Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Synopsis on Sex and Intimacy

I have received several requests for the information I included in a post I wrote some time ago about sex and ministry. So, back by popular demand, the following is a synopsis of what I learned about sex, pornography use, masturbation (self stim), and sexual addiction during my graduate studies in counseling.

The Thing About Sex

There are two primary chemicals released in the frontal cortex of the brain during sex: Oxytocin and Dopamine. Oxytocin is the "peace" chemical created by and in attached, intimate (committed) relationships (it takes at least six months for Oxytocin to reach the attachment levels to match the Dopamine released during sexual activity). Dopamine is the "high" that is also, coincidentally, highly acidic.  Oxytocin bonds with Dopamine, neutralizing its acidic properties so that the two together create pleasure and a sense of well-being, promote mental health, and provide all of the benefits associated with sex. However, without the right amount of Oxytocin, Dopamine floods the brain like heroine, creating one of the most addictive highs known to humankind, while its acidic properties literally eat away the brain tissue.  When it drains from the system, it leaves the brain in a state of imbalance experienced as a "crash," or depression, from which it takes 10 days to return to a normal chemical balance.  A that point, however, normal no longer feels like normal both because of the addictive high and because, over time, one starts to suffer from brain damage as measurable crevasses and holes are eaten into the frontal cortex.

What that means is sexual stimulation outside of a committed, attached, intimate relationship does not produce enough Oxytocin to balance Dopamine levels.
 In other words,
casual sex & pornography use ... literally destroys brain tissue. 

The worst part: It destroys the part of the brain where personality and impulse control are managed.  So not only does one become addicted to the Dopamine high and anhedonic when brain chemistry is actually "normal," but the part of the brain that helps one control one's impulses is damaged, making it more and more difficult to manage one's emotions and delay gratification.  Incidentally, this is also the section of the brain that facilitates our ability to understand the difference between right and wrong and to create intimate relationships, connection, and attachment.

And people think that it's not hurting anyone?!? Not only does this create addiction (eg. reaching out to a "substance" to feel better, only to feel worse and need more of the "substance" to feel better again) but it literally changes one's personality and thinking over time, destroys impulse control, isolates and then erodes the ability to foster and create the intimacy and connection one needs to be human - to survive. It is not just that pornography objectifies people, it is that it fosters the process of disconnecting and dehumanizing self, others, and relationship physiologically in the brain.

Suddenly, Paul's words "everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial" seem particularly pertinent. It is not a question of what is sin and what isn't. It is not a question of "how far" one can go. It is a matter of that which creates or destroys life in the body, in relationships, in the spirit. This is why accepting, understanding, and stewarding our sexuality is so vital to us as human beings. This is why it isn't just about marriage, too, because destructive, addictive sexuality occurs in marriage all the time, with heart-breaking consequences.

The Good News

The damage caused by sexual addiction is one of the only kinds of brain damage that can actually be undone.  The frontal cortex and what is called the "joy center" of the brain is one of the few parts that be stimulated to growth throughout life.  The way to promote healing? Intimate relationships! Healthy, attached, intimate relationships stimulate the growth and development of the frontal cortex. This is how babies grow and develop - and another reason why relationship - family, community, the church - is so important to us as human beings from the cradle to the grave. This is part of the reason why recovery groups work - they facilitate authenticity, vulnerability, accountability, knowing and being known - they facilitate the creation of real connection and intimacy (ideally). In fact, the 12 Steps reconstruct one's ability to build relationship, among many other amazing things. But recovery is a process. It is vital to stop the damage by "sobering up" so that the brain can recuperate and heal, and you can learn how to love and be loved again (or perhaps for the first time). That is why recovery from sexual addiction calls for sexual abstinence even in marriage! Abstinence creates the needed environment to begin physiological, emotional, and relational recovery, which is why I believe sexual stewardship starts when you are single.

You can find additional discussions about sexuality and being single here.