There are few shows that I enjoy (and quote) more than Scrubs. Just ask my friends. More sentences have been started with, “It’s like that episode of Scrubs…” than any other phrase. There isn’t a life situation that I can’t relate back to one episode or another.
This week, though, the association went the other way around: while watching an episode, I was struck by something I had learned last year in my marriage and family class.
The episode is entitled, “My Sex Buddy,” and I’m sure you can guess what it was about. While going through a rough patch in each of their lives, two of the main characters find themselves in bed with one another to ease the pain. The next morning when they wake up, they’re both terribly embarrassed. Besides the fact that the same thing had happened in the previous season, starting a relationship that barely lasted an episode, they just know they’ve made a terrible mistake when they look at one another… Until one of them decides that it wasn’t a mistake at all. “I guess we could be sex buddies,” she says. And so the episode goes. Vowing to sever emotion from sex, the two seek each other out whenever they’re stressed, excited or just bored. Sex is a game, an adventure, an event to pass the time. There’s no need to get bogged down in emotions or commitments. “It’s just sex,” she says. This, her male counterpart thinks, is “what every man wants to hear.”
But despite the warnings of another lead character against the arrangement, the situation ends poorly. One of the characters finds himself unable to separate his emotions from the sexual encounters and is left hurt by the rejection of the other; the other character, continuing her normal trend established in previous episodes, seems unaffected by the situation but struggles to find happiness in her relationships. Both characters, until the final season of the show, exhibit incredible difficulty committing in a relationship.
While just a typical television sitcom, what these characters go through is exactly what scientific evidence has suggested in recent years and what was a topic of discussion in our Marriage and Family class. You see, besides obvious increased risk of unwanted pregnancy, STIs, and feelings of shame and lower self-esteem (more likely among women than men), casual sex can drastically mess with one’s brain chemistry. Aside from producing dopamine, a chemical in the brain that produces pleasure in the similar way that intense exercise and synthetic drugs do, sex also exposes the brain to oxytocin, a hormone intrinsically related to social distance between people. Increasing one’s disposition to trust, become attracted to another, and willingly raise children (oxytocin is produced in women while breastfeeding), oxytocin is a medical explanation of love and commitment.
What do we make of this? Some in today’s world look to this as a way to argue for greater promiscuity and experimentation, as it will inevitably lead to creating lasting bonds. Test out sexual encounters with many people until the bond is created, they say. Unfortunately, this is incorrect. While there have been noted potential benefits of sexual encounters in general, ranging from higher confidence to better test scores, casual sexual encounters actually hurt one’s ability to create lasting bonds. Even though we are biologically disposed to create bonds and sex helps facilitate that, research is showing now that repeated casual encounters that attempt to sever emotional attachment from sexual activity, tied with continued cycles of sexual encounters that eventually lead to break up and loss, trains the brain to suppress the effects of bonding. In other words, “hookups” actively fight against our natural tendencies to be together until people are biologically disposed not to bond; hookups challenge one’s ability to commit.
So what, you say? Anonymous sex is exciting, mysterious! It makes me feel alive! And for many people researched, it is. At first. But as one severs the emotional attachment from the encounter, two very big problems have begun to occur in many people: 1) the lack of communication or relationship has led to an entirely physical focus, actually diminishing the pleasurability of the act over time because emotion is such a powerful part of the experience, producing 2) a desire or need for increased number of encounters to achieve the same experience, essentially creating an addiction to the release of dopamine rather than a fulfilling, healthy experience. Together with the ease of access of internet pornography, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy estimates that 12 million people in the United States experience some level of addiction, while incalculable number experience greater difficult achieving intimacy in their relationships. This is not just a problem, this is an epidemic.
So, why does the celibate man choose to discuss such a topic so close to Valentine’s Day? Might he be a bit jealous or repressed, simply wanting an opportunity to seem morally superior and in control?
I assure you that this is not the case and that I am by no means morally superior to any of you. This is not a condemnation of anyone or an exaltation of myself. We all have our sins and vices, past and present, and we should never forget that.
In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure why I write this today. Maybe it’s because the issue is so prevalent in our lives and I don’t find enough intelligent conversations. Maybe it’s because I see so much pain in people and want them to have a fuller experience. Maybe its just because I found the science interesting and wanted to share it. Who knows.
What I do know, though, is that sex is everywhere in our culture. It’s the topic of our conversations, jokes, entertainment, and advertisements. Everywhere we look we are bombarded with messages of sex. Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, I imagine many of us like that too. Sexual desire is a strong desire in humans, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Too often the Church is branded as anti-sex or prudish; the very notion that a friar is writing this may seem odd or scandalous to many. The fact of the matter is that the Church loves sex, sees it as a wonderful gift from God, and wants people to enjoy it to its fullest. Sex can be an act of prayer, an experience of the transcendent God. What else can one do to produce life? It’s a mystery, a wonder in our eyes.
Or, at least it can be.
And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe that’s why I chose to write today: the wonderful gift that God has given us is too often tread upon, neglected, or misused. The fact that our culture gives sex so much prominence and attention isn’t what bothers me, it’s that it strips it of so much of what makes it so wonderful. It isolates one aspect of the experience and manipulates it for the greatest gain, leading so many to believe that “hooking up” is the height of excitement and pleasure. But it’s not. The Church is not prudish or repressed when it calls people to commitment, relationship, and life, it is simply calling everyone to realize that there’s so much more to sex than simply hooking up.
It’s like that episode of Scrubs.