A Paradox: Sex is Healthy and Risky

Jan 31, 2020 9:32:00 AM / by Matthias Roberts


Excerpt from Beyond Shame, Chapter 7

So much of our sex lives is personal and particular, based on each of our own contexts, and this fact makes having a single, universal, one-size-fits-all sexual ethic impossible to arrive at. Still, I believe sexuality contains four paradoxes that, when acknowledged, help us chart a path forward in our conversation on ethics and simultaneously help us understand our shame and thereby get free of it. By understanding these paradoxes, we become more equipped to handle our shame and figure out what our core values are in the process. Once we know our core values, we have ground from which to evaluate our decisions. Our framework and ways of thinking need to be able to adjust, and these paradoxes help with that. We’ll explore the paradoxes in this chapter and the following three, starting with the first paradox: sex is healthy and risky.

Sex Is Healthy

There’s no question about it: sex is healthy—and not just a little bit healthy. From increasing levels of antibodies that help fight sickness, to reducing depression, to making us look younger, sex has been shown in study after study to have profound effects on our physical and emotional well-being. We are sexual beings, and having sex (with a partner or on our own through masturbation) is good for us. Sex is both healthy and positive. A sex-positive sexual ethic, built on the idea that sex is healthy, is a powerful antidote to shame.

Of course, not all sex is good sex, not all sex is healthy, and not all sexual experiences are positive. But our sex-positive sexual ethic must begin with this premise: good and healthy sex is possible in any number of scenarios.

Those of us who were taught restrictive and shame-filled rules about sex may find even this basic definition hard to grasp. If you’re feeling a bit uncomfortable just reading these words, try holding the premise as a question. What if sex is healthy? What if sex is a positive thing? If these assumptions are true, how might that change the ways you relate to your body and your sexuality? You don’t have to accept my word for it; changing beliefs we have grown up with takes time. Simply asking the questions is enough of a start.

For others, this may seem like a no-brainer. Obviously, sex is good for us. We might not have any trouble exploring our bodies, enjoying our partners’ bodies, and experiencing pleasure. We might know the goodness that having sex can bring, and it doesn’t take any convincing for us to believe that sex has profoundly good and positive effects on our lives. If that’s you, great! This chapter is for you, too. . .

. . . The truth is, sex is healthy, and it is risky. Acknowledging the inherent risks involved in sexual behavior doesn’t diminish its positive nature; it is recognition of reality. Despite all the goodness that sex can bring us, like most things in life, it involves the potential for harm. And because sex carries the potential for such health, for such flourishing, it also contains all the elements to do the opposite of those things, too.

Due to residual trauma, and I’m not throwing that word around lightly, those of us who have come out of conservative and restrictive backgrounds will often react very strongly to anyone suggesting that sex might be dangerous. Our antennas go up when we hear language and messages similar to those we heard growing up. We bristle. And you may be feeling that bristly feeling as you read this. Don’t push those feelings away. Pay attention to what comes up as I discuss the idea that sex is risky.

Note my choice of language. I imagine that we can all agree that sex can certainly be used in dangerous ways, as a means of exerting power and control. But, there’s nothing about sex that is inherently dangerous. Some of our work to overcome shame will be learning how to undo the voice inside of us that tells us to stay away from sex, to keep our distance, to calm the warning alarms that go off any time we begin feeling arousal.

But, sex is risky. “Risky” simply means that it carries risk. The distinction here between dangerous and risky is crucial. Saying something is “dangerous” implies a certain level of certainty that it will lead to destruction or harm but saying something is “risky” implies that we need to be careful. Danger may be in the picture, but it’s not a sure thing.

I go hiking with a group of friends about once a month. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are surrounded by trail systems that range from easy to risky to downright dangerous. While several people in the group are experienced hikers, I’m not one of them. I refuse to buy hiking boots on principle, because I would rather not be one of those people. You know the ones—they always carry Costco packs of snack bars in their North Face backpacks and are continually searching for their expensive eco-friendly water bottles, which they left at brunch again. “No, these Toms shoes are fine,” I say, pulling on my favorite shoes that are more like slippers.

And for that exact reason, I only get invited on the hikes for new people—the easy hikes. Even on these reasonably simple hikes, we spend time before we begin double-checking our gear, making sure everyone has enough water, checking that we have enough food with us to survive for a bit in case something goes wrong. There’s nothing particularly dangerous about most of the hikes, but we approach them with the understanding that they are risky. Any time we venture out, we understand that there’s the potential that something could go wrong. Someone could get hurt, someone could get lost, we could run into bears or mountain lions—and we prepare accordingly.

Fortunately, nothing has gone wrong in all my years on the trail, but even routine and easy ventures out into the wild can turn into a survival situation at a moment’s notice. This is because we are interacting with forces of nature that are so much bigger than our individual selves. Does this mean we shouldn’t go hiking? Does this mean we should save hiking until we have a commitment from the trail that it’s here for us through thick and through thin? No. But it does mean that we have to be aware of the risks, and by taking these risks seriously, we can enjoy our hikes much more.

Similarly, to truly have a grounded sexual ethic, we have to be aware of the risks inherent in sexual activity. Knowing these risks will help us prepare, anticipate, and choose how we will respond to these risks instead of living from a place of just reacting.

Sex and Connection

Sex is both healthy and risky because sex connects us. This is an inescapable truth built into the very act of sex: physical connection. Even if we’re in it just for the physicality, only to fulfill an urge, we’re still connecting with another person. Purity culture has weaponized this truth to say that if we connect with someone sexually and then decide to move on from that person, we will be irreparably harmed. That’s not true; having sex doesn’t automatically mean harm is in our future, and even if harm occurs, we have tools to heal. But the fact remains that having sex is one of the most powerful ways we can connect with a person.

Helen Fisher, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, denies that “casual” sex is really possible. “When you have an orgasm, you get a real flood of oxytocin and vasopressin. And these are the basic bodily and brain systems for attachment. Don’t have sex with somebody you don’t want to feel something for.” Fisher has never been a part of any form of organized religion, so these statements are based on her scientific research. She’s not assigning a moral value to her conclusions, and we’re not going to either.

Fisher’s research (alongside that of many other scientists) shows that there’s no such thing as casual sex. To understand this, we have to examine the biological processes that take place within our bodies when we have sex. Please note that the processes happen in roughly the same way, regardless of your gender or orientation. Some hormonal and chemical reactions are determined by our biological sex, but those chemicals are not inherently gendered, at least when it comes to what happens during sexual activity. I’ll be sure to tell you when biological sex differences are worth noting, but otherwise, don’t worry about it.

All in the Chemicals

The chemicals released during sexual activity are chemicals of pleasure. Testosterone sparks attraction and desire, working alongside dopamine as we interact with the person we’re attracted to. Oxytocin and vasopressin jump into the action next, helping us feel calm and connected by suppressing our stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. If cortisol and adrenaline stick around because they’re preventing dopamine and oxytocin from suppressing them, we don’t enjoy sex as much, or we may be unable to have sex. These are the chemicals of our flight/fight/freeze response—an alarm system that might be triggered when we’ve experienced trauma.

If we’ve had sexual experiences with people who have made us feel unsafe or who have perpetrated violence against us, it’s harder for our bodies to dial down our stress hormones; instead, they can be heightened. While this response is potentially scary and frustrating, our bodies are working precisely the way they’re supposed to, telling us, “Be careful here. This might cause us harm.” Cortisol and adrenaline can also be present as a result of the messages that we’ve been told about sex, such as that sex outside of a certain context is dangerous. They prevent us from feeling arousal. These chemicals explain why people who have grown up with a sexual ethic that says, “Don’t have sex outside of marriage, or else,” might have trouble having sex, even once they’re married.

These stress hormones, unfortunately, don’t just magically disappear on command, even if we’ve worked through our shame. We have to manage them with new experiences, practice, time, and often the help of a good therapist.

When we jump in bed with someone (and our stress hormones don’t put the brakes on), dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin all surge. They build and build and build until there’s sudden release. In the moment of orgasm, extreme amounts of oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine flood the brain, and then, in the absence of more stimulation, they stay around for about five minutes. In biological men, even with more stimulus, these hormones almost immediately begin to plummet as prolactin rises. Sometimes biological men can have multiple orgasms, but this usually requires significant effort. For biological women, the hormones stay heightened, affording women a better chance of having multiple orgasms. The more orgasms a woman has, the more prolactin is eventually produced. The key word here is eventually. Men experience a prolactin spike almost immediately; women do not.

Remember, prolactin is a dopamine inhibitor, meaning that once our prolactin levels go up after sex, we will feel satisfied and satiated, but we may no longer feel as good. Prolactin functions to shut off our sexual desire. Think of it as the body’s brakes to all the testosterone and dopamine flooding our brains. As our dopamine levels decrease, the high feeling that dopamine gives us goes away. We can then experience slight withdrawal symptoms, which lead some of us to feel depressed, argumentative, or just kind of yucky. These feelings can be counteracted by having a higher baseline level of oxytocin and vasopressin, but if that baseline isn’t there and if we’re paying attention, we’re probably going to feel a little bit off after having sex.

This feeling of withdrawal can begin a cycle in which we find ourselves needing another hit of dopamine to feel good again. We might then start using sex to soothe ourselves with dopamine as a way to fill an ever-growing gap caused by the sudden spikes and decreases in oxytocin and vasopressin in our brains. Instead of sex being fulfilling and satisfying, we get caught up in a cycle of constant hookups to avoid the deeper feelings lying underneath.

The Potential of Connection

All of the chemicals we’ve been describing work together toward one thing: connection. Even dopamine plays a part in this, keeping us returning for more (until it doesn’t anymore, but that’s also for the next chapter). When we have sex with someone, we can’t stop these processes from happening in our brain and in our bodies; they’re unavoidable, and they affect us no matter what. Yes, even you. Because any time we come into contact with another human being, any time we come into the presence of another human being, we are affected. That’s simply the way we’re wired; like the earth creature in the garden of Eden, we cannot exist alone.

So if the chemicals that are released during sex all work toward the same goal of connection, then it’s starting to become clear why there’s no such thing as casual sex. The idea of no-strings-attached sex is untenable because these chemicals are strings; they’re strings that connect us to the people who are helping to produce these chemicals in our bodies. If connection is an inevitable by-product of sex, then the risk that sex carries can be summed up in two words: broken connection.

Now, this is the point where the youth pastor voice in our heads (let’s name him Tim) concludes, “So, therefore, you should only ever have sex with one person, after you’re married.” Period. End of story. Right?

Wrong. Tim the Youth Pastor assumes two things: (1) a broken connection is inevitable; and (2) we don’t have any kind of control over the ways sex connects us. Neither one of these assumptions is true.

Broken connections can be incredibly painful. Many of us know what it’s like to share a sexual connection with someone and never hear from them again. We know the pain of a broken heart after a breakup. Researchers have demonstrated that pain from a broken heart has the same physiological effects as a bodily injury. It affects us deeply. And if sex creates connection, then it also increases the possibility of broken connection.

But broken connection is different from disconnection. And I’m proposing that by understanding the biological realities of sex, we will be able to mitigate the risk of broken connection and instead have a choice in the ways we disconnect.

The Trust Floor

The first strategy for mitigating the risk of broken connection hinges on our hormonal wiring: building our oxytocin and vasopressin floor. I’ll call this a “trust floor.” Because these are the chemicals of attachment, the chemicals that make us feel calm and connected, building this floor in a relationship allows us to get over the prolactin slump more effectively. It’s pretty easy to do, because our trust floor is formed by spending time with our partner. Those little touches, kissing, sharing the details of our day, cuddling on the couch—all of these things build our trust floor, and it happens over time. Research shows that the less of a trust floor we have established in our relationships, the more likely sex will lead to broken connection instead of furthered connection.

Some of us may decide to wait to have sex with someone we really like until there’s a bit more of that trust floor established. For others, this information helps us know what to expect if we choose to jump in bed early on in a relationship. We’re able to anticipate our reactions and respond appropriately. The post-sex prolactin spike doesn’t have to mean the end of a relationship, but it does mean that after having sex, we might suddenly start realizing that we don’t like our partner as much as we thought we did.

But what about sex that we don’t want to lead to a deeper connection? What if we don’t want to build a trust floor with someone and just want to hook up? Understanding the science of sex can be empowering in these situations as well. If we approach hookups with the understanding that they will connect us, we will be in a better place to work with ourselves and the relationship to avoid painful broken connections. Two things will help: boundaries and communication.

Boundaries and communication are the foundation of consent, which is an absolute nonnegotiable for healthy sex. It’s vital for the flourishing of people we come into contact with, especially for our sexual partners. Clear mutual communication, clear agreement, and clear boundaries all support consent. If everyone is on the same page from the start, that will help mitigate misunderstandings and broken connection.

These conversations should be happening whether we’re preparing for a hookup or we’re in a relationship. Expectations change, likes and dislikes change, moods change. Even if you’ve had sex with the same person hundreds of times, you don’t truly know where your partner is at any given moment. As these changes are discussed, as communication stays open and healthy, your sex life can get better and better.

Communication and boundaries create the context for flourishing. They make it possible for sex to reach its good and healthy potential. When I’m preparing to go hiking with my friends, understanding the risks allows us to make our experience so much better, so much more fun. It doesn’t guarantee that things won’t go wrong, but it does allow us to navigate and be prepared. In the same way, by understanding the complexities of sex and by communicating with our partners what those complexities mean for us, we enable ourselves to mitigate risk and have truly good sex.

Learn more about Beyond Shame

Topics: Excerpt

Matthias Roberts

Written by Matthias Roberts

Matthias Roberts (he/him) is a psychotherapist specializing in religious and spiritual trauma and the author of Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms. He hosts Queerology: A Podcast on Belief and Being and holds two master's degrees from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, one in theology and culture, and one in counseling psychology. His work has been featured by O: The Oprah Magazine, Bustle, Woman's Day, Sojourners, The Seattle Times, and many others. He lives in Seattle.

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