A recently published op-ed by Dannah Gresh on CNN.com makes the controversial argument that “there’s nothing brief about a hookup” (read the full op-ed here). As of posting, Gresh’s op-ed, which supposedly draws on scientific evidence to support her conclusion that casual sex is unhealthy, has inspired over 800 comments and some heated debate, much of it centered around Gresh’s admission near the end of the op-ed that:
“In the interest of full disclosure, my motivation here is my Christian faith. I believe sex to be an incredible gift from God, meant to transcend the physical to discover something emotional and spiritual with another person.
But since my faith may alienate some of you from my message, I ask you not to think too hard about religious differences. Stick to the facts.”
Here at ScienceOfRelationships.com we are always encouraged when we see articles on relationships (and sex) that incorporate scientific evidence, but we are admittedly wary when there is reason to believe the interpretation of those scientific data might be distorted by an underlying agenda. Thus, we took it upon ourselves to do just what Gresh requested: Stick to the facts. After careful scrutiny of her arguments, and review of the empirical work she cites as support for her conclusions, we have identified three important ways that Gresh either overstates or misuses specific research findings. Below, we identify and provide examples of instances where the facts do not support the claim.
Point 1: Gresh draws conclusions that the cited evidence does not support
There are at least two instances where Gresh makes a provocative claim and then goes on to cite research that has little to do with that claim. First, Gresh states the following:
“Young women, especially, are likely to spiral into a depression when the source of their addiction isn’t interested in another hookup.”
To support this claim, which on the surface sounds reasonable enough, Gresh cites an unpublished study commissioned by the Heritage Foundation (a conservative American think tank) showing that sexually active teen girls are more likely to experience depression. Importantly, the cited research does not address either addiction to sexual partners or getting rejected by sexual partners. The study did find that teenagers are often dissatisfied and regretful about sexual activity, but the report in no way addressed what happens when a casual-sex partner is not interested in another hookup. In other words, although Gresh cites research, the most interesting and controversial aspects of Gresh’s claim remain unsubstantiated and are not actually addressed in the research she cites. (Note: we are not aware of any solid scientific research that directly or indirectly supports Gresh’s claim.)
Second, Gresh argues that sex results in the release of dopamine, which “creates addiction” and makes it hard for a person to stop having sex with a ‘hookup’ partner. It is true that the experience of passion, which includes a strong physical drive, is associated with activation of portions of the brain responsible for “motivational drive-states,” and these same parts of the brain are implicated in addictions.1 However, the overwhelming evidence indicates that such activation is very difficult to maintain. In a 2004 review paper published in the highly-respected journal Progress in Neurobiology, the authors concluded “There is no compelling indication in existing experimental data that dopamine is of any particular importance for sexual motivation. There is experimental evidence showing that it is of no importance for sexual reward.”2 In short, although dopamine is certainly a player in the psychological experience of passion, to claim that its release results in an addiction, especially in the context of hookups, is unfounded.
Point 2: Gresh makes the classic mistake in assuming that correlation = causation
One of the more common ways that writers misuse scientific findings is by citing research showing that two things are associated (or “correlated”), and then use that association to claim that one variable causes another. For example, it may be true that teen sexual activity and depression are associated, but this association does not mean that sexual activity causes depression for these teens (as Gresh argues). In reality, we know from studying youth over time that early, casual sexual activity tends to be a marker of psychological problems, and not a cause of psychological problems.3 In other words, it is inaccurate to assume that casual sex causes depression among teens. Certainly there are many teens who have casual sex that do not become clinically depressed. It is just as likely that there are many other factors, aside from depression, that cause adolescents to seek out casual sex.
Point 3: Gresh ignores obvious counter-explanations or “third variables”
What follows is a factual statement: The more churches a city has, the more crime it is likely to have. It’s true, and it would not be surprising to see this association summarized in an article with the headline: “Shocking Finding: Churches Cause Crime!” Of course, the finding can actually be explained by what researchers refer to as a “third variable”: some other factor is responsible for the association. What is the third variable in this case? The size of the city. Bigger cities have both more churches and more crime, so that’s why there’s an association between churches and crime.
Gresh ignores what are obvious third-variable explanations in her op-ed, resulting in an oversimplication of the evidence. For example, to support her argument that casual sex causes relationship problems later on, she cites research showing that people with a high number of previous sexual partners are more likely to be unfaithful to their partners. But, as with the church example, sexual promiscuity and infidelity can both be explained by an important third variable: sexual attitudes. People who have highly permissive sexual attitudes are also likely to have more sexual partners,4 and they are also more likely to cheat on their partners.5 In other words, it’s unlikely that having more past sexual partners makes you more likely to cheat on a partner; it’s far more likely that the individual’s sexual attitudes leads to both.
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Many writers and reporters work hard to accurately present scientific findings to the public, and are very careful to avoid these sorts of oversimplifications and misrepresentations of the data. However, Gresh’s article is a good example of how scientific evidence can be twisted to push an agenda (as Gresh admits doing in the end of the piece). In many instances these types of claims are not properly scrutinized because they sound plausible. Yet, what sounds plausible is not always substantiated by the wealth of scientific evidence that relationship scientists have accumulated. You can read a more balanced perspective on the effects of sexual hook-ups here.
Note: This response was co-authored by Ms. Samantha Joel, Dr. Timothy Loving, Dr. Gary Lewandowski, Dr. Benjamin Le, and Dr. Marci Gleason from the website www.ScienceOfRelationships.com.
1Aron, A., Fisher, H., Mashek, D. J., Strong, G., Li, H., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 94(1), 327-337.
2Paredes, R. G., & Agmo, A. (2004). Has dopamine a physiological role in the control of sexual behavior? A critical review of the evidence. Progress In Neurobiology, 73(3), 179-226.
3Grello, C. M., Welch, D. P., Harper, M. S., & Dickson, J. W. (2003). Dating and sexual relationship trajectories and adolescent functioning. Adolescent and Family Health, 3, 103-112.
4Simpson, J. A., & Gangestad, S. W. (1991). Individual differences in sociosexuality: Evidence for convergent and discriminant validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 870-883.
5Seal, S. W., Agostinelli, G., & Hannett, C. A. (1994). Extradyadic romantic involvement: Moderating effects of sociosexuality and gender. Sex Roles, 3, 1-22.