By Patricia Weerakoon, medical doctor and sexologist, author and speaker.
It is hard to think of two topics that are further apart than sex and God. Sex is about hot passion and mind-blowing orgasms. Surely all God has to say about it is “don’t do it”?
We will explore sexological research, on sexual desire; romantic love or limerance; and attachment of couple bonding. Second, we will take a critical look the role sex plays in today’s society. Finally, we will peek into the mind of God, the creator of sex.
The brain in love
Recent neuroscience research gives us a framework to explore the power and beauty of desire and love. It helps us understand why sex is so powerful, why it’s so core to our being.
Based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs) studies, Professor Helen Fisher has described the neurobiology of sexual emotions and motivations as a three-stage model of neurological responses. In this model, sex drive motivates general sexual desire; romantic love, also known as limerance, is associated with preference for a specific partner; and partner attachment enables a long-term bond to be formed between man and woman.
The first stage is sexual desire. It’s a testosterone-powered urge that happens deep in the limbic system of the brain, and it’s driven by a powerful cocktail of neurochemicals. It’s a non-specific hunger for sexual gratification. We could satisfy it through a variety of ways: sex, fantasy, masturbation… take your pick. Sexual desire motivates us to have sex.
Why are people turned on by different stimuli? We now know that external stimuli strongly influence the overall process. This is particularly important in childhood and adolescence. Our brains retain neuroplasticity into adult life. What we feed our senses continues to affect the control and expression of our desires.
However, as humans, we have choice in how we respond to desire. We can’t deny our personal responsibility and say “my hormones made me do it”. We choose what we put into our brains and choose how we act to sexual impulses. And that means we can, and must, conduct our sexuality in a responsible manner.
The second stage of Fisher’s three-stage model is called romantic love or limerance. It’s characterised by an increased focus on one preferred mating partner. We feel motivated to pursue one particular person, for the reward of intimacy – that is to say, we ‘fall in love’ with them.
This affective state is primarily associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine, a powerful pleasure chemical. Other chemical changes include an increase in norepinephrine and decreased levels of central serotonin. Dopamine gets us hooked on our beloved – we think about them all the time, we want to be with them, close to them. The decrease in serotonin caused us to concentrate on that person in exclusion of all others – a bit like obsessive compulsive disorder. Norepinephrine makes us feel fearless, and inhibits our pain centres, when we’re around our beloved. This is why love is so powerful. Being ‘in love’ is an addiction, an obsession and like it, loss is felt at a neural and neurochemical level.
Fortunately, this romantic state of lovesickness lasts between eighteen to twenty-four months.
What happens to a relationship after that time? One of two things: either the couple break up, or they move into the third phase of attachment or bonding.
This phase of a couple’s relationship is characterized by feelings of trust, calm, security, social comfort, and emotional union. This stage is associated with the neuropeptides, oxytocin and vasopressin. These are called ‘cuddle hormones’ for the simple reason that they increase with any form of intimacy between the couple. An orgasm sends oxytocin levels through the roof. This shared intimacy of a long term union brings lovers closer together, potentially triggering a “virtuous” cycle: the more you make love, the closer you feel, and the closer you feel, the more you make love.
Sex and society
How are we as a society dealing with the power and fragility of sex? Has feeding our desires become the goal in life? What about love? And long term couple attachment?
The desire for more and more sex, better sex, and longer-lasting sex has spawned an industry of medicalised sexuality: props, pills and surgery to enhance our bodily sexual functioning. As the large gold and red roadside billboards advise those of us who want to ‘bonk longer’ all we need is to make that phone call, and it will be ours. And if that isn’t enough and you want the mega penis you see in porn videos – get a penis enhancement. Or maybe as a woman, you want that hairless prepubescent pubis of the porn star? Labioplasty and vaginal reconstructions are available. Age, illness, disability – nothing need stand in the way of having the body we want, and the sex we want.
And then there’s pornography, a multi-billion dollar global industry. The average age of first exposure to porn is eleven of age. Repeated exposure to porn rewires the brain. Men are particularly vulnerable to porn because they are, on average, more visual – although there has been a recent increase in written, literary porn, directed at women.
Is this really what we want sex to be? A desperate, porn-directed, pill-powered, surgically enabled pleasure explosion?
What about the relational aspects of sexuality – love and romance? Have we lost the ability to distinguish between “I love you” and “I want your body”? Nowhere is this game of lust played out more than in our teenagers. A recent study with >3000 grade 10 to 12 students reports that 78% of students have experienced some form of sexual activity, over one quarter of all year 10 students and just over half of year 12 students having experienced sexual intercourse. For young women, among those who reported having sexual intercourse, over a third reported unwanted sex.
When it comes to sexually transmitted diseases, the picture for our young people is ominous. A 2011 Kirby Institute report asserted that Australia’s young people are facing a sexual health crisis of epidemic scale. The recorded number of Chlamydia (a disease that can remain symptomless and cause infertility) has risen exponentially.
What about long-term intimacy and attachment? Is commitment an out-dated concept? Are we a nation of cheaters?
One particular on-line dating site, focused on married people who want to have an affair, attracted almost half a million members across Australia. Articles abound that discuss extramarital affairs as harmless, and possibly even healthy to a relationship. Marriage rates are down and divorce rates are increasing as couples choose to shack up, have casual sex, friends with privileges and one night stands.
Again, part of this is neurochemical. We fall in love with falling in love. We seek the dopamine-fuelled emotional high of being ‘in love’, and when it fades – as it always does after a maximum two years – we move on. We don’t have the patience to stay for the cuddle hormones to kick in.
So our sexual behaviour is all messed up. What can we do about this?
The mind of God
In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God lays down a plan for good sex:
The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
The God of the Bible is pro-sex. He’s so pro-sex; he invented marriage as the framework for it.
My years as a sexologist and Christian have taught me two things. First: there is a wonderful congruence between sexological research and God’s view of healthy and wholesome sexuality. Secondly: our sexual biology and neurochemistry is God’s way of giving us the software and programming for the best sex ever.
Sexual desire is powerful because it is purposeful – it’s meant to point us to our sex partner. The “I want” of sexual desire is good – when coordinated with the other aspects of our sexual function, as God meant it to be, and as recent sexological research has discovered. Sexual desire is meant to operate in harmony with falling in love with a particular person, and bonding with them for life.
The first recorded words from God to humans in the Bible are the command: “be fruitful and increase in number” – that is, have babies. God’s command to have children implies a command to have sex.
Why did God make sex so much fun? God gave us sexual desire – including all the neurobiology of desire – because sex is good. And sexual pleasure is good. Both are good because he – the one true God, the source and definition of ultimate goodness – thought them up.
Romantic love focuses the powerful energy of sexual desire onto one particular person. All that heart-wrenching, heart-pounding limerance is meant to drive a particular man and a particular woman towards the mutual union of their bodies.
Not enough people read the Song of Songs these days. It’s divinely inspired erotic romance. The man and the woman – the lover and the beloved – long for each other, search for each other, get married – a wedding lies at the middle of the book (Solomon 3:6-11) – and delight in each other’s bodies.
And finally, attachment is God’s mechanism for seeing us through the long haul. Separation, divorce, and infidelity were never in God’s plan for sex and relationships. That’s why they’re so painful and traumatic.
So let me put before you God’s good plan for great sex. Sex and God are topics that are not far apart, but very close together. Because the good God made us as sexual beings, and gave us a pattern for how to enjoy that sexuality in a healthy way, that’s good for ourselves, our sexual partner, our families, society, and the next generation. Try it for yourself.
Read more about Patricia and her work at
This article was first published in the June 2013 glossy edition of RISE magazine. See back issues here.
 Helen Fisher, Arthur Aron, Debra Mashek, Haifang Li and Lucy L. Brown, ‘Defining the Brain Systems of Lust, Romantic Attraction, and Attachment’, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31, 5, (2002): 413-419.
 J. G. Praus, ‘REVIEWS: Pathways of Sexual Desire’, Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6 (2009): 1506–1533
 Helen Fisher, Arthur Aron, and Lucy Brown, ‘Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Bulletin 361 (2006), 2173–2186.
 Bianca Acevedo, Arthur Aron, Helen Fisher and Lucy Brown, ‘Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love’, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2011: 1-15
 ‘Loved Fifty Shades? Try these…’ Sydney Morning Herald July 13, 2012 Downloaded from http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/loved-fifty-shades-try-these-20120713-220f1.html on 6th December 2012.
 A Smith, P. Agius, A. Mitchell, C. Barrett and M. Pitts, ‘Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2008’, monograph series no. 70, Melbourne: Australian Research Centre, Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University, 2009, http://www.latrobe.edu.au/arcshs/downloads/arcshs-research-publications/secondary-students-and-sexual-health-2008.pdf.
 The Kirby Institute, ‘HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia Annual Surveillance Report 2011’, The Kirby Institute, the University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW.
 Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Natural born cheaters?’ http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/natural-born-cheaters-20120807-23rmn.html, 7th August 2012, accessed 4th Dec 2012.
 ‘Natural born cheaters’ Sydney Morning Herald 7th August 2012. Downloaded from http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/natural-born-cheaters-20120807-23rmn.html on 2nd December 2012
 Genesis 2:23-25.
 Genesis 1:28.