Love at first sex.
In an interview with American GQ, Ryan Reynolds was asked when he knew something serious was going to happen with (wife, mother of his children, and mega beauty) Blake Lively. “Probably after the sex,” he joked, in classic deadpan Reynolds style. We all laughed – oh, Ryan, you! – then I began to wonder if he was onto something. Maybe sex could reveal our feelings for someone more accurately than boozy pub trips and dinners? Could our groin suss out chemistry better than our gut?
To find out exactly what sex does to both persons’ feelings, we spoke to the anthropologist leading the research into love. Dr. Helen Fisher is a Senior Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute, author of Anatomy of Love, and her TED talk, The Brain in Love, has had almost 4.5 million views. If anyone knows what the heck’s going on, it’s her.
So, what can sex tell us about someone that dates can’t?
“Your first sex is a real escalation or breaking point. You see the other person very clearly, smell them, taste them, hear them and you feel them. You learn whether they have a sense of humour in bed, whether they listen, are relaxed, inhibited, a prude, pushy… The brain gathers an enormous amount of information on the things that say a great deal about someone.”
But you couldn’t fall in love that first time – could you?
“Oh, it’s entirely possible. Any stimulation of the genitals drives up the brain’s dopamine system, which is basic to feeling intense romantic love. Then, with orgasm, there’s a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin – brilliant chemicals that are associated with attachment. So, when you have sex, you can go over the threshold into falling in love thanks to dopamine – and, after orgasm, feel a deep attachment to them.”
Wow, cool. But not on one-night stands, right?
“I’m on my seventh year of an annual study to see if people fall in love after one-night stands. I’ve probably got data on 20,000 people. I ask, ‘Have you ever gone into a one-night stand expecting it to just be a one-night stand, but ended up making a long-term commitment?’ And every year, 25% to 35% say yes. A huge percentage of people have sex that leads to commitment. Sex is not casual because things happen in the brain.”
We’re told that sex can be casual for men, especially. Why?
“That is a general belief, but there are a great number of general beliefs that are wrong. Here’s what I know: men fall in love faster than women do, because they’re so visual. Men fall in love more often than women do. Men are more likely to fantasize about having a long-term relationship with the person they’re on a date with than women are. When a man meets a woman that he loves, he wants to introduce her to friends and family sooner; he wants to move in sooner. Men are just as vulnerable to falling in love after the first sex as women – they may be even more so because women are pickier.”
If women have the power in bed, why have we been conditioned into thinking we don’t?
“People are dedicated to thinking that women are the victims and men are the predators. It’s not true. It’s just not true. Women have SO much power in sex. Men spend their lives trying to get women into bed; young women don’t have trouble getting a man into bed at all. Now, there’s no question that there are men who’ve vanished after the first date. But there are a LOT of women who’ve vanished after the first date.”
What if you don’t want to fall in love with the other person?
“Don’t forget, women can have sex for all kinds of reasons. It’s not always to make a long-term relationship. You can use sex in the same way that men use sex, such as for immediate pleasure because you’re away and won’t see that person again. I have had excellent sex with somebody with who I knew I would never want a long-term partner. But, there’s no question about it, good sex is going to trigger the brain systems that push you towards romance and attachment.”