Pharyngula

Clearly, Bush is not going to drift quietly into oblivion. Majikthise and Feministing report that his administration is appointing a certifiable kook to run the federal program that oversees family planning and reproductive health. His qualifications seem to be that he’s fanatical about abstinence, to the point of making stuff up.

At the Annual Abstinence Leadership Conference in Kansas, Keroack defended abstinence (in an aptly titled talk, “If I Only Had a Brain”) by claiming that sex causes people to go through oxytocin withdrawal which in turn prevents people from bonding in relationships. Seriously.

[Keroack] explained that oxytocin is released during positive social interaction, massage, hugs, “trust” encounters, and sexual intercourse. “It promotes bonding by reducing fear and anxiety in social settings, increasing trust and trustworthiness, reducing stress and pain, and decreasing social aggression,” he said.

But apparently if you’ve had sex with too many people you use up all that oxytocin: “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.” Hear that? Too many sexual partners and you’ll never love again!

I know that oxytocin is thought to have a strong role in bonding, is triggered for secretion in many situations—sex, labor, lactation, etc.—but these claims that you can have permanent depletion of oxytocin levels by too much sex? Never heard of that. I hit the physiology texts in my office; no support. I tried the online databases, and hoo-boy is there a lot of stuff on oxytocin; but nothing I could find to support those claims. Keroack doesn’t seem to have published anything on this subject in the peer-reviewed literature, either—the only source cited for it is something called “A Special Report from the Abstinence Medical Council”. Strangely, the only instances Google turns up of this “Abstinence Medical Council” is as the publisher of this report, and as a part of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, run by Leslee Unruh, unqualified hack (and also organizer of creepy “purity balls”). I think I’m right to suspect the source is ginned-up propaganda for a quack organization.

So there isn’t any evidence for his claims. Is it logical? Oxytocin has complicated and sometimes conflicting effects, so it would be awfully hard to pin down any clear consequences of multiple partners on pair bonding without lots of data, but on the face of it, no, none of what he says makes much sense.

Emotional pain causes our bodies to produce an elevated level of endorphins which in turn lowers the level of oxytocin. Therefore, relationship failure leads to pain which leads to elevated endorphins which leads to lower oxytocin the result of which is a lower ability to bond. Many in this increased state of emotional pain and lower oxytocin seek sex as a substitute for love which inevitably leads to another failed relationship, and so, the cycle continues.

But sex increases oxytocin levels! If he’s postulating that lower oxytocin levels are causal in relationship problems (I’m going with the flow, OK? I don’t buy into the simple chemical explanation of complex relationships myself), then it seems to me that lots of mindless sex would be the corrective prescription.

But then he’s postulating some kind of mysterious depletion or desensitization if you get too much oxytocin. That doesn’t make much sense either, because women are going to get their biggest surges of oxytocin when 1) they go into labor, and 2) they lactate. If ODing on oxytocin diminishes one’s ability to form a permanent bond, then shouldn’t childbirth be a major cause of divorce? There are also oxytocin surges in both men and women during orgasm. Does he also counsel married couples to avoid too much sex? How much is too much? How would he know?

Yeah, he’s waving his hands about interactions between endorphins and oxytocin, but seriously: he’s got no evidence for what he’s claiming, and it doesn’t make sense to claim that brain chemistry on that level senses whether you’ve had sex 10 times with one person or one time each with ten people. He’s making it up as he goes along.

This guy is simply not credible. It looks to me like the Bush administration is trying to throw a sop to the religious right after the defeat of the South Dakota abortion ban by appointing a reliable ideologue with connections to the insane Unruh anti-abortion/abstinence machine to a position where he can interfere with women’s reproductive health. Let’s hope the Democrats will show some spine and squelch this continued nonsense of using fake science to support bad policy.

Comments

  1. #1 Danniel
    November 23, 2008

    “If ODing on oxytocin diminishes one’s ability to form a permanent bond, then shouldn’t childbirth be a major cause of divorce?”

    I’m by no means trying to support the whole notion but regarding to it specifically, somewhat related:

    “In Daniel Gilbert’s 2006 book “Stumbling on Happiness,” the Harvard professor of psychology looks at several studies and concludes that marital satisfaction decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child–and increases only when the last child has left home. He also ascertains that parents are happier grocery shopping and even sleeping than spending time with their kids. Other data cited by 2008′s “Gross National Happiness” author, Arthur C. Brooks, finds that parents are about 7 percentage points less likely to report being happy than the childless.”

    I don’t know if it has anything to do with oxytocin.

    I’m not pro-abstinence, pro-traditional families, anti-abortion or anything, but I don’t see profound problems with the basic idea that for people to whom sex is something more banal it would not create as strong bonds as those it may create among people who hold that sex is something “special”, that should happen only between “special people”.

    I would not go as far as to propose this hormonal mechanism since I don’t really know enough about it. And perhaps could be that in fact there’s an inverted arrow of causation, like who are less prone to bonding tending to find sex something less special and to have sex more often rather than only with special people. Which one could try to explain both as an innate tendency or something more significantly developed by experience. My gut feeling is that these sort of things are mostly developed, but perhaps it has some considerable genetic component. Either way, I guess it would have something to do with oxytocin at some point, but I can’t make a better educated guess on how it could work.

  2. #2 Danniel
    November 23, 2008

    I’m not reading any of these comments written only with consonants for some obscure reason. What you people have against vowels?