There are a number of hormones that affect different aspects of our sexuality — from sexual development to reproduction to sex drive and feelings of closeness after sex. These hormones are slightly different between men and women. Too often, these differences get exaggerated, which can lead to questions like, “Do guys have estrogen?” or “Oxytocin is why women are so interested in relationships, right?” This week “Doin’ It Well” wanted to simplify the facts, dispel the myths and answer your questions about your raging hormones.
Estrogen and testosterone are produced by both women and men, although, as most people know, women usually have higher levels of estrogen, men higher levels of testosterone. These hormones assist in the development of secondary sex characteristics (such as pubic or facial hair, breast development or deepening of the voice). In addition, estrogen has many functions that affect the menstrual cycle, and testosterone is connected to sexual drive. It’s important to remember that just because men have higher levels of testosterone, it doesn’t mean they biologically have higher sex drives than women. It could be that women do not need as much testosterone to get the same effect from the hormone.
Men Want to Cuddle
Recent research has touted oxytocin and vasopressin as pair-bonding hormones, but these hormones have many different functions. Oxytocin has best been known for its role in reproduction; it is released during labor and breastfeeding. And vasopressin regulates the body’s retention of water. But research has identified the role of both oxytocin and vasopressin in social behaviors that affect aspects of sexuality: feelings of bonding, trust, security, sexual response, empathy and closeness to a sexual partner. These hormones are very similar and released during sexual response, although their complex role is not definitive.
While the effects of these hormones are found to be similar in both sexes, more research has been done on women. Media outlets tend to highlight the “cuddle” hormone as it relates to women, not men. This leads to misinformation and misunderstanding. Jo heard a representative from the Catholic faith inaccurately tell a group of college students that masturbation could cause oxytocin — which they defined as our conduit for bonding and intimacy — to “run out,” since our bodies only produce a finite amount. This is definitely not founded in science! Both of these are not-so-subtle attempts to control or shape our sexuality by framing these suggestions as “natural” or “biological.”
While it’s great to understand our biology and how hormones affect us, we have to be sure not to lose sight of the nature vs. nurture phenomenon. Both of us have certainly talked to men who had very low sex drives, but with normal levels of testosterone. Conversely, we’ve known plenty of women who have fulfilling sex but aren’t in the mood to curl up and whisper sweet nothings into their partner’s ear after orgasm. Socialization, hormones and other conditions that affect our mental state (depression, anxiety, etc.) also have an effect on our sexuality.
In a nutshell, our sexuality is a complex combination of biological, social, spiritual, physical, cultural and interpersonal factors (and we may have missed some). Understanding these various influences gives us greater understanding of who we are as sexual beings. We must also keep in mind that, while science categorizes and generalizes, at the end of the day we’re all individuals, and our sexual lives are as unique as other aspects of who we are. This reminds us to learn about and enjoy ourselves and our partner(s), recognizing that who we are sexually may be very different from what we expect! This does not make us strange or different, just human.
In our last column, “Witholding Withdrawal,” in the May 27 issue of buzz, we mistakenly described the rhythm method of birth control as including taking body temperature and tracking cervical mucous. We should have written “fertility awareness methods” instead. The rhythm method traditionally only utilizes calendar days to predict ovulation, while fertility awareness methods incorporate tracking multiple body signs to determine when a women is most fertile. Thank you to our awesome reader, Tasha, for pointing this out!
Check us out next week as we answer another reader question about pegging.
Speak UP is a lesbian, bisexual, transgender, feminist, ally women’s poetry and spoken word group sponsored by The UP Center. Join them to hone your writing skills in a safe, supportive environment. Whether you’re a published writer or you’ve never written before, you’re welcome to join them!
Sunday June 13 3-5 p.m.
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