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The Yin and Yang of Desire

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Today I’d like to talk about: The Yin and Yang of Desire — Dopamine, Prolactin and Testosterone.

Let’s talk about love, lust and desire. But instead of looking at these things as social phenomena, let’s look at the chemical reactions going on inside our bodies that make us feel and behave the way we do.

sex-on-the-brainThere are clear links between certain chemicals and our most basic drives, which explains, for example, why we feel horny one moment and utterly disinterested the next. Or why our sex drive peaks after exercise. At the core of our sexual and affectional interests and behaviors lie the two chemicals — dopamine and prolactin. In many ways they are complimentary to one another; dopamine turns on desire and prolactin turns it off.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. This is basically your body’s pleasure and reward system. Our brains releases dopamine, to one degree or another, when we see, read or think about something sexy, taste something sweet, puff a cigarette, or come into skin-to-skin contact with another person. When dopamine levels are high, our libido goes into overdrive. Sometimes levels can be so dramatic that a person will neglect other essential bodily functions like eating and sleeping. Some “street” drugs —meth and coke among them — can mimic the body into thinking it’s dealing with dopamine.

Dopamine is critical to the way the brain controls our movements. If there’s not enough dopamine, we can’t move, or control our movements. If there’s too much dopamine, we are plagued with repetitive moments like jerking, tapping and twitching.

Get this; novel situations can increase dopamine releases. For example, hooking up with someone for the first time triggers especially high levels of dopamine. Curiously enough, these same high levels will not occur again during subsequent hookups with that same person. This is called the one-night-stand phenomenon; it’s why you can be attracted to someone at first encounter but not afterward.hormones and the brain

However, falling in love with someone can sustain high dopamine levels for a longer period of time. This explains why physical infatuation is at its peak in the beginning months of a relationship. Also dopamine floods the brain when we get drunk or take certain drugs, which is why drinking alcohol can make a potential partner look more attractive.

Prolactin is dopamine’s foil. It causes dopamine levels to plummet. Prolactin is a hormone, as opposed to a neurotransmitter, like dopamine. It floods the body during orgasm, virtually shutting down the sex drive, which is nature’s way of allowing us to attend to other essential bodily functions like eating and sleeping. Prolactin release in men will temporarily disable our ability to have an erection. This is called the refractory or recovery phase of our sexual response cycle. And prolactin is at least partially responsible for that happy, relaxed state after we cum. This is precisely the release women get while breastfeeding; in fact, the word “pro-lactin” directly indicates its role in milk production.

growing larger and largerProlactin primes the mind for long-term attachment — a role that helps the mother bond with her suckling child as well as lovers to each other. This means that if you stick around cuddling with your partner right after sex, you may actually start to like him/her more and more. This is called the pair-bonding effect. But prolactin’s dopamine-reducing action has a darker side. It cancels the tolerance you may have for your partner’s flaws.

While dopamine and prolactin are good indicators of the immediate workings of sexual pursuit, it is testosterone that best explains long-term changes in courtship. Testosterone is responsible for the masculinization of the adolescent male body during puberty. And it increases the dopamine levels that regulate our sex drive. But testosterone leaves its fingerprint on the body as much as the brain. It’s the catalyst for changes in skin tone, fat distribution, musculature and demeanor, which are signals to others that this individual male is sexually mature and in good health.

However, if you get a fever or become depressed, your testosterone levels can drop significantly. Malnutrition or high levels of anxiety or stress will also interfere with testosterone levels. The most immediate effect of this is a decrease in libido, and a noticeable drop-off in energy levels as well as confidence. There’s no doubt about it; testosterone levels will signal to potential mates that you are in the throws of depression, stress, anxiety or malnutrition. You will appear a little less attractive to people subconsciously. That’s why a confident, dominant male with high-testosterone levels generally enjoy more mating success.tits

Testosterone levels are highest in the morning, then wanes throughout the day. It’s also much higher in men in autumn and lowest in the spring.

However, sexual desire is still more complicated than is known to science, and there may be multiple archetypes of partners we’re drawn to — there is evidence that aggressive high-testosterone men appear sexier to women and gay men for a one-night stand. But softer, more sensitive balanced men are more likely to tug at our heartstrings in a relationship. Scientists reason that the bulkier mate is more likely to be physically powerful and carry good genes to create strong children. While the slimmer guy is a more loving, reliable partner likely to help raise the kids so they survive to adulthood. The effect of this strange contradiction seems to be a biological predisposition against monogamy and sexual exclusivity.

But none of this is carved in stone. A man’s hormone’s levels increase when he is in a competitive environment or carries out acts of aggression, which can explain how guys seem to bulk up quickly when they go to prison or join sports teams. These levels decrease when he feels intimidated or humiliated, which might explain why those who get picked on at school stay skinny and mild-mannered compared to their peers. This in turn made them easier targets and only increased the likelihood of them being bullied.

butt shakeThis is not uncommon behavior among primate colonies that have huge alpha males looming over a population of smaller, submissive males and females. While this is not a perfect parallel to human social groups, it does go a long way in explaining how a social environment can be a precursor to physical body changes. And just so you know, our testosterone levels also drop during long-term relationships, giving the male brain a sense of stability and mellowness, easing off the drive to forage for new sexual partners.

Science alone lacks a moral element, and fails to explain, in a modern context, why we should desire to be masculine, aggressive, potent or dominant in the first place. In nature, the alpha-male is the most likely to enjoy reproductive success, but that isn’t what gives our lives value today. We might have more success being an average male that falls in love and becomes a good provider. And in the modern world it’s probably the more stable and sensitive man who is most likely to sire children.

Still, science gives important clues to what’s going on in our minds and bodies and that of our potential partners. A lot of our basic inclinations are out of our control, but when we know what causes them or what to expect, we can work with them for the best outcome.

Stretching out of the sexual doldrums

Name: Gwen
Gender:
Age: 57
Location: Philly
My husband and I have been married for 33 years. Our relationship is hell when it comes to sex. My husband is overweight, and he’s stressed out about his elderly parents. Sex is non-existent. He never was the instigator in our relationship. And he is the kind of guy who thinks having sex on the couch as opposed to the bedroom is adventuresome. He has become so boring. I don’t believe the man feels sex should be that important at our ages. (I’m 57 and he’s 62) I, on the other hand, am more sexually aroused and creative than ever now that I am more mature and the kids are out of the house. Menopause and all the sex on the internet helps too. 😉 Is there anything I can do to make my man return to being a healthy sexual being once again? Thank you, Gwen

No, thank you, Gwen. Your complaint is a familiar one. In fact it’s so familiar I regularly offer therapy groups for couples in long-term relationships. Like you and your old man, these couples have, for one reason or another, hit a wall when it comes to their sex lives.senior intimacy

I take a very unique approach to these groups by inviting both straight and gay couples to the same group. At first I got a lot of resistance. Most couples, both gay and straight, think there is nothing to be learned from a couple unlike them. They can’t imagine why I would want to integrate the group in such a manner. I think most of my couples feel more comfortable being in a segregated group — straight folks with straight folks, gay folks with gay folks.

But that is of course the reason I integrate the groups. I don’t want them to feel all comfy and cozy, I wanted them to work and learn and stretch themselves out of their sexual doldrums. At first, I had to ask all my couples to suspend judgment about an integrated group until they had an opportunity to participate in one. Now I don’t encounter so much resistance. Word’s gotten out that this is a really creative solution to an otherwise tricky problem. And that old married couples, regardless if they are gay, lesbian or straight have very similar problems. And they can and do learn from one another.

To your specific issue, Gwen, I’m sad to say there’s not much you can do to beef up your sex life if there’s no interest on the part of your husband to do so. I mean, you can lead the horse to the cooch, but you can’t make him lick, if ya know what I mean.

Fat man holding a measurement tape against white background

Fat man holding a measurement tape against white background

You confide that you husband is overweight and stressed; this is not a happy combination when it comes to his sexual response cycle. In fact, your husband sounds like a heart attack waiting to happen. Perhaps if your challenged him about his general health — encourage weight loss and stress reduction, you might find that this would also reignite his sex drive. It’s worth a try.

And thank you for mentioning menopause. So many women find the changes that take place in midlife confusing and disorientating. It’s so good to hear from a woman who is eager to explore and enjoy her sexuality post-menopause.

Men also go through changes, in midlife. There’s even a name for it — andropause — the male menopause as it were. It’s clear that as we age, both women and men need more time and stimulation in which to get aroused. The slower, more sensuous foreplay that often results is a welcome change for most women and even some men.

Increased focus on sensuality, intimacy, and communication can help a sexual relationship remain rewarding even well into our senior years. I think you already know this, Gwen, but many women in my audience don’t.sensual touch

If your husband is avoiding intercourse, there still many ways of expressing your love and staying connected:

  • Hugging, cuddling, kissing
  • reading erotica aloud together
  • Touching, stroking, massage, sensual baths
  • Masturbation and oral sex

However, if your husband is more wedded to food and stress than he is to you, and if he continues to refuse to join you in finding an appropriate outlet for your sexual frustration, then it’s up to you to make this happen on your own. 57 is way too young to say goodbye to your sex life.

May I suggest joining a women’s group. Not a therapy group, but more of a support group or activities group. Getting out of the house, involving yourself with other self-actualized mature women, may uncover the secret solutions other women have put in place to find sexual satisfaction when they are without a partner or have a partner who’s no longer interested in a sex life with them. I think you will be surprised by how creative your sisters can be. Make it happen, Gwen. Don’t sink to the lowest common denominator of living a sexless life.

Good luck

I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Name: Trey
Gender: Male
Age: 24
Location: Charleston, SC
I’m a good looking guy. At least that’s what people tell me. I’m educated, have a good job, have a great sense of humor, and I’m also bi. I thought that being attracted to both women and men would increase the likelihood of me finding the sexual satisfaction I so desperately want and need.

I’m not afraid of commitment, but I can’t seem to get beyond casual hook ups and affairs that last only a few months. The sex is a hit or miss kind of thing, but even when the sex is great, I always seem to hit a wall. I can’t seem to get to the next level.

The New Year is upon us and I don’t want to remain stuck in this holding pattern. What am I missing? Any advice for someone like me?

Thanks for the timely question, Trey. And Happy New Year to you.

i'd totally fuck youYou bring up two very important skill sets — satisfying sex and relationship building. Despite the myths perpetuated by the popular culture, the two are not necessarily interdependent. Sexual satisfaction is one thing, and it can be achieved through traditional relationship models or not. Successful primary relationships can and often do depend on the sexual satisfaction of the partners, but not always. And given the diversity of intimate interests people have, it’s no wonder some come away from the experience frustrated and disappointed. Think of it as a combination lock. All the tumblers need to align for the lock to open.

The secret, it seems to me, is to discover precisely what it is you are looking for and deciding precisely what it is you are willing to expend getting what you want.

And I hope that your bisexuality has lead you to embrace more relationship models than what is traditionally handed us as the be all and end all—heterosexual monogamy. There is so much more out there.foreplay

That being said, I do have some generic thoughts about sexual satisfaction that are applicable to whatever relationship model you choose. Great sex is dependent on mutuality, even in a casual hook up. Be sure your partner knows he or she is loved, appreciated, or in terms of the casual hook up, respected.

If the connection you have with another has legs, so to speak, you will soon discover that either you or your partner has a stronger libido than does the other. That’s pretty common. Deal with this immediately, like adults. Don’t wait for your relationship to go broken. It’s just too easy to walk away from something that is floundering instead of investing the effort it would take to right it. Does that sound familiar? I wouldn’t be surprised if it does. Accommodations and compromise are always necessary in seeking the common good. And by that I don’t mean sinking to the lowest common denominator.  People come to compromise and accommodation through effective communication. If you don’t know how to do that, your relationship, of whatever stripe, is doomed.

female body as art 2Passion is not a dirty word, nor is sexual expression a sin. If you or a partner has religious scruples about enjoying you own body or that of your partner you’re headed for trouble. And remember, boredom in the bedroom is a recipe for disaster.

You should be well versed in self-pleasuring. In fact, the more you know about your body and the mysteries of your sexual response cycle the smoother things will go in partnered sex. Nowadays there is absolutely no need for anyone to come to partnered sex uninformed about sex in general and his or her sexuality in particular.

Like I said, mutuality is the key. And since we all evolve sexually, partners need to grow right along with each other. Make your sex play an adventure. Never hesitate to check in with one another to see how the pleasure thing is going. What’s worked last time is not necessarily gonna work next time.

Spontaneity is always a real good thing. Both partners need to take responsibility for seeing that their intimacy needs are being met. Sometimes that will involve fucking like bunnies, other times it will mean vegging-out in front of the boob-tube with a fist full of Häagen-Dazs.

Again, communication is key! Openness and honesty about one’s most secret sexual fantasies and desires is essential. Can’t trust your partner with your secrets? That’s never a good sign. Take responsibility for your own sexuality. Ask for what you need, but don’t neglect caring for yourself.

Seek your partner’s pleasure before your own. This is particularly important for a man.

If you are too busy to celebrate your sexuality with your partner, you are indeed too fuckin’ busy. Prioritize your life with your partner at its center.

nipple rubThere’s a fundamental difference between making love and fucking. Both have their place in a healthy sex life. And there ought also be room for solitary sex too. Everyone in entitled to privacy and private time, especially in a relationship.  If your job, or career, or whatever else interests you is more important than your relationship don’t expect that relationship to last.

Be creative in your sexual expression; toys, fantasies, role-playing, they’re all good. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Attend to making your sex play spaces fit the mood — romantic to down and dirty. One size does not fit all, if you catch my drift.

Stay in shape (and there’s not just one shape), get plenty of exercise, and keep yourself interesting and attractive to your partner. Pay attention to your personal hygiene. No one wants to bump someone with a smelly body or bad breath.

Make sure your partner is fully aroused before full-on fucking. And remember sex is way more than the old in an out. Finally, have a sense of humor about the whole damn thing; it will help take the edge off.

Good luck

Sexual Tension or Domestic Tranquility

Name: Barbara
Gender: Female
Age: 48
Location: Santa Cruz, CA
I’ve been with my current lover for 5 years and I dearly love him. A couple of years ago he had hemorrhoid surgery and was in the hospital for a month. When he got home he refused to have sex with me but once a month of so. After two years his sexual interest is less and less. We have a wonderful time together, except for the sex. He’s a great guy and I know he loves me. We talk about it, but he tells me that he doesn’t need sex and he wants a platonic relationship. He’s not open to therapy. If he doesn’t want to be physical, I don’t want to force it but I’m masturbating all alone and I’m very frustrated. I don’t what to leave him, but I can’t stand the status quo.

This is a classic lament, Barbara. So many couples struggle with much the same thing. Love, intimacy, and sex—three very different things—yet we are socialized into thinking that they should always come to us as a package deal. And anything that doesn’t is less than optimum and often downright bad or sinful. What a tiny little box we’re all supposed to fit in.

sexual-FrustrationI believe there is a fundamental difference between love, sex, and intimacy, but so many people confuse or conflate these very different needs to their detriment. Some go so far as to destroy an otherwise good and vibrant relationship just because it doesn’t conform to what we perceive as the norm…ya know the big package deal I just mentioned.

I don’t know how we got it into are head that the only legitimate or wholesome sex is the sex that happens in a loving relationship, or that if there is no sex in a loving relationship, then that relationship is somehow flawed or defective. That’s simply not the case.

The way I see it, passionate sex is dependent on a good deal of sexual tension. Ya know, like the grips of hot monkey love that happens at the beginning of a relationship. In time this sexual tension dissipates. I might add that it takes a great deal of work to keep that kind of tension alive. Most couples don’t invest that kind of energy, even though they may pay lip service to the desire for it.life is too short

Intimacy, on the other hand, is dependent on domestic tranquility, in other words, the elimination of tension in the relationship, which often also includes sexual tension. And since most couples desire intimacy over sex they choose (either consciously or not) the domestic tranquility option. But the result is the kind of sexual frustration you report, at least for some.

Those who wish to have both sexual passion and intimacy need to be creative in developing both. It simply isn’t enough to believe that loving someone is enough to make it happen. It takes a lot of very hard work.

That being said, Barbara, if your partner refuses to join you in any effort to find a solution to the problems that plague your relationship, he is telling you that your sexual concerns are unimportant to him. My counsel is always the same under these circumstances. If your sexual needs are as pressing as you say they are, then confront him in no uncertain terms. No beating around the bush, darlin’, it’s ultimatum time. Tell your partner that dragging his feet, or obstructing all together your efforts to solve your relationship problems signals to you that the relationship, at least as it is currently configured, is in desperate trouble.

As I’ve suggested earlier, you can tell him that there are several ways of keeping the relationship going without expecting he fulfill all or any of your sex needs if he’s gonna be fulfilling your intimacy needs. But living without sex in your life is a deal breaker. He needs to know that you are serious about the crisis that exists. Of course, if you do this you will have to follow through on the ultimatum. To do otherwise would tell him that you don’t believe your concerns are all that important either.

If you ask me, life is too short to be living with all that sexual frustration. Don’t tolerate the frustration make it work for you. Your sexual frustration could be the very thing that motivates you to create better your situation for yourself and possibly your old man too.

Good Luck

SEX WISDOM With Katie Querna — Podcast #426 — 09/03/14

Hello sex fans! Welcome back.

I have an important announcement before we begin. We are coming to an end of an era. This week and next marks the end of my career as a podcaster. I’m just a couple months short of my 8th anniversary of podcasting and I’ve decided that enough is enough.

The truth is, I have a bunch of other projects that I want to spend time on and I have only so much time to allocate; thus something had to give. I am exceptionally proud of the quality programming I’ve brought to you, my international audience. Over the last seven plus years I’ve presented a variety of extraordinarily informative, enriching and entertaining shows—interesting interviews, enlightening Q&A and even some fun adult product reviews. And, I’m happy to report, all my podcasts are archived here on my site and they will remain so for the foreseeable feature. So I hope you will visit often.

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Alrighty then; I want to go out with a bang, so to speak, so I’d like to introduce you to a remarkable woman who is just beginning her career in the field of human sexuality. And as you probably can guess, this is the SEX WISDOM show. This series has generally involved chats with learned colleagues well established in our field, but every now and again I had a hankerin’ to check in with those people who are just starting out in this field. I tell you, it reassures me no end to know that brilliant young folks are picking up the sex-positive banner and carrying it forward. And I am delighted to welcome one such person to my show today. I am delighted to introduce you to my good friend, colleague, and real life neighbor, Katie Querna.

Katie and I discuss:

  • The nature of our relationship;
  • The Columbia School of Social Work and The University of Washington School of Social Work;
  • Gender and sexuality studies;
  • Lifelong AIDS Alliance;
  • Designer vaginas;
  • Plastic surgery and self-worth;
  • Sensuality, sexuality, and intimacy;
  • Masculinity, intimacy, and the fear of the feminine;
  • Intuition, sensation, and perception vs. science.

Katie invites you to visit her on her site HERE!

BE THERE OR BE SQUARE!

Look for all my podcasts on iTunes. You’ll find me in the podcast section, obviously. Just search for Dr Dick Sex Advice. And don’t forget to subscribe. I wouldn’t want you to miss even one episode.

Today’s Podcast is bought to you by: DR DICK’S — HOW TO VIDEO LIBRARY.

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