By Liz Estrata and Gary Wilson
Much time and effort in the last few decades has been well spent in absolving us of guilt for various behaviors mankind once self-righteously condemned. Yet humanity’s benediction is small comfort if you’re suffering from an addiction or slave to an unwanted fetish.
Rick, for example, was an alcoholic for years. He kept his drinking in the closet. His self-imposed isolation made him a social recluse, fed a tendency toward depression (which led to further chemical dependence in the form of Prozac™), and resulted in deep self-loathing.
Suzanne lived with a sexual fetish: she never had orgasm unless she ran a torture movie in her mind. For years she wondered what was wrong with her. Eventually she learned that her pediatrician had done some minor snipping of her genitals when she was an infant. Yet, even after she understood the reason for her pain/arousal association, she couldn’t break the iron link between her “turn on” mechanism and the reward of orgasm.
Both Rick and Suzanne are free of these obsessions without time spent on a psychiatrist’s couch. How did they do it? By learning to make love differently. Not only did this change free them of their compulsions, but there is also a growing body of scientific evidence to explain how it could.
In July-August, 2002, Clinical Neuropharmacology published an article about a man who was given high doses of dopamine to treat Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine can alleviate the shaking associated with Parkinson’s. After 70 years as a run of the mill heterosexual, he suddenly found himself cross-dressing. When doctors decreased his dosage, the urge to put on his wife’s clothing evaporated. The authors hypothesized that excess, or sensitivity to, dopamine may be behind both paraphilias (fetishes) and hypersexuality (sex addictions).
The Role of Dopamine in Sex and Addictions
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that occurs naturally in the brain. Its primary job is to “light up” a section of the primitive brain with intense pleasure when we take any action that once furthered mankind’s survival. The dopamine reward is so powerful that in an experiment where rats could push a lever to stimulate this portion of their brains, they “blissed” themselves to death, without even pausing to eat.
Evolutionary biology has found its uses for this mechanism. For example, we receive a dopamine reward for:
– eating high calorie foods, because the best way our nomadic ancestors could store food was as fat,
– taking risks, because bold, aggressive lovers were more likely to pass on their genes, and
– having sex, even when a harsh existence didn’t leave our ancestors with much opportunity for hanky-panky, or energy/resources for raising offspring. (Orgasm is basically a big blast of dopamine in our primitive brain)
As Burnham and Phelan, the authors of MEAN GENES, From Sex to Money to Food, Taming our Primal Instincts, point out, such activities now create more havoc than benefit. For example,
– High calorie foods are too plentiful for many of us, yet we continue to receive our biological reward for ordering extra fries. This reward for impulsive consuming, rather than saving, also causes many of us to run up nasty credit card debts.
– The reward for taking risks proves equally treacherous for some. We develop gambling addictions or obsessions for extreme sports because they offer such a buzz.
– Sexual stimulation is readily available these days, and compulsion to orgasm frequently leads to irresponsible and aggressive sexual behavior. This particular reward has achieved its biological objective so well that many cultures have already overpopulated themselves to the point of starvation.
The “dopamine for engaging in sex” reward is also the mechanism behind sexual fetishes and compulsive masturbation/sex addictions. It’s hard to kick any habit that’s readily accessible, and for which we receive such an intense reward.
This point brings us to alcohol and drug addictions. Over the course of history, mankind has cleverly (?) learned to hijack this pleasure/reward mechanism with numerous substances that do not further our survival as a species: alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, chocolate, and heroin, to name a few. Some of thes ”like too much orgasm” trigger the release of so much dopamine (or block so much of its re-absorption) that they overwhelm the dopamine breakdown process. Our bodies can’t restore equilibrium.
Unfortunately, too much dopamine floating around in our synapses can lead to nerve damage. This may explain why our bodies eventually cope with these “pleasure excesses” by reducing the number of sites on our nerve cells to which dopamine can bind. (Unless dopamine binds, it cannot stimulate the pleasure nerve.) Sadly, this protective “down regulation” of dopamine receptors feels to us like an intense “low.” All the joy has literally gone out of our lives at a neurochemical level until our receptors wake up again.
To cope with these periods of intense anxiety (and our sense that something vital is missing), we usually reach for higher and higher doses of dopamine (whether through orgasm, drugs or alcohol). So our addictions are often mutually reinforcing, and we are less and less likely to achieve any lasting sense of lasting well-being. Instead we forget what it feels like to operate with a natural sense of healthy equilibrium and end up dependent upon lithium, Prozac™, and so on.
Often we do our relationships irreparable damage while under the influence of this high/low cycle. Sure, our partner looks delicious as the dopamine pounds between our ears. But we tend to “fall out of love” just as fast when we’re feeling “off.” In short, our emotions (and attraction to our partner) tend to be governed by these powerful, fluctuating feelings and we mistake them for our will. Many times we change partners frequently because of this syndrome believing we’re victims of incompatibility. Actually, we’re victims of brain chemical delusions.
Regaining Control of Our Circuitry
As we said earlier, Rick and Suzanne regained control of their primitive brains by learning to make love differently. Instead of following biology’s “dopamine incentive plan” in bed, they employed an approach to sex that’s been around for thousands of years. It calls for avoiding conventional orgasm in favor of another quality of sexual ecstasy. Clues about it are found in Taoist, pre-Roman Christian (“Gnostic”), and selected Tantric texts. These sources speak of a deeply satisfying, very balanced way of making love that stills cravings and is remarkable for its calmness. It is also a path to heightened awareness.
They took a very slow route to intercourse, first sleeping together every night for several weeks. They spent that time cuddling and exchanging energy through massage, dancing, laughing, talking about past relationship trauma and comforting each other, without having sex. To their amazement they felt deeply satisfied by their “love making.” In fact, Rick noted that after three days, the burning desire to have conventional orgasm decreased substantially, even though his libido did not.
When they did add intercourse to their intimacy they stuck to a schedule instead of being spontaneous. Biology rewards spontaneous sex with lots of exciting neurochemicals because it is more likely to result in careless pregnancy. But Rick and Suzanne were consciously tiptoeing past all the familiar dopamine reward triggers commonly known as “skilled foreplay for great, hot sex.”
They discovered that there are other kinds of orgasms. Rick, for example, described his experiences as “heart orgasms” periods of ecstatic closeness that go on and on without the “heat up and explode” experience biology had been rewarding him for.
As the months passed, they also noticed that their relationship had a stability and sense of emotional equilibrium that had been absent from past relationships. They laughed more and processed less. Instead of taking each other for granted, they became increasingly attentive and generous. They spent much of their time harmoniously together. The familiar need for “space” they’d experienced in past relationships disappeared. They were both unusually productive in their careers. Rick was able to stop drinking entirely within a few months, and, months later, also withdrew from Prozac™ (something he’d never thought would be possible, due to a personal and genetic history of depression).
Suzanne, who was also very orgasmic and sexually active, had begun experimenting with non-orgasmic sex years earlier. She’d already found that without the reward of orgasm, her fetish had faded away. What a relief! She also noticed that her chronic problems with yeast infection and urinary tract infection had disappeared. Moreover, one of her lovers, who had herpes, discovered that he never had an outbreak while he avoided conventional orgasm.
How Could this Be?
Rick has a human sciences background, so he wondered if science could explain how making love without conventional orgasm might have such powerful, beneficial effects. He unearthed some fascinating clues. Not only did he deepen his understanding of how dopamine can drive addictions and fetishes, he also found evidence that biology rewards sex with multiple partners. An experiment involving rats demonstrated that if a rat was sexually exhausted with one mate, and then moved to a cage with another mate, the exhausted rat would perk right up. No wonder polyamory and polygamy are appealing biology wants it that way.
Rick learned that the “heart orgasms” he and Suzanne had experienced were probably a function of another, non-addictive neurochemical, oxytocin. Ocytocin promotes deeper bonding and selfless behavior. It, too, feels great, though it is not an explosive reward like dopamine. It also does not trigger a defensive “low” (or sense of lack) and it has a host of other benefits. It makes females more sexually receptive and promotes sexual arousal in males. It also increases the attraction between established partners, but not between unfamiliar potential mates.
And it’s a powerful tonic. It reduces pain signals to the brain, so we feel better. It mitigates the effects of cortisol, a stress hormone that otherwise lowers our immunity to disease, causes us to gain weight, damages our brain cells, and lessens our ability to cope. Rick also found research from Heartmath Institute revealing that open-hearted emotions, associated with oxytocin, correlate with faster regeneration, reversal of high blood pressure, better cognitive ability, higher levels of DHEA (anti-aging hormone), and improved immune response.
Nor was his recovery from addiction any longer a mystery. Oxytocin diminishes the effects of addiction. For example, rats addicted to heroin, which they could self-administer, used significantly less heroin when also injected with oxytocin. Oxytocin has also been shown to ease withdrawal from cannabis. In short, Rick’s personal experience of healing an alcohol addiction that had haunted him for 15 years was entirely aligned with the latest scientific findings. With more oxytocin flowing, impossible challenges had become quite manageable.
To tap the benefits of oxytocin we must stay “in our hearts.” If we’re feeling gratitude, reverence, love or a sense of selfless nurturing, even a conventional orgasm is going to have powerful benefits. However, conventional orgasms especially over time carry the risk of setting off the “down regulation” low that we mentioned earlier. A sense of lack can trigger a selfish pursuit of more and more dopamine. Often this leads to feelings of defensiveness or greed both of which close the heart. Without the ecstasy oxytocin contributes, sex deteriorates into “just sex.” That often fuels a search for thrills from switching partners, or increasingly intense foreplay and orgasm techniques.
So if those solutions don”t call you, or if you are struggling to release an addiction or fetish, take comfort in knowing that a powerful antidote lies in lovemaking that promotes equilibrium, rather than highs and lows. This equilibrium brings well-being to aspects of our lives that have no direct relationship to sex. And, according to the Taoists, this inner calm may be the precursor for a permanent, transcendental shift. As Lao Tsu wrote long ago:
Where ordinary intercourse is effortful, angelic cultivation is calm, relaxed, quiet, and natural. Where ordinary intercourse unites sex organs with sex organs, angelic cultivation unites spirit with spirit, mind with mind, and every cell of one body with every cell of the other body. The cords of passion and desire weave a binding net around you….The trap of duality is tenacious. Bound, rigid, and trapped, you cannot experience liberation. Through dual cultivation it is possible to unravel the net, soften the rigidity, dismantle the trap. you become filled with inexhaustible vitality and are liberated forever from the cycle of death and rebirth.
We hope you’ll help us look until we find what Lao Tsu found and settle for nothing less.
Liz Estrata is the author of PEACE BETWEEN THE SHEETS: Sexual Relationships that Heal, which contains a simple, step-by-step program for couples who wish to outwit biology. It is available through Amazon.