I’m someone who doesn’t do drugs or drink alcohol for a variety of reasons, the most important to me being so that I’m as “true to myself” as possible. By that, I mean that I do not want to do actions that I wouldn’t do sober (and might regret or might not identify with), or having my appreciation of people or things altered (ie. finding a person annoying just because of my state of mind, or finding a movie way funnier than I would normally do, and so on) or misremembering them. I want to say that I appreciate something and recommend it genuinely, and not just because I was intoxicated at the time I experienced it.
There is a movement for people who do not consume psychotropic drugs for self-control and “authenticity”: straight-edge people. So their motivations vary and some are drastically opposed to my values, but at its core these people share similar goals to me. This is relevant to know only in that one of the things some of them do avoid is promiscuous sex (and sometimes more specifically premarital sex, but I don’t see any strong reason backing this). I brushed it off at first, not seeing how sex could really go against my quest of being true to myself. But it was still on the back of my mind.
I stumbled upon a post on a polyamory group on Facebook asking people if oxytocin (which is produced when having all kinds of physical contacts, like hugging or kissing) could lead to some bad trips or other negative effects similar to drugs.
First things first, people in the comments debunked the idea I had (and that others might have) that hormones produced from physical affection are very different from the effects of drugs since they’re generated naturally, and therefore non-threatening (I know, naive, but eh). Turns out that their mechanisms are closer than what I thought:
“Yes, oxytocin and other hormones released during hugs/sex have a similar effect to drugs. Actually, most drugs don’t add anything into your body but will simply increase/activate or affect hormones naturally present, which will give you an altered state of mind. It’s therefore exactly the same for hugs/sex and other practices which release these hormones (there’s a pretty long list, and it’s not just for oxytocin). It’s even possible to rely on some practices without substances involved to activate a trance state similar to the experience of taking MD or LSD. As with substance uses, we can live a “drop” after a big hormones high [induced by hugs/sex]. (For context, let me specify that I’m a therapist in somatic treatment)“ ^Rough translation of one of the comments
So I knew about the drop, but the rest was all new to me. Now this doesn’t prove by itself that I should be cautious about physical intimacy.
Another more worrying comment mentioned that oxytocin has the side-effect of fostering our in-group / out-group mentality. The person linked an article on it, which is backed by several studies. 
The key points of the article are the following (found under the section “THE PROMISE OF ADMINISTERING OXYTOCIN FAR AND WIDE”):
“[O]xytocin promotes pro-social behavior in a variety of ways. In both laboratory experiments and naturalistic settings, it makes people more trusting, forgiving, empathic and charitable. It improves the accuracy of reading people’s emotions. Moreover, oxytocin makes people more responsive to social cues and social feedback”
“Excellent recent work has shown that oxytocin does indeed promote pro-social behavior, but crucially, only toward in-group members. In contrast, when dealing with out-group members or strangers, oxytocin’s effects are the opposite. In such settings, the hormone decreases trust, and enhances envy and gloating for the successes and failures, respectively, of the out-group member. Moreover, the hormone makes people more pre-emptively aggressive to out-group members, and enhances unconscious biases toward them (De Dreu et al., 2011a,b; De Dreu, 2012). [...] [W]hat it does is worsen Us/Them dichotomies, enhancing in-group parochialism as well as outgroup xenophobia.”
From the first excerpt, it feels like more effects are desirable (being responsive to social feedback, making people more empathic…). I would rather not be more trusting and forgiving because of it, as I’d rather have my trust and forgiveness earned differently and that misplaced trust can be harmful, but it doesn’t sound too alarming and it would seem the benefits outweigh the costs.
The second excerpt does sound more negative. To what extent does it affect me and how much should I avoid it, I don’t know.
There is also a second reason for worrying about the hormonal effects of physical intimacy. This thread reminded me of an old article I read about a year ago on hormones and their role in keeping us in a bad relationship: The Real Reason Why We Love Bad Boys, Toxic Partners and Emotionally Unavailable Men
The key points are that:
- It releases dopamine, and when intermittent (as with unavailable partners who might lead us on), it’s even more addicting
- The oxytocin it releases makes us bond with our partner and trust them more, more alarmingly “when oxytocin is involved, betrayal does not necessarily have an effect on how much a person continues to invest in the person who betrayed him or her.”
- Cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine “work together to consolidate and reconsolidate fear-based memories. So your fears and anxiety about abandonment by this partner, combined with your physical intimacy with that partner make memories related to this partner more vivid and more difficult to extricate yourself from.”
- It drops our levels of serotonin, the hormone that “regulates and stabilizes mood, curbing obsessive thinking [...]; low levels of it when we’re romantically involved with someone can cause our decision-making abilities and judgment to go haywire.” It has a positive feedback loop since serotonin also encourages sexual behaviour.
Note that these effects are stronger within people who produce predominantly oestrogen over testosterone, but everyone is affected by them.
Even if you do not worry about ever finding yourself in a toxic relationship, I do think it’s important to consider how these hormones affect us, and how they do distort some of our memories, give us an elevated opinion of someone and even make us addicted in some cases. I think it can also keep us in a relationship where we are unhappy or not truly fulfilled, and even when the relationship isn’t as bad as a toxic one, I don’t think that’s a desirable position. Relationships and sex can take up a lot of your time and energy, so I think it’s good to reflect on them sometimes to see if they’re worth it (which can be hard to do when you’re under the influence of the hormones they make you produce).
I’m still unsure what conclusions to draw from all of this. I think it is sensible to try to avoid romantic relationships where the desired person is unavailable and not able to commit in the way we wish they would (especially when they’re leading you on and making you believe they’ll “soon” be available; it’s sometimes dishonest), as it does seem to lead often to addiction. It’s obviously more easily said than done.
We might also want to refrain from sex in some situations, for example when we’re in a more tense period with our partner, in order to really reflect on whether or not we want to stay in this relationship without having our judgment impaired.
I know I’ve personally been thinking of a rule for a while where I wouldn’t sleep with someone I’m considering getting romantically involved with before a certain amount of time (the time I had in mind was a month, maybe two, but it might be longer if I don’t see the person every week). The drawback with that being that there might be people I sleep with that I think at first I won’t want to get romantically involved with, but with which I discover later on I’d actually want to. This didn’t ever really happen to me, and I think I have a pretty good model of what kind of people I want as partners, but I still think it’s a possibility.
Maybe one should refrain from having sex in other situations, always for the purpose of self-control and not altering their judgment. Maybe a periodic moment where you refrain from having sex with any given partner just to reflect on your relationship with them would help? (Like 2 weeks every season, or whatever). Or identifying moments of vulnerability where one should abstain from the huge rush of hormones that come with sexual activity (and the addiction that could ensue)? And what about extending those rules to kissing and hugging?
All that to say I don’t have a definite answer on how harmful physical intimacy can be, and what should be done about it, but it’s definitely something worth thinking about for ourselves.
When I refer to physical intimacy, I always speak in broad terms of anything affective and physical (holding hands, kissing, hugging, sex, and so on). I never use it as a simple euphemism for sex like many people seem to do. ↩︎
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6306482/pdf/fpsyg-09-02625.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0bGTRjo_Uh5PUnwnOiY9_ZLnoAjSev_Y4O05wmaISbUPvTz_Nq8PpOLvU Three studies are linked in the article (note that only the third one is fully available for free; it does include all the process behind the study, and I appreciate the transparency): Oxytocin modulates cooperation within and competition between groups: An integrative review and research agenda https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0018506X11002868?via%3Dihub The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans https://science.sciencemag.org/content/328/5984/1408 Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism https://thoughtcatalog.com/shahida-arabi/2016/05/the-real-reason-why-we-love-bad-boys-toxic-partners-and-emotionally-unavailable-men/ ↩︎