Don’t believe the Christian right about oxytocin

July 10, 2015
Oxytocin also regulates the bond between parent and child.

A booklet distributed to Fairhills High School students in Victoria made some wild claims about oxytocin and female sexuality.

The booklet, entitled Science and Facts, was used as part of a Christian sex education program at the public school. The program is run by Epic Youth, part of the Pentecostal megachurch “CityLife”.

Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in social bonding. It is also a hormone that regulates lactation and uterine contractions. The booklet claims that as women have more oxytocin than men, sleeping around is dangerous for young women.

If a guy wants to take a heterosexual relationship to the next stage, it’s harder for the girl to say no. If she forges too many “oxytocin bonds” with too many guys, she becomes “like a piece of overused sticky tape” unable to have a committed relationship.

The booklet has been rightly criticised by feminists all over the country. Women should be free to do whatever they want with their own body. But the booklet should not be slammed just for feminist reasons. This nonsense does not just prompt young women to lead unadventurous sex lives. It also prompts them to fail their neuroscience degree. This simply is not science.

First of all, oxytocin is not that well understood. It does not have the long history of research behind it of other neurotransmitters, such as endorphins or dopamine. Much of the literature is speculative in tone.

In fact, much of what we know about oxytocin does not even come from human beings. It comes from research on rats. And rats are not a monogamous species. So no matter how much oxytocin you have in your brain, it does not mean you cannot sleep around. It just means you are a mammal.

Oxytocin is closely related to vasopressin, another neurotransmitter. Much of the literature discusses the two in tandem. Women have more oxytocin than men, and men have more vasopressin than women. But that does not mean there is any scientific basis for ham-fisted claims about sex differences. Broadly speaking, oxytocin regulates social bonding and vasopressin regulates aggression.

However oxytocin is also implicated in aggression, and vasopressin plays a major role in regulating social bonding. In fact they are so chemically similar that in some cases they can stimulate each other’s receptors. Of the two, it seems that vasopressin plays more of a role in monogamous behaviour.

Although women have more oxytocin than men, it plays a major role in male biology that should not be understated. Oxytocin is important to male orgasm. Research shows that after a guy orgasms, his brain is flooded with it. But apparently they don’t tell you much about male orgasm in Christian-based sex education programs.

Oxytocin does not just regulate social bonding in romantic relationships. It regulates social bonding generally. According to the logic of Science and Facts, that should mean that it is dangerous to have too many friends. If you have too many friends you will become like a piece of used sticky tape unable to make friends in future.

Oxytocin also regulates the bond between parent and child. Again, having too many children also turns you into a piece of used sticky tape. This is probably not the interpretation that the pamphlet authors intended.

Or maybe the authors really do want us to live in a lonely miserable society where you go to work every day and you hate your boss, but you hate your coworkers too much to unionise. After work you come home to your family and you hate them too, and you don’t form an oxytocin bond with anybody but Jesus.

That’s not the kind of society that I want to live in. I’m not a theologian or even a Christian, but I’m pretty sure that according to the Bible, Jesus said we should love our enemies — that is, form oxytocin bonds with them.

As a socialist I am curious about the neural basis of social bonding. A common criticism of socialism is that sharing and altruism are not part of human nature because humans are inherently greedy and competitive. The oxytocin literature challenges this point of view. If we have a distinct neurotransmitter dedicated to social bonding, surely this means that love and cooperation are basic to human nature.

Oxytocin is not the cultural property of right-wing religious forces. I want to live in a society built out of countless oxytocin bonds, uniting the human race in sharing and cooperation. I want to live in a society where men’s oxytocin prompts them to care about women and to respect our sexual freedom.

Fairhills High School has now cancelled CityLife’s sex education program.

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