Sex means different things to different people. And whatever it means to one person isn’t necessarily constant, either. It can mean different things at different points in life, or even from one day to the next as we grow as people and are affected by a myriad of different things going on in our lives. It’s all perfectly normal.
We all grew up with certain expectations and assumptions about our emotional responses to sex and why they happen. Here are some facts to help you navigate the emotional waters. And to dispel some myths that continue to persist.
1. Gender has nothing to do with your emotional response to sex
Most of us have grown up being told that women are at the mercy of their roller-coaster emotions; while men are firmly in control of the few emotions they have. These (wrong) ideas have deep roots, but humans are much more complex than that.
There have been some studies to suggest that women in western countries are more expressive about emotions. These studies also suggest men have the same or greater physiological response to emotional stressors. This means that both women and men feel the same emotions, but that women are often more willing to express them, while men are not – even though this may have more of a physiological impact on their lives.
This difference could be due to the influence of the culture in which we live. Maybe we’ve simply been acting on what we have been told is acceptable as we grew up. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the cultural gender stereotypes that we grew up with are correct or even helpful when it comes to sex and emotions
These days, there is a trend for people to be less inclined to conform to simple gender stereotypes in every day life. Let’s take this to sex too.
Whatever your gender and whether you openly express it or not, your emotional response to sex is uniquely yours.
2. Some people need an emotional attraction in order to experience physical attraction
Do you need to feel some level of emotional attraction before any thought of sex enters your mind? If that sounds like you, you’re not alone.
Maybe you are someone who needs to connect on a spiritual level. Maybe it’s their mind, or the fact that you share some basic philosophies of life. Perhaps you felt that first twinge of attraction when they made you laugh until you cried. Or it’s a case of je ne sais quoi — that certain something you just can’t put into words, but you know it when it happens.
If any of these sound like you, you are someone who is seeks intimacy. Once your feelings are in the zone, and you’ve made an emotional connection, you may begin to feel physical arousal. Outside of that zone, you’re just not that into sex.
You’re more about making love. Having that deep connection with someone. Not just sex for the fun of it. There is no need for you to feel like you need to be ready to have sex with anyone, just because media tends to say you do.
3. Some people find that acting on physical attraction can create emotional attraction
Some people are physically drawn together like magnets. There’s a chemical reaction, a hunger, a purely physical craving for getting physical with another person. It is desire in its raw form, plain and simple.
When the chemistry between people is just right, getting physical can grow into so much more.
A 2012 retrospective review found two areas of the brain that track the progression from sexual desire to love. One is the insula. It’s located in the cerebral cortex.
The other is the striatum. It’s located inside the forebrain. Interestingly, the striatum is also associated with drug addiction. Love and sexual desire activate different parts of the striatum.
Sex and food activate the desire part. The process of conditioning — of reward and value — activates the love part.
As sexual desire is rewarded, it becomes a bit of a habit, which can lead you right down the path to love.
As feelings of desire start to turn into love, then another area of the striatum takes over.
4. Some people find that emotional and physical attraction operate in two entirely different vacuums
People are intricate creatures with many layers.
For some, there are clear dividing lines between emotional attraction and physical attraction. They don’t necessarily come together.
You might be emotionally attracted to someone without having the slightest sexual urge. Or you have a mind-blowing physical attraction for someone who doesn’t really do it for you emotionally.
Even in long-term relationships, people can alternate between making love and having sex — or forgoing sexual activity entirely (mutually agreed)— and that’s OK.
5. Sex and emotion affect the same pathways in the brain
A 2018 study suggests close links between sexual, emotional, and reproductive brain processes, having to do with the endocrine (hormones) system and, in particular, a hormone called kisspeptin.
According to a Tufts University neuroscience blog, sexual arousal doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but in a context. It involves cognitive, physiological, and neurological processes, all of which include and are influenced by emotion. This is another reason why if you are having difficulty with arousal and desire it is important to reach out to a qualified sex therapist who understands these connections.
6. Most people experience very similar emotions during sexual activity and release
Some positive ones are:
- total release
- relaxation and calm
Depending on the circumstances, you might have some less than positive emotions, such as:
- feeling physically or emotionally overwhelmed
If you have postcoital dysphoria, you might even feel sad, anxious, or tearful after sex.
7. Sexual arousal can turn off parts of the prefrontal cortex
We don’t always recognise it when it’s happening to us, but it’s obvious in hindsight. It’s not the stuff of science fiction or fantasy. Getting “sex drunk” is very real.
Sexual arousal can deactivate parts of the brain that help you think critically and behave like a rational human being.
Yes, you actually take leave of your senses!
Good judgement and reasoning are lost to sexual desire, swept away in the excitement of it all.
When you snap back to reality, you might wonder, with a tinge of regret or embarrassment, what you were thinking. The truth is that you probably weren’t. And it’s not your fault. That doesn’t mean that it excuses any kind of abusive or non consensual behaviour. Your brain isn’t turned off THAT much.
It means that when you are aroused your inhibitions tends to decrease.
8. Oxytocin dependency is real
Oxytocin, also known as the cuddle or love hormone, is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus, which opens the floodgates when you have sex.
That rush of oxytocin is involved in the physical part of sex. It boosts emotions like love, affection, and euphoria. Alas, you can become hooked on the feeling or outright enthusiastic about love.
Oxytocin keeps you coming back for more. Even when you know it’s a bad idea. It takes about 3 days for oxytocin levels to return to normal levels after orgasm. Tis is why it is a good idea to wait a few days after having sex with someone before you decide that you are in love with them. It might just be the oxytocin talking.
9. Separating sex and emotion
There are any number of reasons why you might want to compartmentalise sex and emotion. As you saw in point 3, it can be difficult in the long-run because of basic biological processes.
It’s a good idea to explore your motivation to compartmentalise, and possibly see a sex therapist, so you can deal with any unresolved issues and make sure your decision is coming from a healthy space. In any case, there’s no right or wrong here. You’re not locked into one way of being for the rest of your life.
If you’re looking for a casual relationship or a “friends with benefits” situation, here is an ethicalway to go about it:
- First and foremost, be honest with the other person.
- Talk about what you’re willing — and unwilling — to give physically and emotionally, along with what you expect in return.
- Discuss birth control and safe sex practices.
- Work together in establishing rules to avoid getting overly attached or dependent on each other.
- Talk about what you’ll do if one of you starts to want something more (because it is likely that it will happen).
Keep in mind that whatever your plan or however careful you may be, feelings can crop up anyway for either one of you. Emotions are funny that way.
10. Deepening the relationship between sex and emotion
Despite the hormones and biology of it all, maybe you need something to help deepen the bond.
Here are some ways to get started:
- Don’t let physical intimacy become an afterthought, a thing you do as time permits. Schedule it. Make a date. Give it top priority.
- Incorporate affectionate touch throughout the day. Hold hands. Stroke an arm. Hug. Cuddle up. Give each other a massage. Touch doesn’t necessarily have to lead to sex right away. A little anticipation goes a long way.
- Let your guard down. Be emotionally vulnerable and available for each other. Be their person.
- Kiss. Really kiss. And take your time about it.
- Communicate your emotions. Say “I love you” if that’s how you feel.
- What turns you on? Candlelight, sensual music, a long soak in a hot tub? Whatever it is, take the time to set the stage and get in the mood.
- Really be there in the moment with this person who wants to be in the moment with you. Let there be nothing else. And by all means, turn off the TV and cell phone during your time together.
- See a sex therapist together (or individually) to help you find the best ways to deepen your connection
We all live with a complex emotional landscape inside of us, and this landscape in intricately connected to sex. For everyone. No matter what you grew up being taught, all genders get emotional about sex. Our job is to be responsible with our own, and our partner’s emotions. Be honest. Be yourself. Have a sex life that you enjoy.