Pump Up the Vole-ume: Talking Oxytocin

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.


Funny how people latch onto research that supports their viewpoints and tear down research that doesn't.

For example: Do you think the research is valid that same sex couples are equally good parents as straight couples? The research is far less established than the research on oxytocin and the number of variables in people's lives and upbringing are far greater than the hormones in one's body but you would hardly find a feminist who thinks the results could be questionable and should be excluded from public discussion.

I think I was pretty transparent about my agenda here, but happy to reiterate. Myself and readers we hear from have seen and read a lot of claims being made about oxytocin that appeared to be very dubious, particularly once you look at the actual studies those claims were made based on. So, my agenda in sorting through this was to look at as much of the studies on oxy as I could and see what claims seemed to be sound and which did not.

I don't know that any of the research I've listed here supports my viewpoints or doesn't, sparing that it all seems to make clear that sex, love and socialization are more than chemical or about just one chemical, which is certainly a view that I have.

But if you think there are oxytocin studies I overlooked that may have changed my conclusions here, by all means, please share them. My aim here was trying to find what it all meant, so if an important piece is missing in that, that's something I want to see. I'd hate to be drawing conclusions publicly that were not sound. I also by no means suggested the studies I've linked to and others should be excluded from public discussion: quite the contrary! Studies like these to are what have usually been used for the conservative oxytocin claims, and the studies have usually gone undiscussed or even uncited over IN public discussion of oxytocin claims.

Per your question about studies on queer parents' parenting vs. straight parents parenting, no, so far I'm not super-stoked about that research in part because it seems like a tough question to answer, since we have to define what "good" parenting is, which is tough given the divergence in ideas about that. We also have to try and somehow suss out what outcomes for children and young people are nature and which nurture. As a teacher for around 20 years now, I've seen kids who have their act together come out of horrible homes and kids with big problems coming out of homes where parents have done everything that probably most people could agree was good parenting.

I'm also not so sure we have a lot of research on exclusively straight parenting (whatever either of these terms even means, because again, often these terms are arbitrary or not clearly defined) to even draw on -- seems to me these studies with parenting and orientation where the orientation of parents have been made clear is only happening with queer parents in the first place.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

Dubious? What was the original reason for thinking the studies were dubious? I think that's a more interesting topic of investigation.

If you went into this thinking studies were dubious it's not surprising that you found what you were looking for.

This is why I never trust anyone judgment when that have such an obvious agenda:

Well, I already knew the oxytocin studies usually talked about per people were done with voles, for one. I also noticed they kept being reported to us by users from sources of information -- abstinence-only education -- known to have much documented misinformation. I had not heard these kinds of claims ever made by any of my colleagues working in human sexuality and I have a pretty wide net and am connected with a good many people who have done more work in sexuality than most people and for longer than most.

When the same person saying oxytocin can create only one bond is also saying condoms don't provide any protection against HIV, or that prayer is *the* fix for PMS, I think it's sound to be wary and have questions.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

Way to switch the topic without ever answering the question! :D

When someone has such an obvious agenda as the writer of this blog, the facts don't matter because they can be selectively edited and framed to support any position and as long as only one side is presented an argument has no comparison for merit. As a blogger there are no "two sides to every story" that are ever presented. There's always only "My Side" because "It's my blog".

P.S. The subject of my previous post was sarcasm.

ANYONE here is welcome to comment and provide links to studies I did not. I assure you, if people post links to more studies than I linked to, those links will go public here.

And I'd also very much like to see them because a big part of my job as a sexuality educator is to be sure my own facts are solid and that what I say is accurate. If it isn't, I very much want to know.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

Okay, here's something very simple. Your discussion of estrogen v.s. testosterone and the effect that they have on oxytocin is completely lacking rigor. You brush aside attenuating effects of testosterone by pretty much saying "we all have testosterone" but a 10x difference on average is a huge amount. It's what made us physically men and women. Observe the effects on F2M transsexuals' bodies when they are given male amounts of testosterone. Why would you not think testosterone is having an equally changing effect on their brains? Again the agenda for many people is that men and women are the same but we are not. Aren't many people discussing doing more medical testing on women because men and women's bodies respond differently to the same medications?

Don't the ramifications of the "bonding hormone" oxytocin's effect on women compared to men form one basis for the arguments on promiscuity and the virgin/whore dichotomy and abstinence which seemed to lead you to start your investigation? Is it worse for women to be promiscuous than men? You can't answer that question without comparing women and men and it's not a good start when you brush aside 10x difference in hormones.

I'm not inclined to use words in discussions -- especially about science -- that are arbitrary. "Promiscuous" is not a word you'll find me using for a handful of reasons, the largest of which is that what it means is subjective. I also would never ask a question like "Is it worse for women to be promiscuous than men?" Why would I ask that question, both because a) I know the world is made up of more than women than men, and b) because any time I am asking if something is better or worse, I need to know what we MEAN by that. Better or worse in what regard? These are rhetorical questions, mind you: I'm not interested in that kind of conversation. You're welcome to have it with other commentors here if you like, but I've no interest.

Have you had a hormone analysis done for yourself? I ask that because unless we all have -- and so many people are not -- I think we have to be very cautious of generalizations we make about who has what hormone levels based on how we identify our gender or what a doctor made of our gonads when we were born in determining our sex. I am not being dismissive of the effects of testosterone. I absolutely agree that hormones and other neurochemicals impact our brains, our feelings and how we relate to one another. I'm simply saying that not only can we not just talk about one or two neurochemicals in a vacuum, we can't make easy, pat or general assumptions about the impact of one chemical -- one that has barely been studied -- on people of a given sex or gender.

YES, many people are making the suggestion that it's important medical testing for medications be done for all populations using them, and I'd agree. I don't know what you, yourself mean, by "men and women," and don't close gender or sex with that binary, but if you mean two groups of different gender or sex, I neither think we are entirely the same or entirely different. I believe and see in the study from a host of fields we have so far, as well as from people's personal experiences in self-reporting, that there are both differences and similarities.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

I've always heard that women produce/release more oxytocin than men during sex. I don't know of any scientific experement that has measured this while people were actually having sex, so there a chance it could be false. But, if this is true, then it makes sens that women are more susceptible feelings of attachment and bonding.

The thing is, unless I somehow missed them, we don't have any studies on people to support a claim like that.

We really can't even ruminate about this without that study: it could be true, it could be false, but it's not something we should give any credence to or can even soundly talk about until we have those studies. I'd certainly be interested to see them, though I also don't expect to see them soon, since studying that would involve people needing to have sex together in labs where those levels could be monitored. That's not exactly the sort of science our culture is currently very supportive of, and it'd also be tough to get funded, since it'd be challenging to propose a practical use for that information if we could glean it. Know what I mean?

Also, even if we did those studies and FOUND that, that would not necessarily mean women are more susceptible to feelings of sexual attachment and bonding. Again, attachment and bonding is WAY bigger than one chemical, and for the portions that do or may involve neurochemicals, it's very clear per science so far that it's not just about this one.

Did you get a chance to look through some of the many studies linked here?

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

Hello again. I'm getting my information from a book I read called, "The Female Brain" By: Dr. Louann Brizendine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Female_Brain_(book)
In her book she eplains how women have more levels of oxytocin. Maybe it was MRIs or brainm scans, but I can't emember exactly how she conducted her research. So it stands to reason that if oxytocin is related to bonding, and if women have more of it than men, then women are more effected by oxytcin than men. If women are more effected by oxytocin than men, then women are susceptible bonding than men. I not saying that men can't bond or that all women instantly bond after sex. I'm only asserting that there is a clear gender difference in how the chemical is manifested in the brain and that that can have an impact on behavior in the same way that lack of seratonin in the brain can cause depression and that can cause people to behave differently.

Ben: I haven't looked at that book, though have heard some of the many arguments about its soundness. I also confess I don't tend to look at books like that unless they're very clear on how they're defining terms like female and also sticking to studies that share those definitions when using the results of those studies to prove their points. For instance does she mean people with an XX karyotype? Have all the studies she's drawing upon asserted that to be true about their subjects? That rarely, if ever, is the case. What about all of the varying hormone levels of people defined as female? Were they all the same or very similar? Because even just in XX or XY people, our biochemical makeups can differ considerably.

If you have that book around and could link me up with some of the studies she's calling upon in it, that'd be awesome, and I'd love to look at them.

As you can see from many of the studies I found, oxytocin is understood to be something EVERYONE has, and that it does not seem by sex or gender alone, anyone has more of, though sex, gender or certain chemical makeups may mean that oxytocin is released in greater or lesser amounts. I also haven't seen any studied that show women are de facto more EFFECTED by oxytocin than men: if you go through some of the many studies I liked in this piece, you'll also see that some showed men may even be more effected than women (though again, we have to accept that how they define who men are may be arbitrary).

I am NOT convinced there are NOT gender or sex differences with oxytocin and its levels or its impact. I simply feel that the studies done so far with oxytocin have yet to show us that and if there are differences, show us what they are.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

I don't have the book anymore. It was at the public library in the new non-fiction section. I'd be quite foolish to deny that there are human variations. So yeah, I agree the XXY’s, XYY's, the intersexed and plenty more could be quite different. Certainly the Caster Semnaya story challenged the strict gender binary. Yet, at the same time, I think if you're looking at women on average rather than individuals, i.e., those that produce eggs as gametes, and men on average, i.e., those that produce sperm as gametes, I think you would expect to find a close correlation in the presence of certain kinds of hormones based on the difference in sex . I also agree that oxytocin is something that everyone has, but I think it is the testosterone in men that sort of blunts the effect of oxytocin in the male, ergo women having more of it. You’re also right that there don’t seem to be any studies showing that women are “effected” more by oxytocin more than men, but that sure does make this puzzling:

I don't know about you, but I'm never all that puzzled by people doing things they know or suspect to be bunk for financial incentives.

The dailymail is a terrible source for anything. Can we get a link to those studies themselves, please? The dailymail says something is absolute in the piece, but I don't see the scientists there quoted saying that, and given that they're talking about Rene Hurlemann, someone included in this piece and linked to, his being that way given how we talked in a more reputable source sure seems odd. But those sprays did come up a little in the research I did on the studies. I didn't bring them up because I couldn't find listings of decent studies about them for this use (rather than with autism or lactation), and because they're a whole different box of worms given that a spray that delivers a chemical or hormone shouldn't be assumed to act the same way a chemical produced in the body itself does. This is an issue I've brought up now and then over the years, for example, with suppositions that BCPs and other hormonal medications can be assumed to act identically and have the same impact as hormones produced by our bodies, something we know often isn't true. What happened with HRT, and that assumptions with it, is a great example of the (sometimes very dangerous) flaw in thinking that way.

But I totally hear you on some of this. Caster Semnaya certainly brought an awareness to many people about intersex they didn't have before, but those of us working is sexuality have had that awareness for a long time now.

Again, people of all genders have testosterone (though people with AIS, specifically, because they can't respond to androgens, are worth mentioning here: have it or not, how your body responds to it matters), and again, I've acknowledged in this piece that those of whatever gender will likely experiences variances with neurochemicals like oxytocin and vasosuppressin because of those differences. And yes, I would expect that if and when we do have real study on oxytocin with two sets of people classed as producing sperm and those producing eggs, I would not be at all surprised to see some general differences. But what I have read does not suggest women HAVE more oxy and men have less, and once more with feeling, I don't think we can talk about how people are effected by this one neurochemical in a vaccuum per bonding (or anything else) or talk with any authority about big sex or gender differences with it yet, because in around a year of looking, I could not find studies to support those kinds of suppositions.

I don't want to cut you off, but I also don't have any personal interest in talking about what oxytocin COULD do or how it MIGHT work in a given person's body. Even writing this piece put me to sleep about a gazillion times. As I think I made clear, my concern was with so many authoritative claims of what it DOES do which, so far as I can find, are unsunstantiated.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

Okay. Just thought this was interesting. Just two questions. Did you talk to\ask any doctors about oxytocin? If you're doctor told you that it was the chemical most important for bodning and attachment would you believe him? Thanks for your time.

I'm sure it is interesting to some folks, I'm just not one of them. :)

I've brought it up with a few in conversation and the unilateral response was either, "Oxy-what?" or the bemused shaking of heads.

If a doctor told me that one chemical was most important for bonding and attachment, the first question I'd ask him or her is where they were getting that information and I'd ask for resources. Same as I would if a doctor told me I had a given illness or condition. I grew up in and around healthcare, and have worked in sexuality for going on 13 years now, and was in early child education for years before that. In my experience and my own education, I know bonding and attachment to be very diverse and clearly influenced by a lot of things, so a supposition like that would so surprise me, based both on what I already know and fly so much in the face of what else I have observed and studied around these issues, that for that reasons, and because I'm also an educated patient, I'd want to see where they were getting this from and have them fill me in on their rationale for that conclusion.

I also have worked in this field long enough to know that many medical schools don't provide education in human sexuality at all, and those who do often offer a very short, substandard course. I've taken part in providing some of that education to doctors and clinicians myself. So, a doctor saying something about sexuality doesn't carry a lot of weight with me just because they're a doctor, especially if their doctorate and practice isn't even in the area they're talking about.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col

I don't know if my 2¢ might be taken as any more reliable than Heather's - I have precisely the same agenda and have precisely the same point of view, though I do actually frickin' LOVE the sciencey stuff. I'm amazed, Heather, that you did such an outstandingly high quality literature review if you hate doing it! It was a joy to read, but next time spare yourself the suffering - ask me and I'll take on the task with pleasure!

Anyway, not that long ago I wrote a much shorter blog post about the interrelationships between OT, dopamine, and prolactin. The short version is: no, it's really much, MUCH more complicated than that. Google "phenotypic plasticity." That's a good place to start in trying to understand how OT impacts human behavioral neuroendocrinology.

As a big ol' sex nerd, I can say that Heather is completely and totally 100% right. OT does stuff, important and interesting stuff with attachment and sex. And we don't really have a clear idea what that stuff is. Yet.

I might add that it SERIOUSLY pisses me off when people of any political persuasion misuse science. But what we've got here in Heather's post is some SUPERBLY precise critical thinking and logical application of the evidence.

Emily Nagoski

For those of you who want the science without the journal articles, please see my book, The Chemistry of Connection. It's based on both peer-reviewed studies and interviews with top scientists including Sue Carter and Paul Zak, and it lays out in simple, readable language not only how oxytocin can influences love, bonding and sex, but also explains how the oxytocin response -- and the way we love -- develops after we're born, in response to the way we're mothered and other early experiences.

Heather, here's a sad but interesting video


The reporter mentions vegetables and cattle. Appearantly oxytocin is used to make them grow faster and/or bigger? Unfortunately it is also being injected into children. Now, the reporter says oxytocin is included in the mix of what is injected in these girls to make them mature faster so they can be pimped out. However, I wonder if what it's really used for is to make these girls feel "bonded" to their slave masters?

Thanks for doing the research and the collation - it's great for this to be presented so accessibly and frankly, not least because it's so easy to use long scientific words and bad pseudoscience to push any agenda. Yay :)
- Ludi (Cambridge, UK)