in love with them.
  • Or you may feel sexually attracted to someone, and the testosterone trips the dopamine switch, causing you to fall in love with them.

Why am I so encouraged?

1. Fifty-two percent of guys hook up in hopes of starting a relationship. I like those odds.

2. Dr. Fisher says casual sex is never casual (unless you’re blackout). So having sex with someone will make them like you either more or less. Your odds are 50/50, which is better than I would have guessed!

3. If you can get someone’s sex drive going, you can trigger the dopamine switch.

I’m hopeful that one day Dr. Fisher will invent and market a Dopamine Switch. It’s probably not far off!

In the meantime:

  • Go for the hookup with someone you think has relationship potential (just be smart about it, as always).

  • Don’t hook up with someone you really like while you’re both blackout drunk. It can’t possibly mean anything, and it just creates awkwardness, which kills any relationship buzz.

  • Be hot in bed. Make it memorable. This sounds difficult, but it’s not. You don’t need to read Cosmo. The ingredients are enthusiasm, boldness, and focus. (You can learn all the skill you need in one long weekend bed session with someone you really dig.)