Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review of "Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting our Children."-Chapter 2 (part 2)

Back in August, I started a review of Hooked and then it tapered off when I had to return the book that I borrowed.  Since then I've purchased my own copy so that I can finish what I started.

We left off with a lengthy discussion about the role of dopamine in relationships and sexuality.  Because of how central this chapter is to the main thesis of the book, I decided then to devote multiple posts to exploring the claims in great detail.  We still have two neurotransmitters to go plus some bonus pseudoscience about pheromones to wrap up the chapter.  So let's get started!

Oxytocin, colloquially known as the love hormone, is involved in many processes in the brain related to sexual arousal and bonding behaviors.  It is released during all sorts of behaviors including orgasm, breast feeding, labor, and....hugging or petting your dog.

But to the authors of Hooked:
"While [oxytocin] is present in both genders, it is primarily active in females.  According to the research we have today, the female body uses oxytocin at four different times."-Hooked pg. 35
First of all, while it does have more clear effects in women (only women have a uterus and lactate), oxytocin is quite active as a neurotransmitter in males and plays a similar role in bonding behavior (though vasopressin is more powerful in this capacity).  Why are they marginalizing males here? Because they are setting up support for the narrative that women bond during sex more strongly than men do and can get addicted to partners who don't reciprocate.  The entire chapter repeats this idea ad nauseam: oxytocin makes vulnerable women fall prey to those manipulative sex crazed males.  As we see a little later in the chapter:
"There is a warning here for parents and young people, particularly young women. If a young woman becomes physically close to and hugs a man, it will trigger the bonding process, creating a greater desire to be near him and, most significantly, place greater trust in him. Then, if he wants to escalate the physical nature of the relationship, it will become harder and harder for her to say no.  The adolescent girl who enters into a close physical relationship may therefore find herself, because of the normal effect of her brain hormones, desiring more physical contact and trusting a male who may be using manipulative pledges of love and care only to get her to have sex."-Hooked pg. 39
The citation for this dimorphic claim is "The Female Brain" by Louann Brizendine, a work cited several times throughout this chapter. In this book, Brizendine argues that men and women are wired differently from birth and provides many anecdotes to that effect.  When it comes to the science content however, the book has met with very negative reviews.  Brizendine was given the tongue-in-cheek 2006 Becky Award, which is given to "people or organizations who have made outstanding contributions to linguistic misinformation." A review in the journal Nature described it as follows:

"The book is riddled with scientific errors and is misleading about the processes of brain development, the neuroendocrine system, and the nature of sex differences in general....The text is rife with ‘facts’ that do not exist in the supporting references. A typical example is the claim that young boys “physically cannot hear” the cues in the intonation of adult human female voices that girls can, “just as bats can hear sounds that even cats and dogs cannot”. The references provided (including a paper on songbird brains) require major misunderstanding or misrepresentation to be twisted into such a statement, a state of affairs that is repeated throughout the book...Ultimately, this book, like others in its genre, is a melodrama"-Psychoneuroindoctrinology, Nature
If that wasn't enough, here's a quote from the book that appears in Hooked. which the authors referred to as "compelling evidence" (emphasis mine).
"From an experiment on hugging, we also know that oxytocin is naturally released in the brain after a twenty-second hug from a partner-sealing the bond between the huggers and triggering the brain's trust circuits.  So don't let a guy hug you unless you plan to trust him.  Touching, gazing, positive emotional interaction, kissing, and sexual orgasm also release oxytocin in the female brain.  Such contact may just help flip the switch on the brain's romantic love circuits."-The Female Brain, as cited in Hooked pg. 39-40
So don't even let a guy hug you? Wow. The sources that they draw upon are continuing to impress.

Speaking of sources, what is their citation for "the female body uses oxytocin at four different times"?  A quick peek at the endnote reveals that our old friend the Institute for American Values makes another guest showing with a report (not a study) entitled: "Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities."

This report argues that we should encourage the construction of "Authoritative Communities" and bringing up our children in them. What does that entail?
"These [authoritative communities] make character possible by teaching the young to subordinate their own opinions and desires to what their respective communities require of them."-Religion Today
And what is the "Authoritative Community" they recommend establishing? Why the Evangelical Christian church of course, grounded in the ultimate benevolent authority: God.

This study is being used to argue for national marriage amendments and prayer in schools and such.

The full report is behind a pay wall, but the point seems to be that creating communities based on authority and hierarchy are good for raising children to hold the same moral values that we do and not question them. I think that's exactly why authoritative communities must be avoided; they squelch opposing and disagreeing voices.

But what do they cite this report for? To say "the female body uses oxytocin at four different times." What? A word search for oxytocin in the report indicated that there were roughly four scenarios mentioned in which oxytocin played a role in family development so maybe that's where they get the claim. But there are certainly way more than four ways oxytocin is used.

What this and many other citations throughout hooked should indicate is the ecosystem in which Hooked finds its niche.  I cannot restrain myself from providing one more glaring example from the chapter.
"The oxytocin bonding that takes place in the normal male-female relationship often results in long-term connectedness.  For example, in America when a marriage is intact, it is rare for a woman to have sexual intercourse with anyone except her husband."-Hooked pg 37 (emphasis added)
The poorly disguised jab at same-sex couples is quickly unmasked by considering the source of their marriage statistics: The Case for Marriage by Maggie Gallagher of National Organization for Marriage fame. As Hooked again reminds us, neurotransmitters like oxytocin are "values-neutral" (pg. 37).  This suggests that all the value laden phrases spread throughout this chapter such as "healthy normal male-female relationships" and "sexually destructive behaviors" reflect solely on the values of the authors.

Finally, I feel obliged to reiterate my point on the view of women needing protection from themselves.  This chapter repeatedly implies that women just can't help it. Their brains are wired to make stupid sexual decisions and we need to intervene on their behalf.  This implication is made explicit a little later on.
"A woman's brain can cause her to be blindsided by a bad relationship that she thought was good because of the physical contact and the oxytocin response it generates.  The truth about such a relationship may be apparent to parents or friends who are concerned about the girl's well-being, but it takes wisdom and tact to effectively warn a young woman about a relationship others can see could be dangerous to her."-Hooked pg 40
Apparently they are well aware that they are giving this impression, as they half-heatedly correct themselves on the next page.
"Not all relationships, of course, are made up of a manipulative male and an unaware female, and our point is not to imply this.  But young women especially need to be aware of the powerful bonding effect of oxytocin.
In addition, they cannot know that they actually are seriously damaging a bonding mechanism that they are born with, a mechanism put there to allow them to, in the future, have a healthy bonded marriage that is a stable relationship and provides a healthy nest for children that might be conceived and born into their home, a problem we'll discuss later."  -Hooked pg. 41 (emphasis added)
They cannot know? What barrier is there in a young woman's mind from understanding the neurology involved?

Also, notice the subtle insertion of intent into the biological mix.  "A mechanism put there to allow them, in the future, have a healthy bonded marriage."  It should be clear by now that, in the opinion of the authors, nature is not the designer who put such a mechanism in place.

That's all on oxytocin.  Actually there is a great deal more I could say about oxytocin but I think this post is long enough already.  If you are interested, here are some further articles you should explore:

Next time I'll take a look at vasopressin and pheromones to finally complete my review of Chapter 2.

Previous: Chapter 2: Meet the Brain (Part 1: Dopamine)
Next: Chapter 2: Meet the Brain (Part 3: Vasopressin)
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