In contemporary films and TV, shows we don’t think anything of a scene featuring a man and woman having casual sex, whether it be on the first date or in the context of an otherwise unromantic relationship, a.k.a. “friends with benefits.” The idea that women and men can both enjoy casual sex was first explored when the women’s liberation movement came about. The idea was that women could have anything men could, including casual sex. In recent years, however, psychologists, scientists, self-help authors and even pop culture have begun to question whether men and women are equally capable of jumping in and out of the bedroom with no strings attached. Extreme examples of women who reacted quite differently from their male counterparts can be seen in movies such as the famous Fatal Attraction and its predecessor, Play Misty For Me. Could it be that femme fatales such as these are actually a more common and natural result of casual sex than we’re willing to admit?
A less extreme cinematic example can be found in the scene from When Harry Met Sally after long-time friends Harry and Sally consumate their relationship sexually. It’s the next day, and while Harry is distant and cool Sally feels vulnerable and attached in a way she hadn’t prior to their physical intimacy.
According to many experts writing on the subject, Harry’s and Sallys’s reactions, and even the more extreme reactions of Glenn Close’s character, accurately reflect the biochemically and biologically different reactions that men and women have to sex. Scientists and experts from numerous fields have, in fact, discovered that men’s biology and biochemistry allow them to casually copulate, while a woman’s make-up causes her to become immediately attached. The reason for this? A much talked-about chemical called oxytocin, released in men and women during sex, but which acts in slightly or not-so-slightly different ways.
Susan Kuchinskas, author of Love Chemistry: How Oxytocin Lets Us Trust, Love and Mate, explains it as follows: “Oxytocin seems to have been ‘designed’ by nature to make a man and woman feel bonded after sex, but estrogen (in women) seems to increase the bonding effects of oxytocin, while testosterone (in men) seems to mute them. That’s why women tend to feel more attached after sex than men do.”
In fact, men will not only feel less attached than women do, but oftentimes completely unattached or uninterested in the woman lying next to him. Hence, the reason he is suddenly too busy to see or even call, and will even begin to avoid you.
Whether you two felt passionate attracton for each other or what many deem “love” prior to sex, or felt lukewarm towards one another, the results are the same. The man has cooled off, and the woman heated up.
So while the man has perhaps lost interest in you, and is already interested in someone else with whom he hasn’t yet had sex, the woman is not only bonded, but often to someone she doesn’t even like! According to anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, you shouldn’t copulate with a man unless you’re ready to fall in love with him, because “you may, in fact, do just that.”
The woman then finds herself not only attached and bonded but flooded with all sorts of chemicals. In addition to oxytocin, she releases PEA or Phenylethylamine, and chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin surge after she has sex with a man. The combination of these chemicals can be particularly disruptive if there isn’t any sort of solid relationship in place. She’s left flooded with chemicals which cause her to yearn for and crave this man, and even become obsessed. If the craving is not satisfied, she “crashes” and undergoes symptoms similar to those of a drug addict’s withdrawal, including depression, agitation, anxiety, irritability and despair. This is where the behavior of Glenn Close’s character comes in. Left with an enormous emotional and physical desire for someone she cannot have, her mind and body thrown into a state of unbalance the woman only wants is to have her craving satisfied, and this can cause her to experience the symtpoms, according to Dr. Helen Fisher, of someone with “mental illness.”
What, then, should a woman do? According to sex therapist Dr. Aline Zoldbrod, she should wait. For a woman, the power she can have over a man is in the initial phase of sexual attraction. “It’s amazing and almost addicting to access your own inner Venus, Goddess of Love. Guys are so visual, and if you look good, they can be putty in your hands. But at the end of the night, if he ‘fell into your trap,’ you ‘get him,’ you have sex, and then, you get treated shabbily and get discarded, you didn’t win, you lost.”
The woman not only loses out on a relationship with that man, but also with future men.
Writes Zoldbrod, “For women who are looking for an emotional, committed relationship, it’s dangerous to your future mental health to have a lot of experiences where you have been used sexually. It makes you bitter toward men. And your bitterness is apparent when you talk.”
But if men and women’s reactions are so different after sex, what, then, is the purpose of waiting, and how and when can sex and love co-exist? The answer lies in another chemical: endorphins. Over time, as a man and woman solidify an emotional bond of sharing and caring, endorphins are released in the man and woman, and it is these chemicals that are responsible for long-term bonding between both sexes to ensure that the raising of children takes place in a healthy and loving environment.
So exactly how long should a woman wait before having sex with a man? Zoldbrod admits that there isn’t a clear-cut answer to this question. However, one thing is certain; the couple should both be clear and certain in their commitment to a serious, long-term relationship. There should be mutual trust and also a well-established relationship where common interests are shared. Finally, issues of safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and sexual likes and dislikes should be discussed and planned in advance.