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Two-year limit on lust for you

February 2nd, 2006

Dr Petra

Many of the papers this week have featured research from the University of Pisa that claimed to have proved how different hormones affect desire.

The study, summarised in Chemistry World, used blood samples from a number of volunteers at different stages in their relationships and identified in those who hadn’t been seeing each other very long had a higher amount of neurotrophins in the blood, but this wasn’t present in those who’d been dating for a couple of years – although those participants had higher levels of oxytocin (which researchers dubbed ‘the cuddle hormone’).

The findings are interesting but do need a closer look. Unfortunately the research that launched all those global headlines isn’t reported in full in the journal, but as part of a more general overview of ‘cupid chemistry’. This means there are no details given on the number of participants in the research, whether they were straight or gay, their ages, or their backgrounds (for example, were they all students?).

What is interesting is the researchers studied people at the beginning of a relationship and tested them again 12 and 24 months later. So all those people who split up in that time presumably were excluded – yet we don’t know if in that period their hormones had also altered? It’s possible and necessary to know since otherwise we can’t be certain the outcomes reported here are down to relationships, or down to time.

I’m also interested about this two-year period. It’s commonly cited within the general media, particularly women’s magazines, that when you first meet someone it’s all fireworks and excitement, but two or three years down the line you both arrive at domestic dullsville. Yet we also know from couples in long term relationships that their desires and attractions fluctuate during their time together – so it might be in five, ten, or twenty years they have different reactions to their relationships, and perhaps report and experience more passion? Certainly some sex surveys have found this.

It’s fascinating also how this research appears to work on the information from blood testing. I wonder if those in the research would report their relationship in the same way as the blood tests were interpreted? The researchers claim an increase in oxytocin would lead to less passion but greater bonding – but unless we include participant self reports this isn’t enough data to go on. It would be very interesting if blood tests said one thing, but participants self reports said something very different.

Even if we do include self reports, most people are now culturally primed to report sex less positively if they’ve been together a while, simply because our wider society describes sex like this. Think about it, when did you last see a movie, pick up a magazine or read a self-help book that didn’t imply that the start of a relationship is the most passionate – and best – time?

We’ve not always felt this way. In the past people believed relationships would get better as you aged, and in many cultures there’s no belief in love at first sight, but a view that over time you grow to love and desire your partner. So maybe these current studies confirm and fit into our cultural stereotypes rather than look for other answers.

Perhaps this research would generate different outcomes if we viewed the later stages of relationships more positively. If we believed sex only really got good after you’d been with someone for a few years and knew them well, perhaps we’d devalue those pesky passion hormones and praise the cuddly ones. Within these news reports and the overview in Chemistry World that most certainly wasn’t going on. Although it’s just a matter of choice that people are representing relationships in this way.

Currently we’re obsessed with hormones. Magazine articles in particular will mention them, usually incorrectly, when describing sex. They’re used to ‘science up’ a story although most writers haven’t a basic biological knowledge (nor do the experts they get to back up pieces) which means we’re given a very misleading view about our biology. Hormones are amazing things, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about them, and certainly describing them in isolation to ‘prove’ something’s happening sexually isn’t particularly accurate or helpful.

It’s a ‘so what’ kind of finding. Your average couple who’ve been together a while might now have an answer to why they have less sex, but what help does this research offer them? In fact, they may be perfectly happy with their sex lives, but this is another study that implies if you’ve been together a while then there’s bound to be something lacking in your sex life. And that’s why we see an entire industry based on reminding people about this change in their sex lives and demanding they ‘relight their fires’.

There’s a darker side to this sort of research. It works on a deficiency model. People have hormones, then hormone levels are discovered to disappear or drop. So the answer is to take more hormones.

Rather than seeing this as a natural body process, it’s measured and interpreted – in some areas of science and most of the media as a dysfunction or disease in need of repair.

In these latest reports, it reinforces the idea that new relationships are the most passionate, and over time they begin to lack something. That lack of something is problematised and we already know that there are scientists and salespeople working to push products to remedy these deficits.

It’s a case of science setting the scene for others to exploit.

Whilst I agree some people require hormonal supplements for genuine medical conditions, and believe hormones are fascinating, it isn’t helpful when sex is reduced to chemicals and chemicals are used as ‘proof’ of behaviour without a wider scientific, cultural and historical interpretation. The research is very reductioninst and deterministic. We’re basically at the mercy of our hormones.

It’s very subtle, but often scientists don’t realise instead of explaining something independently, they’re actually propping up a very current view of sex and relationships.

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