Getting Attached After Sex: Myth or Fact?

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We’ve heard it so many times: Guys can detach themselves after a hook-up, keeping the experience entirely physical. Meanwhile, for whatever reason, biological or otherwise, collegiettes like us have a harder time keeping emotions out of the bedroom.

Is this really true, though? Can boys really avoid attachment? Are girls unable to detach themselves and make sex an entirely physical act? It’s not usually something that gets covered in class, so how’s a collegiette to know the truth? We at Her Campus wanted to find out!

Your Brain on Sex

The hook-up culture that exists on college campuses leaves a lot of questions unanswered for both men and women. “Did that mean something?” and “Does he/she realize that I don’t want a relationship?” are common questions from both sides. Whether you’ve had a one-night stand or you’re trying to turn a hook-up into something more, navigating the aftermath of casual sex is never an easy task. The preconception that many collegiettes have is that men are “only after one thing,” and that a relationship isn’t in the cards. Recent studies, however, have shown that sex isn’t strictly a physical act for men or women!

A 2011 study conducted by psychology professor Jim Pfaus at Concordia University in Canada revealed that there is an “overlap between sexual desire and emotional love in the brain’s insular cortex.” They are still different receptive areas of the brain, meaning that the two emotions are different, but the overlap means that the connection between love and lust is stronger than once thought. It explains why, when someone has what they think will be casual sex, he or she ends up feeling attached afterwards. These receptive areas of the brain are the same for both men and women.

The main biological difference between men’s and women’s reactions to sexual experiences is the release of hormones during and after sex. During climax, women release higher levels of oxytocin (the “cuddle hormone”) than men do. This unavoidable release causes higher levels of post-sex attachment in women than in men. Males, on the other hand, have lower dopamine levels after sex, resulting in negative withdrawal symptoms and the occasional desire to flee from their partner. It’s bizarre, but not something that they can control. Basically, for women, sexual needs and attachment needs are more highly related than these needs are for men. 

What have collegiettes experienced? Hannah*, 20, from Canterbury Christ Church University, says it’s “definitely possible” for girls to have sex without attachment. “I was having sex with an ex for quite a while, and didn’t get re-attached,” she says. She says she’s also had a one-night stand “and definitely felt nothing afterwards.”

Her experience is not out of the ordinary. Riley*, a student at the University of New Hampshire, says “it’s easy not to get attached” after sex.

Love at First Sight?

What about one-night stands? Is it possible for men (or women) to grow attached after casual sex? It would appear so, according to a study done by Match.com. According to this study, 31 percent of the people surveyed had transitioned from a one-night stand to a long-term commitment. Similarly, 43 percent of men and 32 percent of women admitted to having felt love at first sight, without even having sex. This is encouraging news for men and women who are looking to make a relationship out of a one-time sexual encounter.

It is, of course, difficult to make general statements about gender and attachment. The level of emotional attachment during and after sex is different for each person, regardless of gender. Dr. Helen Fisher, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, says, “Some people have sex first and then fall in love. Some fall head over heels in love, then climb into bed.”

The Takeaway

In other words, attachment happens at different points to different couples; there isn’t a foolproof formula for lust turning into love. Though it may take a woman a while to figure out whether or not she wants to pursue a relationship with someone she hooks up with, relationship coach Lisa Shield suggests that men know “immediately when they are interested in having more than just a sexual relationship with a woman.” So if he comes back after you’ve hooked up once, it could be that he’s interested in something more.

In short, it’s hard to tell whether men and women are truly incapable of having completely “casual” sex. For each gender, the stakes are slightly different. However, the release of hormones on both sides during sex triggers emotional attachment on a certain level. That being said, the hormones are different and have different effects on each gender.

The best thing to do is to be completely honest with your partner about your hopes and expectations for your relationship, whether they include sex or not.

*Names have been changed.

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About The Author

Maddie is a senior at Boston College, where she spends her days fawning over literature and Art History textbooks. She was previously an editorial intern at Her Campus, and is now a HC contributing writer and blogger. Follow her on twitter @madschmitz for a collection of vaguely amusing tweets. 

Editor's Note

Our first-ever book, The Her Campus Guide to College Life, hits stores this April. Pre-order your copy HERE by March 31 to get access to a Google Hangout Q&A with the Her Campus co-founders!

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