When I was eighteen, I invited an “older woman” on a water-skiing weekend up to Lake Mead outside Las Vegas. Dusty was a 22 year old single mother, the first woman I’d ever spent a whole night with, and she had a healthy shamelessness about sex. I, on the other hand, had nothing but … High Anxiety. Well, it didn’t take Dusty too long to figure out that I was a virgin. Our sexual exploits would be best summarized for her by the Rolling Stones song, I Can’t Get No ….
So that was my reason for having sex: it was time. And, I was very lucky. Dusty was patient and kind and willing to hang out with me until I got the hang of this thing supposedly on the minds of men every seven seconds. Working in mental health for a number of years, and hearing stories of how emotionally and physically devastating the First Time can be, was when I realized just how very lucky I actually was. A First Time that is forced or painful or results in abandonment or humiliation often produces Robert Sapolsky’s Four Neuroannihilators. First Time Trauma can take a lifetime to repair. Some people suffer permanent damage and never do fully heal from painful initial sexual experiences. And some people never even realize the extent of the damage they’ve suffered. Having little other than Hollywood fiction to compare it to, they don’t know what’s actually possible in terms of love and sex.
First Time, Best Time
So, a bad first sexual experience holds great potential for conditioning the brain in less than optimal ways. But what might an optimal experience look like in general? Since our kids are most likely going to be having sex whether we like it or not, what guidance might be good for them to get? I think by looking at the positive side of Sapolsky’s neuroannihilators, we are offered some very useful guidelines, derived from his years of observing … monkeys.
First, when engaging in sex both people need to be able to control their own involvement. They need to be able to say “Yes” or “No” without penalty, and both need to be able to change a “Yes” to a “No,” and vice versa, without fear of abandonment or ridicule (remember, we’re imagining optimal here).
Ideally, there next needs to be some predictability with the relationship and some continuity with the people involved. Years ago I recall a book in which Rudolf Steiner, the originator of Anthroposophy, postulated that anyone we have sex with remains a spiritual part of our energetic field for an extended period of time. In the best of all possible worlds, we might want to exchange such energies with people who answer the Big Brain Question “Yes” for us. To simply end up as a notch on someone’s bedpost is probably less than optimal for brain development. I’m guessing it’s not an accident that many spiritual traditions advocate for either celibacy until marriage, or having sex only within a committed relationship. There are neural consequences involved for the brain (not to mention, the heart). Unfortunately, such traditions rarely creatively address the urges and unfolding needs of the developing body.
After predictability, Sapolsky would probably argue for whatever forms of healthy social support might be available. Thankfully, these days there is certainly a lot more support available than when I was a kid. A number of my own students, in fact, have become effective professional sex educators and counselors to teens, counseling them on topics ranging from birth control to disease prevention to sex and spirituality to Second Generation Virginity.
Sex Stress Test
One important thing it’s useful to remember: sex is stressful. Even consensual sex. But according to Jonah Lehrer, my second most favorite neuroscientist, consensual sex stress is good stress. The glucocorticoids that normally diminish the growth of new brain cells, actually appears to increase them when released during consensual sex. If this is indeed the case, then sex itself would qualify as an effective stress management technique – the fourth and final requirement on Sapolsky’s list of neural enhancers.
So, there we have some food for thought. Lest I forget, here is the research cited in my title, the 237 Reasons for Having Sex. I find the presentation both silly and fascinating. The normal adult brain has networked 100 billion neurons making an average of 10,000 connections each (you do the math), and many of those connections process energy and information outside conscious awareness. Such complexity and unconsciousness suggests we may be simplifying things just a wee bit when we try to boil down having sex to only 237 reasons. Finally, if you want to discover some surprising ways we all unconsciously affect sexuality in children, click HERE.