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How Does Hooking Up Affect Your Brain?

We’ve all heard the terms “hooking-up,” “one-night stand,” and “friends with benefits.” Our favorite shows constantly play on this theme, whether it’s The Bachelor hooking up with multiple women in the search for the one, Samantha’s conquests on Sex and the City, or medieval sexual encounters on Game of Thrones. As viewers we eat this stuff up, but how does the hook-up culture affect us as real people? And how common is sleeping with a total stranger, particularly on a college campus like Virginia Tech or Radford University?


Pretty common actually. A study in The Journal of Sex Research found that 78% of the students surveyed had engaged in an uncommitted hook-up with someone in the past, and a third had hooked up with a total stranger or very brief acquaintance. The study found those who had hooked up more frequently drank alcohol as part of the experience. Perhaps the more surprising finding was that the non-hooker-uppers reported much higher self-esteem and experienced more “secure attachments.”

Similarly, a study of 4,000 college students by Melina Bersamin and her team found that 11% of those sampled reported hooking up in the past 30 days. The researchers looked at the psychological health of the students and found some fascinating conclusions. The students who had recent casual sex reported lower levels of self-esteem and happiness. They also reported higher levels of anxiety and depression!

So what’s going on here? If casual sex feels good and is generally supported by our culture as a normal activity, why do people often walk away from a steamy encounter feeling less satisfied? There are many studies on this topic, but one biological explanation involves the way these encounters affect our brains. Namely, we seem to be anatomically wired to be monogamous and loyal to one person.


The reason is that our brains release various chemicals during sex and other intimate gestures like hugging that are meant to bond us together. One of the major ones is called oxytocin, often dubbed the “love hormone.” Oxytocin is widely believed to be a large contributor to interpersonal attachment, whether it’s between a new mom and her baby or between romantic partners. Both women and men release oxytocin during sex and males also release vasopressin. Vasopressin can be thought of as the “protection hormone.” It makes men want to protect their partners and keep other suitors away.

Along these lines, in one recent study, men were asked to look at pictures of various attractive women including their partners. Some of the men were given doses of oxytocin and some a placebo. The brains of those with oxytocin lit up in the reward and pleasure centers when they saw their partners’ faces but were turned off by the other women. However, this bias toward existing romantic partners was not seen in the placebo group. Studies of these chemicals and their bonding power suggest that the longer a couple stays together and is intimate, the stronger their bond will be.

But this chemical bonding also carries with it a warning. If we aren’t careful, the chemicals in our brains may override our judgment. Dr. Breuning, professor emerita at California State University, cautions that after having sex, a woman may feel like she’s found the one. However, he says, “Despite those initial feelings, it does not necessarily mean that the person is trustworthy. The perception you have at the moment is an illusion you create about the person that may or may not fit what happens next.”


So despite the thrill of hooking up, casual sex is kind of like a ‘bait and switch’ for our brains. The brain says, hey, I’ve found what I’ve been looking for – I’m in love! But when we don’t continue to build that bond and the oxytocin drops off, we find ourselves feeling confused or even sad.

The truth is, we all long for love and connection, and there is tremendous pressure on us to be sexually active (especially on college campuses). But biology doesn’t lie; we confound our brains when we participate in intimate behaviors with people we’ve just met. So if you aren’t positive that he is the one, maybe the hook-up isn’t in your best interest. Instead invite him over to watch Mad Men and eat popcorn – then kiss him goodnight and give your relationship time to grow.

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