Oxytocin: That word doesn’t mean what you think it means

Pump Up the Vole-ume: Talking Oxytocin

Heather Corinna/Scarleteen

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. It’s taken me a while to get this out here: I confess, it’s mostly because I was dreadfully bored by it all. I’m not a neurochemistry geek, but a sex geek. Because so much of it wasn’t all that relevant to sex, and because this just isn’t my area of geekdom, every time I’ve picked this up what I found most amazing about oxytocin was its ability to miraculously cure my bouts of insomnia by just reading or writing about it.

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.”

Many claims about oxytocin regarding love, sex and bonding cite some science, but often very selectively and dubiously, so much so that some scientists whose studies have been used to make agenda-driven claims have strongly objected to the use of their studies to do so. As well, when people are talking about studies done on oxytocin and sex or pair-bonding, the vast majority of those studies have been done with and about prairie voles, not people.

A prototypical conservative claim about oxytocin, sounds a lot like this:

Oxytocin is a hormone that is released in a woman during childbirth, nursing a child, and during sexual activity. Commonly referred to as “glue,” oxytocin creates a strong bond between the woman and the other involved.  In the case of childbirth and nursing this bond is important because it creates a nurturing environment for the child. In a marriage relationship where sex is safe and beneficial, oxytocin helps keep the bond between a husband and wife strong. Outside of marriage however, the oxytocin bond can increase the emotional pain when the relationship has ended. Oxytocin is impartial. Whether during sexual activity between husband and wife or in a teenage hook-up, the hormone is still released and the bond is still created.  Oxytocin promises an involuntary chemical commitment.

Every parent, educator, and school administrator can undertake the mission of teaching abstinence with heightened significance as the intensity of the oxytocin bond explains why teens suffer emotionally after breakups, and often even during a relationship. Sex was created to unite two people, bringing a bond unlike any other relationship. This powerful bond is what sustains husband and wife until “death do us part” contributing to trust and security. Outside of marriage the release of oxytocin can lead to distrust, hostility, and insecurity. Sexual relationships without commitment still have a lasting bond. Oxytocin even has the power to sustain attachment within abusive relationships.

That’s from The Oxytocin Factor (Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, 2003, Aspire, Scott Phelps, 2008, The Medical Institute of Sexual Health, 2006). The Medical Institute of Sexual Health is an abstinence-only organization. Its advisory board reads like a Who’s Who of purity pushers, including W. David Hager, another former Bush appointee, to the FDA’s advisory board on reproductive health, who suggested prayer as a cure for PMS and whose ex-wife stated in The Nation that he had repeatedly raped her. The AMA it’s not. I have not found any study done on oxytocin that shows oxytocin alone creates emotional bonds (rather than potentially playing a part in them or creating a feeling in someone they they may be bonded, even if they are not), no studies done exclusively within marriage to show it is different for married or unmarried people, and none done to determine what role, if any, oxytocin may play in the pain of a breakup. I also have not found any oxytocin studies done within or about intimate partner violence to support conclusions that the reason people stay attached to abusive partners is chemical. If only it were that simple.

These kinds of sentiments about oxytocin are often the impetus for such popular abstinence-only routines as “Miss Tape.” (Which I just demonstrated for my friend’s four-year-old, who now promises to never tart it up.) Here’s another example of some socially conservative claims about oxy:

Oxytocin also helps females bond with men. When a woman and man touch each other in a loving way, oxytocin is released in her brain. It makes her want more of that loving touch, and she begins to feel a bond with her partner. Sexual intercourse leads to the release of even more oxytocin, a desire to repeat the contact, and even stronger bonding. But, like dopamine, oxytocin is values-neutral. It’s a chemical reaction, or, as the authors write: “[I]t is an involuntary process that cannot distinguish between a one-night stand and a lifelong soul mate. Oxytocin can cause a woman to bond to a man even during what was expected to be a short-term sexual relationship.” So when that short-term relationship ends, the emotional fallout can be devastating, thanks to oxytocin.

“The authors” in that quote are Joe McIlhaney and Freda McKissic Bush, who are affiliated with the abstinence-only group the Medical Institute for Sexual Health.

Not only do we know from study on oxytocin that it is not at all exclusive to women, and that oxytocin cannot, by itself, create emotional bonds, I cannot find any studies about oxytocin done on sexual activity exclusive to intercourse. That same piece also states not only that oxytocin is a girl-thing, but that vasopressin is a guy-thing, when in fact, both chemicals can and do exist in the bodies of all genders.

Let’s take a look at what oxytocin is. Let me preempt what you’re about to read by saying that we not only still know very little about oxytocin, we still know very little about all neurochemicals and how they affect our feelings and actions. If someone says they know something absolute and definitive about oxytocin and what it does in our bodies, that’s a big pseudoscience red flag. Also, some of the claims and quotes about oxytocin report it as being about only women and men or only women or only men. Most, if not all of the time, they’re talking about people who are or are thought to be XX or XY, and when interplay between men and women is discussed, they’re talking about heterosexual people. If and when I use the language they used or is found in studies I’m citing, that’s why, not because I’m a fan or think it’s necessarily accurate (particularly when people are talking about studies done with voles and not people at all).

Oxytocin is one of many neuropeptides found and produced in mammals. It seems we’ve known about it for around 100 years but have only recently started studying it in any depth. Scientists currently understand it as potentially playing a part in everything from labor contractions, deep discussions, breastfeeding, autism, sexual arousal, activity and orgasm, altruism, and all kinds of general social interactions (good, bad and otherwise) for those of all sexes and genders who can or do experience all or any of those things. Apparently, oxytocin levels may elevate in people even just by being around the color blue. How much or how little oxytocin is out and about during these or other events varies widely among mammals, even mammals of any one assigned sex or who are all having the same kind of experience in which oxytocin is or may be present. It’s understood to have a plasma half-life (the time it takes for half of any given substance to become inactive) of only around 3-5 minutes in the human bloodstream.

According to the APA, “Oxytocin is produced mainly in the hypothalamus, where it is either released into the blood via the pituitary gland, or to other parts of the brain and spinal cord, where it binds to oxytocin receptors to influence behavior and physiology. The excitement over the hormone began in the 1990s when researchers discovered that breastfeeding women are calmer in the face of exercise and psychosocial stress than bottle-feeding mothers. But more recent research has shown other roles for the hormone, too. Oxytocin levels are high under stressful conditions, such as social isolation and unhappy relationships.”

It’s been highly linked to influencing trust and social attachment between mammals (not just sex partners: parents and children, friends, even a dude and his dog). As the APA makes clear, the idea that oxytocin levels surge only in pleasant or sexual situations isn’t at all accurate. Those of you using hormonal methods of birth control should prepare yourselves to hear that you apparently can’t emotionally bond as well as women not using those methods, since progesterone can inhibit oxytocin release. If that and claims about oxytocin being THE thing that bonds are true, then when women are in the phase of the fertility cycle where progesterone is highest — about half of every cycle, during the time practitioners of natural family planning who are trying to prevent pregnancy would be having sex most — they wouldn’t be able to bond as well then, either.

That same APA piece also takes a chunk out of the idea that surges of oxytocin early in life, or with more than one other critter, make us less likely to bond. In fact, they suggest that without those early-life surges, we may have problems bonding later.

Let’s revisit that “many” part about neuropeptides. Rather, let’s let Sue Carter, a zoologist who pioneered some oxytocin research, be clear: “The nervous system is not just oxytocin. There are many other hormones that might be just as important as oxytocin that haven’t been identified yet,” Carter says. “A piece of social support is oxytocin. That doesn’t mean that oxytocin alone equals social support.” Oxytocin so isn’t just about, or just produced or possibly elevated during sex, though. Not even close.

One common place oxytocin apparently plays a big part is in breastfeeding and child-parent bonding. Suggesting a person who has multiple — or even just more than one — sex partners will be less able to bond to people because of potentially having oxytocin surges with more than one person would suggest that breastfeeding mothers who have more than one child would become less and less able to bond to their children. Not only am I quite certain neither is true — particularly based on just one neurochemical — I can hardly imagine the social conservatives who are pushing oxytocin so hard as a way to scare people about sex jumping on THAT bandwagon.

One of my favorite oxytocin fables is that it is why when men and women have casual sex, women are apparently thereafter waiting, lovelorn, by the phone, feeling they just lost the great love of their life after one hookup, while men apparently go skipping off casually, having experienced no feelings at all and having developed no attachment whatsoever to the woman they just slept with. That might well be so if that’s always what happened, if oxytocin was the only thing that drove or influenced any of those feelings or experiences, and if oxytocin was something that only occurred in women. But those things are not true. It’s also often suggested that it’s female orgasm that’s the big oxytocin power surge. However, more women than men are inorgasmic, and with casual sex specifically, it’s more common for women than men not to experience orgasm, especially with brand-new partners. That given, it becomes an even stranger supposition, because the roles should then be reversed, right?

While commonly called “the love hormone,” that’s also not always the most accurate nickname for this particular neuropeptide, because it doesn’t always create those feelings. Sometimes, it’s quite the opposite.

One study in Israel found that oxytocin may also increase feelings of envy and make it more likely for a person to gloat: not so lovey-dovey, that. Those researchers and others will tend to bristle at the suggestion of oxytocin as the “love hormone” or “hug hormone,” instead suggesting that what it may do is simply intensify the whole range of human emotions, not only the pleasant ones and not only feelings of love or sexual attraction. In all the actual scientific information we have so far on oxytocin, it’s clear it has just as much to do with fear and stress as it does with love.

Here’s my running list of when and where oxytocin has been found or suggested to surge in study done in humans and/or other mammals:

Neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson suggests that, “Probably, oxytocin can also be released just by imagining – the more vividly, the better – the activities just mentioned.”

Though the central oxytocin studies often used for some of these claims were with voles, not humans, if we’re going to talk about them and talk about oxytocin, we also have to talk about vasopressin, another very similar neuropeptide. And if we’re going to talk about orgasm or sex and hormones, we can’t really pull one ingredient out from the whole soup: our bodies can’t and don’t, after all. That’d be like suggesting that a three-layer-cake and flour, just one ingredient of that cake, are the same thing. On a chemical level alone, there are a host of chemicals that can be or are involved with sex and sexual response: androgens, estrogens, prolactin, cortisol, neurochemical almost always inextricably linked to oxytocin — serotonin, phenylethylamine and others, for people of all genders: not just women, not just men, and not just in interactions between women and men.

Where does a lot of this stuff come from that suggests that oxytocin, in the context of love or sex, is SO different for men and for women? As far as I can tell, a lot of it comes from sex and gender essentialism, much of which flies in the face of science. Oxytocin has also been studied far more in females than males, most likely because the most important role it has seemed to have so far is with labor, delivery, lactation and maternal behaviour.

Testosterone is known to suppress oxytocin. People might be able to get away with some generalizations about men and women because of that…but only if testosterone was exclusive to men. ‘Cept it’s not. Not only do we all have it, it plays some part in all sexual response. Certainly, most XY people have more testosterone, or higher levels, than most XX people, most of the time. That can be as little as two times as much to twenty times as much. When people are sexually aroused, all of our testosterone levels are elevated, whatever our sex or gender. Additionally — estrogen may increase — not create, increase — the effects of oxytocin. But men have estrogen, too, even though most women have more. And as we’ve already talked about, sex and sexuality is not merely chemical.

Looking at that list up there of situations in which oxytocin can purportedly rear it’s oxytociny head, let’s apply the same kind of logic some do with statements about sex and oxytocin to some of these other situations. Let’s also use the same broad brush and total certainty in making them.

If we did, we might say things like:

  • Mothers who deliver by C-section or who do not breastfeed will not be able to bond to their children.
  • Post-menopausal women have a decreasing ability to bond with other people. (Grannies are gonna love that one.)
  • Massage therapists can’t pair-bond because they touch too many people.
  • Mothers who deliver or breastfeed more than one child will be less and less able to bond to subsequent children.
  • Because birth apparently creates the biggest oxytocin surges we know of, women may bond with anyone involved in their birth. Good news for obstetricians!
  • People who have and care for pets will be less able to bond with other pets or people.
  • People who sing in choirs or bands may as well be having orgies for all the oxytocin they’re hurling around.
  • People with autism may not be able to bond to anyone, ever.

I’m not saying ANY of these statements are true or are things I believe to be valid. I don’t, not even remotely. They sound utterly offensive and silly to me, just like the claims about oxytocin at the top of the page do. But if we’re supposed to accept that things like claims about number of sexual partners and bonding ability are true, we’d have to accept some or all of these other statements are or may be equally true.

In most, if not all, of our social interactions, oxytocin may be or has the potential to be present. How much or how little probably depends on which activities we’re doing, what a given one is like for us at a time, on each of our very unique cocktails of biochemistry and on the big picture of our lives, histories and feelings about and conceptions of those lives and histories. For someone of the mindset that we need to watch who we have have oxytocin surges with and in what kind of interactions that occurs, so far science seems to indicate that to do that, we’d all need to stay away from most social interactions — pleasant and unpleasant alike — we have with everyone, like with parents, platonic friends, romantic and/or sexual partners, co-workers, religious leaders, fellow singers in our choirs, pets, massage therapists, religious communities and yoga teachers.

Where’s the bad part of oxytocin? Going back to that APA piece up top, “When it is operating during times of low stress, oxytocin physiologically rewards those who maintain good social bonds with feelings of well-being. But when it comes on board during times of high social stress or pain, it may “lead people to seek out more and better social contacts,” says Taylor.” But it’s also worth nothing that, as Rene Hurlemann, a psychiatrist who has done oxytocin studies states, “An Israeli study has shown that when people are engaged in a contest, if one player’s emotions are manipulated by the offer of a bigger prize to the other player, the first player’s feelings of jealousy and ill will are actually exacerbated by a dose of oxytocin.

“Oxytocin does not make you a better person,” he says. “In some cases it may simply intensify whatever you’re feeling.”

Love and bonding — whether we’re talking about either in a sexual or nonsexual context — is much more complex than a single chemical. I’m not just saying that because I think so: social science has backed that up since we’ve had social science, and medical science tends to be in cahoots with that notion, too. We can’t compartmentalize love or sexual behavior or biochemistry in the way so often done around oxytocin.

Everything I’ve read on oxytocin from scientists has this funny thing where they tend to use the word “may” with claims, or where they talk about how their study makes suggestions which should lead to further study. The scientists doing the studies that are then cited by so many others are not making the kinds of definitive statements about oxytocin those folks are, and some are increasingly critical of the ways studies are both being conducted and used around neurochemistry and human behavior, particularly when evolutionary psychology is involved. If those scientists aren’t making conclusive statements about their own work, no one else can really justify doing so. Scientists tend to understand the difference between hypothesis, theory and fact: those referencing science, or looking to support their own theses with it, could stand to be reminded of that.

A lot of the popular claims about oxytocin, like so many made about sex or love, are exclusively or primarily about heterosexuality and binary sex or gender, both of which we know — thanks, science! — aren’t binary at all. Some studies may actually show us differences in oxytocin with XX and XY people (if they have even been determined to be so in those studies, which they probably have not) — or rodents — but what about with XXY, XYY or XO people? What about male-female relationships in which both parties are trans gender?

After spending far too much time buried in oxytocin research, I’m not going to argue that the notion or suggestion oxytocin potentially plays some part in how we do or don’t bond or otherwise behave with or feel about with others is invalid. It’s pretty clear to me that it is valid to state it often does or may plays a part.

However, if we’re going to get on board with that, we can’t be essentialist or selective about it. If we’re going to give credence to one of the ways oxytocin has been shown it does or may work, we have to give equal weight to all the other ways it has been shown to or may work, and we have to do so even if and when evidence about one scenario with oxytocin may make claims anyone makes about another patently false or ludicrous.

We just don’t know enough about oxytocin for many of the kinds of statements that have been made, especially so firmly, to be made. And some statements made have absolutely no basis at all: the idea that any given oxytocin surge more people means a difficulty or inability to bond with fewer people ever after, for example, is something I couldn’t find even one scientific reference for or study on. Oxytocin is clearly an over-convenient rationale or scapegoat for plenty of people, and not just the abstinence-only crowd.

At the beginning of this piece, we linked to scientist Dr. Rebecca Turner voicing an objection to her studies being used inaccurately. In that piece, Turner said something else that was really important:

There are always some human values involved in statements of policy, and it is fairer to the public to acknowledge what those values are,” she continued. “This is something we instill in our students: in a free society, we have to be open to debate the evidence, the meaning of the evidence and its quality. At least Dr. Keroack’s co-author did acknowledge that they were developing conclusions that no scientists would ever put forth.

What generalizations and conclusions can we soundly draw based on data scientists have provided, and what conclusions they have themselves drawn? That oxytocin is one of many chemicals in the bodies of mammals, one of an incredibly large pool of influences and factors, chemical and non-chemical, which very likely have an impact on some of our behavior, including but not limited to our sexual and other social interactions and responses. That how much or how little oxytocin impacts those things, how it impacts them, for whom and in what situations, clearly varies widely, even though we can say we know some situations in which it is very likely to be present and have some sort of effect. And that if we want ways to make more definitive statements than these about oxytocin, until we have a lot more study done with humans, we’re going to need to stick to talking about rodents instead of people.

Via: io9

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