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What hormones stimulate non-sexual intimate behaviour?

What hormones stimulate non-sexual intimate behaviour?

From wikipedia article sexual motivation and hormones, it is said that testosterone/estrogen, oxytocin and vasopressin are stimulating sexual behaviour. But I'm wondering if any of these hormones are linked with physically intimate non-sexual behaviour, like hugs, kisses and cuddles. Also, is there any link through them with having pleasure from these activities?

Is there any research on that and are there gender (sex?) differences?


But I'm wondering if any of these hormones are linked with physically intimate non-sexual behaviour, like hugs, kisses and cuddles.

Kissing is a little messy because it could be characterised as sexual behaviour.

However, oxytocin does has a far more broader role in pro-social and affiliative behaviour than just sexual activity.

Here's one reference. It also seems to suggest a stronger role of oxytocin in women than males:

Effects of Partner Support on Resting Oxytocin, Cortisol, Norepinephrine, and Blood Pressure Before and After Warm Partner Contact

Objective: We examined whether the magnitude of plasma oxytocin (OT), norepinephrine (NE), cortisol, and blood pressure (BP) responses before and after a brief episode of warm contact (WC) with the spouse/partner may be related to the strength of perceived partner support.

Methods: Subjects were 38 cohabiting couples (38 men, 38 women) aged 20 to 49 years. All underwent 10 minutes of resting baseline alone, 10 minutes of WC together with their partner, and 10 minutes of postcontact rest alone.

Results: Greater partner support (based on self-report) was related to higher plasma oxytocin in men and women across the protocol before and after WC. In women, higher partner support was correlated with lower systolic blood pressure (SBP) during solitary rest after WC but not before. Also, higher OT in women was linked to lower BP at baseline and to lower NE at all 4 measurements.

Conclusion: Greater partner support is linked to higher OT for both men and women; however, the importance of OT and its potentially cardioprotective effects on sympathetic activity and BP may be greater for women.

ABP = ambulatory blood pressure; BMI = body mass index; BP = blood pressure; CVD = cardiovascular disease; DBP = diastolic blood pressure; HPA = hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal; HR = heart rate; IV = intravenous; MI = myocardial infarction; NE = norepinephrine; OT = oxytocin; SBP = systolic blood pressure; SNS = sympathetic nervous system; SRI = Social Relationships Index; WC = warm contact.

And another:

More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women

In animals, ventral stroking for >5 days increases oxytocin (OT) activity and decreases blood pressure (BP), but related human studies are few. Thus, relationships between self-reported frequency of partner hugs, plasma OT and BP levels were examined in 59 premenopausal women before and after warm contact with their husbands/partners ending with hugs. Higher baseline OT before partner contact was associated with lower BP and heart rate, and met criteria to be a partial mediator of the lower resting BP shown by women reporting more frequent hugs (P < 0.05). OT levels during post-contact stress were unrelated to hugs or BP. Menstrual cycle phase did not influence any OT measure. Thus, frequent hugs between spouses/partners are associated with lower BP and higher OT levels in premenopausal women; OT-mediated reduction in central adrenergic activity and peripheral effects of OT on the heart and vasculature are pathways to examine in future research.

Also, other transmitter systems are involved in what we might characterise as affectionate behaviour. the opioid system has a role in both humans and non-human primates:

In non-human primates:

Opioid receptor blockade reduces maternal affect and social grooming in rhesus monkeys

Seven lactating female rhesus macaques, housed in social groups, were administered with low doses (0.5 mg/kg) of the opioid antagonist naloxone when their infants were 4, 6, 8, and 10 weeks old. A control group received saline. Mothers receiving naloxone were involved in less grooming with other group members, and were less protective towards their infants. By infant-age week 8 they also groomed their infants less, while other monkeys groomed the infants more. Other behavioural measures of mother-infant interactions were not altered. With time, from infant-age week 6 onwards, some short-lived dysphoric conditioned drug responses to naloxone became apparent, although these were not correlated with the decline in social interaction. These results are interpreted in terms of possible interference of naloxone with maternal affect.

And humans:

Social touch modulates endogenous μ-opioid system activity in humans

In non-human primates, opioid-receptor blockade increases social grooming, and the endogenous opioid system has therefore been hypothesized to support maintenance of long-term relationships in humans as well. Here we tested whether social touch modulates opioidergic activation in humans using in vivo positron emission tomography (PET). Eighteen male participants underwent two PET scans with [11C]carfentanil, a ligand specific to μ-opioid receptors (MOR). During the social touch scan, the participants lay in the scanner while their partners caressed their bodies in a non-sexual fashion. In the baseline scan, participants lay alone in the scanner. Social touch triggered pleasurable sensations and increased MOR availability in the thalamus, striatum, and frontal, cingulate, and insular cortices. Modulation of activity of the opioid system by social touching might provide a neurochemical mechanism reinforcing social bonds between humans.


Here’s why we need more studies on women’s sexual desire

One study isn’t enough for us to say we’ve got it all figured out, regardless of how methodologically stellar that one study is. We still don’t know whether hormones affect different types of sexual desire—maybe hormones affect the primal, hit-it-and-quit-it type of sexual desire in a different way than the loving and sensual type of sexual desire.

Also, while we’re pretty sure that hormonal changes across a woman’s menstrual cycle have an impact – especially when it comes to estradiol and progesterone – we aren’t yet sure what role this plays from woman to woman. Some women produce more or less of reproductive hormones (like estradiol and progesterone) than other women, and these differences are totally normal and natural. But the question remains: do women who produce higher estradiol also have a higher sex drive, on average, than women who produce less estradiol? We still haven’t figured out what effects (if any!) average levels of reproductive hormones may have on women’s sexuality.

Finally, we don’t know why these hormone-driven changes in sexuality exist. While many theories have been proposed (check out this paper by yours truly if you want to get into the weeds of this a bit), we still don’t know which ones are most likely. But, rest assured that we’re doing our best to figure it out.

Really want to dive deeper on this topic?
Here are a few of our favorite studies.


“ Our findings demonstrate that, for some people, viewing emotionally intimate stimuli can increase estradiol levels, but this was not the case for women who are more detached from close relationships. ”

ANN ARBOR—University of Michigan researchers have found that women who avoid close relationships and intimacy have smaller hormone responses to emotionally intimate stimuli.

The effects of avoidance were not observed in men or among women exposed to neutral or positive situations, said Robin Edelstein, U-M assistant professor of psychology and the study’s lead author.

Edelstein and colleagues assessed changes in estradiol, a steroid hormone associated with attachment and care giving. Estradiol plays important roles in parent-infant bonding, as well as romantic relationships involving adults.

“Our findings demonstrate that, for some people, viewing emotionally intimate stimuli can increase estradiol levels, but this was not the case for women who are more detached from close relationships,” said Edelstein, who added that it’s possible these differences contribute to women being emotionally distant.

The fact that estradiol responses among women who are emotionally detached are similar to other women’s after viewing neutral or positive stimuli suggests that emotionally detached women may be selectively inattentive to emotional intimacy. It is also possible that they’re paying attention, but still cannot benefit from this kind of intimacy, Edelstein said.

The researchers used data from 229 college students, ranging in age from 18 to 37. The participants reported their experiences in close relationships (including avoidance of intimacy).

Participants provided saliva samples before and after viewing one of three randomly assigned videos clips depicting an emotionally intimate (father-daughter relationship), positive (children engaging in ballroom dancing) or neutral (animal life in the ocean) theme. The researchers assessed whether the depictions of intimacy increased participants’ level of estradiol.

Among single participants, estradiol levels increased in response to the intimate clips, but this was not the case for participants in relationships. There was no difference among participants after seeing the positive or neutral clips.

Since most of the sample participants were between ages 18-22 and most did not have romantic partners, it is possible that many single individuals considered a parent to be their primary attachment figure. Therefore, they were more likely to identify with the parent-child interaction, Edelstein said.

It’s not yet clear why men who are emotionally detached did not show the same estradiol response as women who are emotionally detached. Avoidance did not differ significantly by gender, but men did have somewhat lower estradiol levels to begin with. It’s possible that avoidance would influence men’s estradiol responses to a different kind of emotionally intimate video, Edelstein said.

Edelstein conducted the study, which appears in the February issue of Hormones and Behavior, with Emily Kean, a graduate student in social work, and William Chopik, a graduate student in psychology.


Hormones: Learning the rules of attraction

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A woman's smile may not be all it seems. When her zygomaticus major cheek muscle moves the upper lip upward and outward to produce that warm smile, it may be more than a friendly gesture – it could be a sign of hormones at work.

Researchers have found when a woman sees images of men, her smile muscle is more active during the follicular stage of the monthly cycle, and they suggest it may be a way of increasing the chances of intimacy. Progesterone, the hormone that prepares the womb for a possible pregnancy, is thought to be implicated.

It's the latest research to show the effects of hormones on mood and behaviour. Other hormones have been linked to depression, stress, anxiety, forgetfulness, social bonding, fatherhood, lying, generosity, romance and trust, as well as sexual relationships.

"No matter how sophisticated we think the expression of desire is, human behaviour is not so free from the action of hormones," says Dr James Pfaus of the Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology at Concordia University. "What we are finding from studies is that hormones set a stage for human responses to environmental stimuli, just as they do in other animals."

Hormones are being used as the basis for treatments for conditions as diverse as stress, anaemia and memory difficulties, and are being investigated for others, such as symptoms of autism, obesity and depression.

Hormones – from the Greek hormo, to set in motion – are chemical messengers that travel around the body co-ordinating complex processes like growth and development, metabolism, fertility, and almost everything the body does to stay alive. They orchestrate the changes that occur at puberty, they affect the immune system, and they can alter behaviour. Secreted by a network of endocrine glands and distributed through the bloodstream, they enable communication with distant organs to co-ordinate the body's actions and reactions in events as diverse as disease, pregnancy and stress.

Research is increasingly uncovering the roles played by hormones in behaviour and mood. In many cases, it's being found that hormones have more than one role. Oxytocin, for example, which stimulates the contraction of the womb and milk ducts in the breast, has been shown to play a role in social bonding. "It produces strong effects, and is the first treatment we have found for improving empathy and bonding," says Dr Adam Guastella, senior clinical research fellow at the Brain and Mind Research Institute, University of Sydney, who led the study.

A spray based on insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels, is being used to treat forgetfulness, while testosterone, which directs the development of male features, is being used to improve blood sugar levels in men with diabetes. Prolactin, the hormone that triggers breast-milk production, has been found at higher levels in fathers who bond well with their children low levels of the hormone cortisol have been linked to antisocial behaviour in boys. Erythropoietin, or EPO, produced by the kidneys and stimulating the formation of red blood cells, is being investigated as a way to treat depression.

"While hormones play a huge part in physical development, it is being increasingly seen that they play key roles in mood and behaviour," says Dr Nick Neave, reader in psychology at the University of Northumbria. "The two thyroid hormones, for example, are very closely linked to mood because people who have low or high levels can have major mood problems. There are probably hundreds of hormones, many of which we have yet to discover, which have an effect on everything that we do."

Potential new uses are also being identified through research on animals. Research at Cambridge University, based on meerkats, shows that males who were encouraged to baby-sit their offspring rather than forage for food had much higher levels of the hormone prolactin. The researchers say the finding lends weight to the idea that co-operative working in groups and families has a hormonal basis.

What it is: Made by beta cells inside the pancreas, it helps the body use or store the glucose it gets from food. People with Type 1 diabetes, whose natural insulin is inadequate or absent, rely on insulin therapy.

What's new: A twice-a-day nasal spray of the hormone is being used to fight forgetfulness. It is designed to improve recall in people aged over 55 with memory difficulties, including dementia. Just how it works is not clear, but a theory is that it has an effect on nerve cells in the brain. "Acute insulin administration improves memory. Treatment with insulin has not been a viable option before," say researchers at the University of Washington.

What it is: Produced by the pituitary gland, it is secreted at higher levels during stressful events, pregnancy and breast-feeding. More than 200 effects on growth, reproduction and immunology have been reported.

What's new: It has long been known that the hormone plays a significant role in maternal care, but research is showing that it is connected with paternal care in humans, and in fish and birds. "It is important in paternal care and thus deserves the label 'hormone of paternity'," say University of Zurich researchers. Research at Emory University in Atlanta shows that new fathers with higher prolactin levels are more alert and positive in their responses to the cries of the baby.

What it is: Secreted by the corpus luteum and by the placenta, it's responsible for preparing the body for pregnancy and, in pregnancy, maintaining it until birth.

What's new: Research is increasingly showing that it has a big impact on mood. Watching a romantic film boosted progesterone levels by more than 10 per cent, bringing couples closer together, according to research at the University of Michigan. A movie such as The Godfather can alter testosterone and dampen attentive feelings. "When you're watching movies, your hormones are responding, not just your mind," said Oliver Schultheiss, who led the study. "This helps explain why certain people like to go to certain types of movies. Affiliation-motivated people like to see romantic flicks, but power-motivated people prefer movies with more action and violence. If you want to learn about someone's personality, look at their video collection or bookshelves."

Work at the Center of Mental Health, Marienheide, Germany, shows that the smile muscle of women was most active in the follicular phase of the monthly cycle, when the hormone levels are low. Women smiled more when exposed to images of men. "Up to now, no efforts have been made to investigate the relationship between ovulation-related shifts in women's sexual desire and changes in their facial expression of emotion. Smiling. is an important precondition of social relations of any kind. A female's smile at a male might increase the probability of a more intimate contact including sexual intercourse," the research found.

What it is: Secreted by the adrenal glands, it's involved in a wide range of functions, including glucose metabolism, regulation of blood pressure and immune system functioning, but is most associated with stress and preparing the body for the fight or flight response. Small increases of cortisol can result in a quick burst of energy for survival, increased brain activity and lower sensitivity to pain.

What's new: It could also have a use as a memory aid, according to University of Chicago research. Laboratory studies have shown that animals learn more quickly if they have a modest amount of cortisol than those with high or low levels. Those with high and low levels took an average of 14 attempts to find their way around a maze, compared to nine tries for the cortisol-treated group. A study at the University of Cambridge shows that stock markets affected levels of testosterone and cortisol in traders. When they were successful and made more money, testosterone levels were high, but when the markets were unpredictable, they had greater amounts of cortisol.

What it is: Produced mainly in the hypothalamus, released into the blood through the pituitary gland, it stimulates contraction of the uterus and milk ducts in the breast. Research shows that breast-feeding women who have higher levels are calmer than bottle-feeders.

What's new: Also known as the hormone of love, it has been shown to increase social bonding. Sydney University research shows that oxytocin strengthens remembering of positive things. "It improves memory of positive interactions, and improves bonding in men, enhancing the development of positive relationships, and helps with social relationships," researchers say. The research has implications for treating some disorders where there are problems of social bonding, including autism and social anxiety. High levels have also been associated with increased trust and generosity. When researchers at Claremont Graduate University in America gave doses of oxytocin and a placebo to volunteers, those fed the hormone gave 80 per cent more money away to a stranger.

What it is: Produced in the ovary, testes and placenta, this class of hormones has various functions in both sexes, including the development of the female sex characteristics. During the menstrual cycle, it acts to produce an environment suitable for the fertilisation, implantation and growth of the embryo.

What's new: Oestradiol, one of the oestrogens, also helps women to be more attractive to men, according to a Harvard study. Symmetrical-faced women, seen as more attractive by men, had a 21 per cent higher mid-cycle oestradiol level than asymmetrical women. At other times, the difference was as high as 28 per cent. "Our results suggest that, in women, symmetry is related to higher levels of oestradiol and, thus, higher potential fertility. As a consequence, men attracted to more symmetrical women may achieve higher reproductive success," the researchers say.

Oestrogen may help women to be safer drivers than men, according to Bradford University researchers say the hormone may boost the part of the brain involved in attention span and mental flexibility.

What it is: Produced by the adrenal glands, it acts on the kidneys to make sure that salt levels in the blood are at safe levels.

What's new: It is being investigated as a treatment for people who suffer from high blood pressure. Researchers from the University of Glasgow studied the way in which aldosterone affects blood pressure regulation and found that in older people, higher levels in the bloodstream are associated with high blood pressure, while in young adults, high levels indicate a greater risk of developing hypertension later in life.

What it is: A hormone naturally produced by the kidneys that stimulates the formation of red blood cells.

What's new: It is being used as a treatment for anaemia, and is being investigated as a therapy for depression. Tests on healthy volunteers show it does have an effect on brain chemicals involved in emotion.

What it is: A sex hormone that plays a key role in puberty, largely produced in the testes. In men, testosterone helps maintain bone density, fat distribution, muscle mass and strength, red blood cell production, sex drive and sperm production. It's involved in the development of male reproductive organs and features. Women have smaller amounts of testosterone produced in the ovaries, which plays a role in libido and maintaining muscle and bone strength.

What's new: Research shows that girls exposed to high levels of the male hormone in the womb have an increased interest in boys' toys like gun and cars. "They also show increased interest in boys' activities and in playing with boys," says Professor Melissa Hines of the University of Cambridge.

The hormone can raise male libido in a very short time. After just 4.9 minutes in the same room as a woman they'd not met before, and in some cases did not find particularly attractive, men's testosterone levels had shot up by an average of 8 per cent, according to research at the University of Groningen in Holland. The rising levels fuelled visible changes in male behaviour, including a squaring of shoulders, upright posture, and greater use of hands. Scientists at the University of Giessen in Germany found that in women, a lack of the hormone reduced spatial ability, including in map-reading.

What it is: A hormone released by the small intestine during eating, it may help people lose weight.

What's new: Imperial College research shows that those injected with it lost an average 2.3kg (5lb) in four weeks, five times placebo levels. Another hormone, ghrelin, is thought to tell the brain when it's time to eat.


Hormones and Behavior

Behavior is intricately woven of genetics, environment, and hormones. The interplay of the nervous and endocrine systems and the influence of sex hormones on behavior are examined here in depth. Hormones are intimately tied to sex characteristics and to behavior. The behavioral implications of the presence or lack of certain hormones at critical periods of development is explored. Hormonal influence on female cycles, reproduction, nursing, sexual behavior and sex differences are also examined. The intimate relationship between psychology and physiology becomes apparent. .
Sex Hormones, Gender Differences, and Behavior.
Organisms monitor the external state of the world and integrate the information they receive with their internal state. It is through the nervous system that humans contact our environment, the external world, and are adapted to function in it (Mani, Blaustein & O"Malley, 1997). Awareness of the tangible, through the network of nerves, spinal cord and brain, becomes awareness of information ceaselessly conveyed. Messages are carried along the millions of nerve pathways to the brain, and are then transformed in some mysterious way into information. Sometimes this information causes nerves to fire initiating muscle response. Along with this display of incoming and outgoing nervous energy there are parallel activities in the system of endocrine glands and the interplay of activity is so significant that unless the endocrine system is functioning normally, there will be no adequate response to the information and no transformation of one type of energy into another (Leshner, 1978).
The Endocrine System.
The endocrine system is the internal system of the body that deals with chemical communication by means of hormones, the ductless glands that secrete the hormones, and the target cells that respond to hormones (Leshner, 1978). The endocrine system provides chemical communication in the body through the release of hormones into the bloodstream.

Essays Related to Hormones and Behavior

1. Maternal Behavior/Hormone and Behavior

In this paper I will examine the influence of hormones, the brain, and experience on maternal behavior in mammals. ENDOCRINE/NEUROPEPTIDE INFLUENCES Hormones are seen to affect the onset and maintenance of maternal behavior. . Whereas many of the behaviors that mothers exhibit are dependent on hormones, there are some behaviors that may be expressed in the absence of any hormonal influence. . The ovarian hormones of importance in maternal behavior are estrogen and progesterone. . Oxytocin has also been seen to be influence the acquisition of new knowledge (notes: Hormones and Be.

2. Neural and Hormonal Aggression

Hormones are chemical substances that regulate the mood of your body unregulated hormones therefore can cause mood changes. . Although this study is done on mice therefore becoming less appropriate in generalizing the findings to human behavior it does show scientific evidence that testosterone has an effect on aggression levels. . Despite this, more animal research, for example, reducing serotonin levels in monkeys resulting in an increase in aggressive behaviors replicates patterns in the experiment conducted by Wagner. . For example, alcohol, with this drug reducing are anxiety which.

3. Sexual Behavior

However, other theorists claim that psychological and cultural factors are the key determinants of these patterns of behavior. . One biological factor that seems promote sex desire is hormone testosterone. The role of testosterone has been documented in studies of male sex offenders have been given synthetic hormones that suppress the production of testosterone. Hormones do not cause sexual behavior or any other behavior. . People's values, expectation, fantasies, and beliefs profoundly affect sexual desire and behavior. .

4. Hypothyroidism

However, these terms hide a deeper layer of mental and behavioral instability. . Testing for hyperthyroidism involves tests that measure thyroid hormone levels in your blood, as well as the TSH test, which measures the concentration of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) in your blood. . They slow down your thyroid's production of thyroid hormone. . These cells can no longer make thyroid hormone which can cause you to become hypothyroid and you will probably be given a synthetic thyroid hormone called levothyroxine sodium for the rest of your life. . Again, following surgery, y.

  • Word Count: 1344
  • Approx Pages: 5
  • Has Bibliography
  • Grade Level: High School

5. The Role Of Biology Vs. Social Construction In Gendered Behavior

This research, he concludes, shows how the monkeys were reared modified the effects of prenatal hormone experience on their sex-dimorphic behavior. . In Udry's actual study, he cites the basic hormone model, and shows that in the sample of women he studied, the mother's prenatal hormones have an effect on the gendered behavior of their adult daughters thirty years after data was originally collected. . Sex differences in men and women have been attributed to the size of the cranium and before hormones were discovered, a "plasm" that men possessed that seemingly explained their .

  • Word Count: 2074
  • Approx Pages: 8
  • Has Bibliography
  • Grade Level: Undergraduate

6. Endocrine System

These hormones maintain the proper balance of bodily functioning. . In birds the thyroid is important to behaviors linked to changes in daylight. . The hormones secreted by the medulla help the body in stressful situations. . These hormones regulate carbohydrates and glucose in the blood. . Information on the endocrine system is important to the field of veterinary technology because it can help determine why an animal is sick or not exhibiting normal behavior. .

7. Behavior Theory

The behavioral theory suggests that behavior is learned through other people's examples. . If Johnny is learning the behavior at school, he must be taught the correct behavior so he knows what the correct behavior is. . Biology Another theory to Johnny's behavior is that this behavior might be inherited. . His behavior might also be caused by a hormonal imbalance in his body. If this is the case, medication can be given to correct the hormone imbalance. .

8. Comparison of nervous system and the endocrine system

This gland influences hormone secretion in all the other glands. . Another similarity is that the chemical messengers of both systems affect the nervous system and may also influence behavior such as moods, emotions, arousal and personality. Behavior is depends on the complex information processing of the nervous system and endocrine system affects behavior through hormones secretion. Example: sexual behavior is affected by hormone release from the gonads and depression is due to reduced activity of the norepinephrine synapses found in the nervous system. . Within the endocrine sys.

9. Agressive Behavior In Sport

Sport and aggressive behavior, Do sports create aggressive behavior, or simply attract people who are already aggressive? . Those long-term effects of so called discipline, patterns develops these destructive behaviors. (9. . Their parents played, who were known for their aggressive behavior, so the child feels that they have to live up to that expectation.( 6. . Not all violent behavior has its origins in anger and rage some of it is learned, as mentioned before. . This is in relation to the dominance and antisocial behavior related to the individuals. .


The impact of early life stress

Studies in rodents have taught us how the development of the oxytocin system is altered by early trauma. Early life stress changes oxytocin levels within the hypothalamus and the amygdala, which are important brain regions in the production of oxytocin and emotional regulation respectively. Even the functioning of the oxytocin receptor is altered following early life trauma.

Similar changes are also clear in humans exposed to childhood trauma. Women who were exposed to child abuse showed reduced oxytocin levels later in life, as did men who had experienced childhood stress. Oxytocin levels were also lower in children who had been raised in neglectful conditions in a Romanian orphanage.

These long-lasting changes affect behavioural outcomes. Exposure to early life adversity increases anxiety and depressive behaviours in rodents, which endures well into adulthood.

Research has shown how early life stress can impact on the developing oxytocin system resulting in a greater susceptibility to develop drug dependence and being less capable to cope with stress.

In turn, a well-regulated oxytocin system can support greater resilience against excessive drug use and addiction. Animal studies show oxytocin can boost the reward of social connection, lower the effect of drugs, reduce anxiety, and improve management of stressors. But we still need more research in humans.

Early life stressors do not only impact the oxytocin system. A number of other systems that work with oxytocin also change, such as important neurotransmitters and the stress system. This results in changes to how these systems interact and contributes to changes in the oxytocin system and ultimately behaviour.

As oxytocin is critically involved in emotional regulation, understanding how the developing oxytocin system can be affected early in life can help us understand how early adversities can have a long-lasting impact on mental health.


All About Emotional, Sexual, Physical, And Platonic Intimacy

When you hear people say 'intimacy,' what do you imagine? Odds are, you imagine sex. This is because the word is commonly used in the context of sex. You get intimate with your partner. It's one of those words that almost sounds scandalous, doesn't it?

But this is only a part of what intimacy is. In this article, we will break down all the types of intimacy.

What Is Intimacy?

The dictionary defines intimacy as "closeness," describing it as a familiarity or friendship that is close. This means that if you're intimate with another, there is a feeling of closeness, which doesn't really have to be with your spouse. It could be your friend. When you are intimate with another, you are doing something that strengthens your bond with that person. That is why sex is described as something that is intimate because whether you're having sex as lovers or just friends, it's a way to connect and bond.

There Are Different Types of Intimacy

Platonic Intimacy

You've probably heard of the word platonic before, but what does it mean? Simply put, it's love that is non-sexual. Named after Plato, who talked about love, this can apply to friendships or even relationships themselves. Here's how to be platonically intimate:

-Offer your friendship. Be there for your friend's emotional needs and listen to them as much as possible. Don't be an inconsistent friend who is only there when your friend has no problems, and then vanish when things got rough.

-Platonic intimacy may include touching, although not sexual. Embracing and cuddling are a few examples. Some people may feel that their level of platonic intimacy improved after physical contact. It&rsquos possible that platonic intimacy improved from feelings of trust, safety, compassion, or all three.

-A platonic relationship should not be expected to evolve into a sexual one. It can happen, but if one party expects it, they may wind up disappointed.

How to Improve

If your bond with your friend or platonic intimacy just isn't what it used to be, don't worry. Life gets in the way, and friendships do go through periods of stagnation. We all grow older and have jobs, kids, and lives to deal with. But that doesn't mean that your friendship has to go under. Here are some ways to improve that.

  • Talk more. Most people have social media and phones, but we're all too afraid to talk to one another. Fix that. Try to have a &ldquohold space&rdquo &ndash holding space refers to offering your ear and compassion to someone without expecting anything in return. Be there for your friend for their sake and for the sake of your relationship.
  • Ask for a night out in the town. Find a night where your schedules align and get at it.
  • Or just invite your friend over. Do something like you did in the good old days, be it a game night or just a night of chatting.

Emotional Intimacy

This is like platonic intimacy, but it can happen for both non-sexual and sexual relationships and friendships. If you&rsquore intimate emotionally with someone, you're sharing all your feelings, secrets, and desires with them. They're the person you can go to whenever you feel like talking about your feelings. It doesn't have to be verbal, either. They can be your literal shoulder to cry on, or someone you can hug when you feel upset.

Being intimate emotionally does require a high level of trust. They're someone you can confide your secrets with, a person who is not going to tell others your confessions. Your secrets are safe with this trusted individual.

In a way, this form of intimacy is perhaps the most important part of a relationship. If you can't tell a secret to a friend, they're not a very good friend. If you can't express your feelings to your spouse, then what are you doing married to them? It's a cornerstone of all relationships. You will have different levels of this form of intimacy for different people, but you'll still have at least some level of this intimacy with most of your friends.

Signs That Someone Is Good at Emotional Intimacy Include:

  • They're accepting of your flaws and don't require you to change.
  • You can share pretty much anything with them. Your secrets are safe with them.
  • They're understanding of your feelings and will always be empathetic with you no matter what. While they may not agree with all your decisions, they'll still be supportive.
  • They care about you and want to help you any way you can.

How to Improve

  • If you're not as emotionally intimate with someone as you used to be, talk to them. Tell them how you're doing, express your emotions more, and just speak.
  • On the other hand, you can be the empathetic one. Be the one who listens and offers advice for the person.
  • Just remember to talk to a trustful person. The last thing you want to happen is having half the town know your secret.

Sexual Intimacy

Perhaps the one type of intimacy people think of when they think of intimacy sexual intimacy is when you form a bond with someone though, well, sex.

Not all sex is created equal, of course. You can have casual sex with a friend that lacks intimacy. It's a way to make you feel good, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it as long as you practice safe sex, but it's not quite the same as having sex with someone who you have hard feelings for, is it?

Intimate sex involves a bond that strengthens as you have sex. It doesn't have to be the cliché of having candles in the room and making love in a missionary position. It can be slow, rough, wild, or anyway else you like having sex. But it will feel different, like two people's bodies melding into one.

How to Improve

  • With sexual intimacy, you should have sex with your partner at least once a week to keep the bond going strong.
  • If you feel like the sex is getting dull, try mixing it up. Try new sex positions, new toys, new ways of having sex, sex in costumes, the list goes on.
  • Only have sex when you want to. Don't do it out of obligation, but instead of passion.

Physical Intimacy

This is one level below sexual intimacy, which includes physical activity. It may be connected to platonic intimacy, but it may also be linked with sexual relationships as well. Different people have different love languages and might approach physical intimacy differently. Some examples of this physical bond are:

Holding hands- ever held someone's hand and felt butterflies in your stomach? This is an intimate bond you're sharing with someone.

Hugging-a hug from someone you're intimate with can reduce your stress, make you feel better about yourself, and make you feel closer to that person.

Kissing-It doesn't have to be a hot make-out session. Just a peck on the cheek can make you feel closer to that person compared to a less intimate kiss, such as a greeting in certain cultures.

Cuddling-This is like hugging, but the good feeling lasts so much longer.

How to Improve

  • Be physical with your partner more. Or your friend. Just make sure they're comfy with being touched. Always ask first.

Intellectual Intimacy

This is another type of intimacy that is not very common, yet still worth discussing. Intellectual intimacy is forming a connection with someone through discussion. It can be a discussion on your favorite TV show, religion, political ideas, or any other hobby or idea you're obsessed with. If you find someone who stimulates you intellectually, then you are bonded with him intimately. It can be a colleague, a friend, or even your partner. The person who you're intimate with doesn't necessarily have to have a high IQ, but just someone who has extensive knowledge of a subject you like.

How to Improve

  • Find a subject the two of you are passionate about and have a good conversation about it. If you can't think of anything, maybe introduce each other to your hobbies, which can lead to a good conversation.

Spiritual Intimacy

If you're religious and are fond of going to church, you could be spiritually intimate with your fellow church members. You will feel a connection with a higher power as you sing songs of praise as a group or a choir. However, you don't necessarily have to be religious to feel spiritual intimacy. The experience must be awe-inspiring. For instance, if you go hiking to the mountains and explore the world with someone, this can very well be a spiritually intimate event for both of you.

How to Improve

  • Go to church with some good people. The spiritual intimacy should come tumbling out.
  • Alternatively, find a breathtaking location and go on a journey with your friend to get to it. The journey itself may end up being more intimate than the actual destination.

If you're not feeling as intimate with your partner as you once were, then maybe it's time for you to talk to a counselor. They can help you spark that intimacy, be it sexual, platonic, emotional, or physical. Everyone needs to have some form of intimacy in their lives. If you feel like your life hasn't been that intimate, and our advice isn't working, talk to a counselor today.

And those are the types of intimacy. What is your favorite type? Are there any you've been missing? Tell your stories. We love to hear them.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is platonic friendship?

As we discussed previously, a platonic relationship or friendship is one that contains platonic love &ndash love that isn&rsquot sexual the way love in a romantic relationship might be. Love between two friends can still consist of various forms of intimacy and closeness. What your relationship with a friend looks like can be very different than a best friend.

Friendships are a great source of emotional support, advice, and good times. You may find that you feel close and intimate with someone without any desire to pursue them as a romantic partner. This type of relationship &ndash a close, strong, and healthy friendship &ndash is normal and wonderful to have. Don&rsquot be afraid to show or tell your best friend, friends, or platonic relationships that you care for them!

Is platonic friendship possible?

It&rsquos completely possible to keep up a platonic relationship with someone. Sometimes a close relationship or friends turn into romantic partners, but many times they don&rsquot. You may be friends with someone, even someone of the opposite sex/gender, for years without your relationship ever moving past platonic or platonic intimacy.

There are lots of different types of relationships, and sometimes they can bleed into each other (your significant other might also feel like your best friend, for example). There are some people who may not be interested in romantic or sexual pursuits because of sexual or romantic preference (asexual aromantic and others). An agender person may feel more comfortable with another agender person.

A queer person might be friends with another queer person, but a completely platonic relationship is still possible.

Friends and acquaintances may come and go, but friends that you share true platonic intimacy with are likely to stay and become long term. Intimate relationships between friends can be just as rewarding and necessary as intimate relationships between lovers. Better bonds and intimacy are likely to lead to a closer, more involved friendship that can stand the test of time.

Can platonic friends cuddle?

Yes, people who are platonic friends &ndash just friends with no romantic or sexual attraction &ndash can experience physical intimacy like cuddling. You might also hug or hold hands. That&rsquos okay too, and there&rsquos nothing wrong with enjoying these things. Being physically intimate with your friends can be a great way to strengthen your bond if it&rsquos something that both parties are comfortable with. Platonic intimacy can combine with and include parts of other types of intimacy.

You might find some friends or individuals prefer different types of bonding and intimacy over others. Some people might be uncomfortable with physical touching and intimacy they might prefer to engage in intimacy that's emotional with you, like sharing their thoughts and feelings. Remember that not all people have the same love languages!

What is a platonic love relationship?

A platonic love relationship is one that consists of platonic love (love that isn&rsquot sexual in nature), oftentimes described as the love between friends. It&rsquos also possible to be platonically intimate with someone who is your friend, or have other forms of mental and physical intimacy with them. Intimate friendships, like those between best friends, can still be completely devoid of sexual or romantic attraction.

Platonic love is not only very strong, but it&rsquos an important part of life. Everyone needs support systems when the going gets tough. So be sure that even when you are busy or otherwise occupied to take the time to stay in touch with your most important platonic friends.

Is kissing platonic?

Whether or not something is platonic or not really is up to you and the person you&rsquore with. Generally speaking, kissing is usually associated with sexual or romantic attraction, but it doesn&rsquot have to be. Kisses on the cheek, hand, forehead, etc. might be considered something appropriate for a friend to do, but others might draw the line for physical contact further back, like whether or not it&rsquos okay to hold hands. Different people have different love languages &ndash that is, different people show affection in different ways.

For most people, kissing probably extends beyond the boundaries of platonically intimate relationships. Other activities like hugging, cuddling, or even sexual contact can happen between platonic friends. If you&rsquore uncomfortable or unsure about anything said or done to you (or something you may say or do) from someone you consider a platonic friend, the best thing to do is likely to talk to that person. Discussing and understanding boundaries is a healthy way to communicate and further build trust.

Remember that it&rsquos also normal for your relationships with other people to change, grow, and evolve over time. Sometimes people start as friends, then become lovers, then become strangers, then go back to friends. These are all natural processes in life, and there&rsquos no reason to stress over them or wonder whether they are &ldquonormal.&rdquo

What is platonic flirting?

The words platonic and flirting almost seem like they don&rsquot belong next to each other. Flirting is usually behavior seen as overtly connected to romantic or sexual attraction and relationships, right?

Platonic flirting, or harmless/casual flirting, may happen between friends who genuinely aren&rsquot interested in each other sexually or romantically. Compliments, teasing, kind gestures like buying drinks or meals, hugging or other physical contact, etc. might be considered flirting, and whether or not these actions are appropriate for a platonic friend to do can really be up to the person.

Some people might seem flirty even when they aren&rsquot trying to be, and it can be confusing to understand how to read someone&rsquos behavior toward you. Drawing the line between platonic intimacy and other intimacy or between platonic relationships and romantic relationships can be tricky. Talking to your friends about your feelings and concerns is always a good idea, whether you&rsquore doing any flirting or not.

What are the three types of friendship?

When someone mentions the &ldquothree types of friendship,&rdquo they are usually referencing Aristotle and his work to understand and think about friendship. Aristotle lists three types of friends:

  1. Friendships of utility. These friendships are ones that exist between two people who can be useful to each other. For example, two apartment neighbors may become friendly because they can (and do) ask each other to take care of their plants during time away from home. Maybe two high school students often help each other with homework answers. Perhaps those same two high school students also have lockers next to each other and regularly have friendly discussions.
  2. Friendships of pleasure. Like the name suggests, this type of friendship exists between people who enjoy each other&rsquos company. It&rsquos fun for these friends to be around each other. They likely share a lot of similar interests and do different activities together, like playing a sport or travelling. They might also joke around and banter when they talk &ndash this isn&rsquot necessarily exclusive to only very close friends.
  3. Friendships of the good. These friendships usually take a while to build up, as they exist upon a foundation of admiration and respect for one another. These types of friends may have similar outlooks and philosophies on life and the world &ndash they may be passionate about the same cause, like fighting for breast cancer or practicing social justice. They are likely a best friend, perhaps even a best friend from childhood or high school. These friendships are often described as the strongest or most powerful.

These definitions of friendship aren&rsquot always easy to distinguish in real life, and they are mostly useful in thinking about friendship, all the ways it can look, and the role it has in our lives.

What are the levels of friendship?

There is no set definition of various levels of friendships, but as a relationship with someone forms and evolves, it certainly changes and grows over time. Different levels of friendship or platonic relationships may include:

  • Total strangers: a person you have yet to meet entirely.
  • Acquaintance or colleague: a person you may be friendly with or talk to, but not necessarily someone you would call a friend.
  • Friend: a person you feel you can trust and enjoy spending time with. What a friendship looks like can vary from person to person.
  • Best friend: a best friend is usually a specific friend who you feel knows you better than anyone else, and you are the closest to out of all of your friends.
  • Family/close to family: this could include people you are close to in your blood family, or people who are sort of like a &ldquochosen family&rdquo (close friends or a best friend who feel like they&rsquore your family or support you in the ways family does).

Intimate friendships generally take longer to develop. A best friend often starts as a regular friend, for example. It&rsquos also possible to have more than one best friend, or lots of acquaintances, lots of close friends, etc. &ndash it really depends on each person&rsquos personal needs. Friendships sometimes evolve into romantic relationships, but as discussed earlier, platonic intimacy doesn&rsquot always equate to romantic relationships. It&rsquos possible to live a life of platonic love and never pursue romance either. Everyone is different, and that&rsquos okay!

Can platonic friends fall in love?

It is possible to fall in love with someone you once considered a platonic friend. A best friend probably has a lot in common with you as it is, and you likely enjoy spending a lot of time together and having experiences together. You likely know your friend very well, including their quirks or flaws. It makes sense that romantic feelings might evolve between close friends.

It can be confusing, overwhelming, and even worrying to realize that you&rsquore developing feelings for someone you are close to platonically, especially a best friend. You might worry about what to do with all of your feelings. You may fear that your friend will no longer want to spend time with you if they find out, or you fear what might happen if you get rejected &ndash will it ruin the friendship?

All of these thoughts, feelings, and concerns are normal and valid. You might find it helpful to confide in someone close to you about how you feel and talk things out. Even though it might be hard or feel scary, it also might be beneficial to be candid with your friend about how you feel. Intimate friendships with healthy communication are more likely to effectively address these sorts of challenges even if your friend doesn&rsquot feel the same way.

What are the 4 types of intimacy?

It is common to immediately associate the word &lsquointimacy&rsquo with sexual or physical intimacy. However, physical affection is not the only way to generate closeness within an intimate relationship. There are four major types of relationship intimacy: mental, spiritual, physical and emotional intimacy. Generating intimacy builds feelings of connection and safety within a relationship.

How can I be physically intimate?

Physical affection is a crucial part of an intimate relationship. As physical intimacy builds feelings of closeness, many people desire physical contact as a way to feel connected to their partners.

Despite popular belief, physical intimacy does not necessarily mean engaging in sexual activity. There are many forms of physical intimacy which involve non-sexual physical touch. Experts recommend incorporating regular physical touch into your relationship, whether that looks like holding hands, hugging, kissing or cuddling. It is important to have open communication with your partner around expectations of physical intimacy and how you each prefer to receive physical affection.

What does physical intimacy mean to a man?

Many individuals desire physical affection as a way to feel close to their partners, as physical intimacy builds connection in intimate relationships.

However physical intimacy does not always have to look like sexual activity. There are various forms of physical intimacy including non-sexual physical touch that takes place outside of the bedroom. First, it is important to have a conversation with your partner in which you discuss both of your needs around physical contact. Think about ways you might incorporate more physical touch into your regular routine, whether a long kiss or hug in the morning or giving each other massages after work.

What is intimate sexually?

Intimate relationships generate a sense of trust and closeness. As physical intimacy builds emotional closeness, any form of physical contact that strengthens connection could be considered intimate.

Physical affection might look like sexual activity, or other forms of physical intimacy such as hugging, cuddling, massages or holding hands. Experts state that it is important to create a culture of physical touch within the relationship that is not limited to the bedroom.

What are the 12 forms of intimacy?

Intimacy builds feelings of safety and closeness within a partnership.

The 12 forms of intimacy include recreational, intellectual, work, commitment, aesthetic, communication, emotional, creative, sexual/physical, crisis, spiritual and conflict. You might consider exploring a new facet of relationship intimacy that you and your partner haven&rsquot focused on before.


The Peripheral Nervous System

The peripheral system (PNS) is composed of nerves that extend outside of the central nervous system. The nerves and nerve networks that make up the PNS are actually bundles of axons from neuron cells. The nerve bundles can be relatively small or large enough to be easily seen by the human eye.

The PNS is further divided into two different systems: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system.

Somatic Nervous System

The somatic nervous system transmits sensory communications. It is responsible for voluntary movement and action. It is composed of sensory (afferent) neurons and motor (efferent) neurons.

Sensory neurons carry information from the nerves to the brain and spinal cord while motor neurons transmit information from the central nervous system to the muscle fibers.

Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for controlling involuntary functions such as heartbeat, respiration, digestion, and blood pressure. The system is also involved in human emotional responses such as sweating and crying.

The autonomic nervous system is subdivided into the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system.

  • Sympathetic nervous system: The sympathetic nervous system controls the body’s response to an emergency. When the system is aroused, your heart and breathing rates increase, digestion slows or stops, the pupils dilate and you begin to sweat. Also known as the fight-or-flight response, the system is preparing your body to either fight the danger or flee.
  • Parasympathetic nervous system: The parasympathetic nervous system counters the sympathetic system. After a crisis or danger has passed, the system helps to calm the body by slowing heart and breathing rates, resuming digestion, contracting the pupils, and stopping sweating.

To Touch or Not to Touch

Our 6 CE credit online course Touch in Psychotherapy, fulfills the Law/Ethics Requirement:

A woman patient of mine lost her first and only infant son in a drunk driving accident. At the time of this tragedy, the pain of her loss was, of course immense she could not stop crying and was contemplating suicide. At the insistence of her family, she agreed to an emergency appointment with a psychotherapist expert in loss. In this grief-stricken state, barely able to stand, she entered the office and sobbed uncontrollably. In her desperation and isolation she begged him to hold her. True to his most recent Ethics and Risk Management continuing education workshops, he explained to her that therapy is about talking, not touching and citing something about professional boundaries. At the end of the session, he suggested that she get a prescription for Valium from her GP and set an appointment for a couple of days later. Eight years later, addicted to Valium and alcohol, divorced and with two failed rehab programs behind her, she began therapy with me. After an intense and tearful few months of therapy and long conversations we went to her son’s grave. It was the first time she had ever visited the grave. There we stood, holding each other, and both weeping. We stood there for a long time as she cried and I cried. She had finally begun facing her baby’s death and mourning for him and grieving for the years lost in drugged denial. That therapist followed risk management guidelines to perfection. He took the “safe” path that forbids touch. However, by practicing risk management, adhering to the “no touch” dogma, he inflicted needless additional suffering on this woman. He sacrificed his humanity and the core of his professional being, to the demands of a heartless, paranoid and destructive protocol.

We have been told by ethics experts, attorneys, continuing education instructors and supervisors never to touch our clients. Touch has been increasingly perceived as a risk management issue to be avoided rather than as one of the most powerful tool of healing. Non-sexual touch, we have been told, is very likely to lead to sexual touch. In spite of the almost half century of knowledge of the emotional, physiological and behavioral benefits of touch, most therapists still shy away from appropriate non-sexual touch due to fear of boards, attorneys and lack of training. This Clinical Update summarizes the significant, ethical and clinical utility consideration of non-sexual touch in psychotherapy.


What hormones stimulate non-sexual intimate behaviour? - Psychology

Human sexual motivation is an unusual motivation. In lower animals we speak about sexual motivation as a "drive." That is, we state that some internal, innate force pushes the animal to engage in reproductive behavior. Humans don't simply give in to an internal push towards sexual behavior. Instead, human motivation to engage in sexual behavior is due to a complex relationship among several factors.

Most theorists refer to motivation as an inferred need, desire or impulse which initiates, directs and sustains behavior (e.g., Coon, 1997 Wood & Wood, 1996). One group of psychologists calls motivation a factor which explains the relations between stimuli and behavior (Bernstein, Clarke-Stewart, Roy, & Wickens, 1997). By combining these two definitions and applying them to human sexual behavior we could say that sexual motivation is an inferred, internal state influenced by several factors which determines engagement in sexual activity.

Collecting Data on Human Sexuality

Problems with data - Before discussing the elements of sexual behavior, it is important to understand the methods of collecting data that are involved in studies on human sexual behavior. Due to the private nature of the subject matter, most research is performed using surveys, self-reports and volunteers. Self-reports and surveys can be riddled with errors. For example, individuals make errors either intentionally, to give socially-acceptable responses, or accidentally, by forgetting, or even unintentionally because what they think motivates their behavior doesn't (see, e.g., Walster, Aronson, Abrahams, & Rottman, 1966). Finally, volunteers in sex studies are not typically subjects from which one can generalize. Take, for example, the question, "how often do you masturbate?" Volunteers who are willing to answer questions like this are probably more outgoing than the general population. Another important fact to keep in mind is that most studies of sexual behavior are correlational. Studies which show behaviors differentially produced by men and women, heterosexuals versus homosexuals, or members of different nations, are only descriptive since they cannot control for all potential variables. In other words, it is rare that we can assume causation from any of the variables examined in studies of human sexual behavior.

Two landmark studies - With the above information in mind, it is important to introduce two early sources of data on sexual attitudes and behavior. One primary source of self-reported data which has greatly influenced the field of human sexual behavior comes from the Kinsey studies (Kinsey, Pomeroy & Martin, 1948 Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953). These reports were highly influential due to the nature of the questions asked and the large number (several thousand) of subjects who were polled. Kinsey's studies sought to identify, among other facts, what sexual behaviors people engaged in, what age they were when they began engaging in them, and how often they were currently engaging in them. They also indicated that women and men were not very different from each other in terms of sexual physiology. This information raised a furor in the conservative decade of the 1950s (Wade & Tavris, 1996). However, the Kinsey studies also stated that sexual differences were due to women's lesser sexual capacity. Herein lies the error in descriptive studies that are used to imply causation. Kinsey and associates completely disregarded the effects of culture and learning on their subjects' behavior.

Another landmark study, due to the methodology used, involved actual physiological measurement of sexual responses in male and female volunteers (Masters & Johnson, 1966). This study dispelled the myth that women's sexual response to intercourse was vastly different from men's and indeed showed that both sexes had very similar physiological responses. Their results would indicate that differential subjective responses to sexual intercourse between the sexes were indeed more likely associated with culture and learning.

The data collected in these studies are now rather outdated. Furthermore, critics of the studies state the information is not generalizable since the participants were primarily white, middle-class volunteers (Bernstein, et al., 1997 Wood & Wood, 1996). It was with this information in mind that two recent studies were conducted, one in the United States and one in Great Britain, which gathered data from non-volunteers using extensive interviews (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994 Wellings, Field, Johnson, & Wadsworth, 1994). These studies were designed to include a representative sample and also allow participants to give in-depth, and anonymous answers (due to the sensitive nature of some of the questions) (Laumann, et al., 1994 Wellings, et al., 1994). Laumann and his associates found a more conservative pattern of sexual behavior than did the Kinsey studies indicating that volunteers are not, in fact, representative of the general population (Bernstein, et al., 1997).

In summary of the method of data collection, there are difficulties associated with collection of data from volunteers and generalization is limited. Superior studies should attempt to choose broader samples and provide participants an opportunity to produce honest, confidential answers. Further, those who analyze studies of human sexual motivation need to beware of drawing causal conclusions where none are warranted.

Factors in Human Sexual Motivation

It is common to try to organize various psychological topics by placing the factors involved into environmental and physiological categories. For example, you would place hormones, a known component of sexual motivation, into the physiological category. But where would you place something like desire for physical pleasure, a frequently cited element in sexual motivation (Abramson & Pinkerton, 1995 Cofer, 1972 Hatfield & Rapson, 1993)? Physical pleasure has both a physiological component (the physical sensations associated with touch) and a subjective psychological component. Where does something subjective like pleasure fit in our breakdown into physiological and environmental components? Pleasure is an emotion (Cofer, 1972), which, according to the Schacter-Singer theory, is a subjective feeling based upon physiological arousal and interpretations of the stimuli that are linked to the arousal (Cornelius, 1996). Thus emotions are both physiologically- and cognitively-based. This indicates that another category exists into which we might place sexual motivators, but to state this would be to miss the larger issue. The larger issue is that pleasure is influenced by both our cognitions and our physiological functioning. As a factor involved in sexual motivation, it is not unusual to be associated with motivation and to simultaneously be associated with other variables that are themselves identified as related to sexual motivation and which may or may not belong to the same category. Thus, identifying categories and then placing the elements of sexual motivation into discrete categories is a difficult, if not impossible task. Rather than attempting to do so, the current author will identify the variables that have been linked to sexual motivation and identify, where possible, any mediating variables.

Physiological Correlates - An analysis of human sexual motivation couldn't proceed without first discussing physiological factors, in particular, hormones. The influence of hormones in sexual behavior is well-supported by research. Both men and women produce estrogens, progestins and androgens, though women produce far more estrogens and progestin and men more androgens (Hokanson, 1969 Leger, 1992). In lower species, hormone levels are almost directly correlated with sexual behavior, however, as one moves up the phylogenetic scale, other elements become involved (Fisher, 1993 Hokanson, 1969). In humans, hormones are also related to sexual desire, but are not the entire story.

In males, a minimum level of testosterone is necessary to maintain normal sexual motivation in males (Leger, 1992). If males' testosterone levels fall below the threshold, sexual motivation is greatly reduced. However, once the threshold level is reached, it no longer predicts sexual behavior. Women's studies also show correlations between hormones and sexual desire (Leger, 1992 Sherwin & Gelfan, 1987 Sherwin, Gelfan, & Brender, 1985), however, the results are inconsistent (Leger, 1992). Since neither increases nor decreases in hormones in either males or females are perfectly correlated with sexual desire, it stands to reason that there must be other factors involved. As Hokanson (1969) concludes, hormones serve the primary purpose of readying the individual for action, but other factors determine whether the individual actually engages in sexual activity.

Another physiological factor in sexual motivation may well be odor and sense of smell. Of all the elements researched, odor and sense of smell have received the least attention, probably because, as Kohl and Francoeur (1995) state, their influence on sexual behavior is difficult to ascertain. However, body odor (i.e., airborne hormones) definitely influences our behaviors. In their review of numerous studies such as synchronization of menstrual cycles of women who live together, and the influence of hormone-scented masks on individuals' ratings of others, Kohl and Francoeur (1995) state that odor must be involved in our sexual behaviors also. Helen Fisher (1993) also agrees that odors may influence sexual behavior and cites that some men in Greece swear by body-odor scented handkerchiefs which they use to lure women into relationships.

Sexual Orientation - Our desire to engage in sexual behavior with someone is also influenced by sexual orientation. Sexual orientation refers to the direction of an individual's sexual attraction (Wood, et al., 1996). Most individuals are heterosexual (Laumann, 1994 Wellings, et al., 1994) which means they are primarily attracted to the opposite sex. Homosexuals are individuals who are attracted to the same sex and bisexuals are attracted to both sexes.

Why are individuals attracted to one sex rather than another? LeVay (1995) believes that most researchers of the topic agree it is a combination of multiple factors including genetic makeup, hormones and social experiences. He further believes that newer studies (e.g., Bailey & Pillard, 1991 Bailey, Pillard, Neale, & Agyei, 1993) indicate that genes are perhaps more influential than the other factors. Studies indicate that the percentage of individuals who call themselves homosexual is quite small, ranging from about .5% to 2.8% (Laumann, 1994 Wellings, et al., 1994) . This estimate is significantly lower than the rates given in the problematic Kinsey Reports (1948 1953).

In his review of several studies on the prevalence of homosexuality, LeVay (1995) states that it is best to keep an open mind towards reviewing new evidence since changing attitudes and beliefs appear to be linked to self-stated homosexuality. What he was referring to was the indication that individuals are more likely to express their gay behavior within their own culture as that culture becomes more accepting of homosexuality. Thus it is apparent that culture influences the expression of one's sexual orientation which in turn influences sexual motivation.

Pleasure - As mentioned earlier, pursuit of erotic pleasure is a primary reason to engage in sexual behavior (Abramson et al., 1995 Hatfield et al., 1993). Kinsey and colleagues (1948 1953) found that children between the ages of 2 and 5 years of age spontaneously touch their genitals. At this age, one could not argue that this sexual behavior is learned or designed to contribute to reproduction. Abramson and Pinkerton (1995) point out that the pleasure of sexual behavior is physiologically and psychologically-based and that the sex organs do not exist merely to guarantee reproductive behavior. As an example, they cite the female orgasm, uncommon during vaginal penetration, but very common by more direct means of clitoral stimulation. In other words, sexual pleasure does not occur merely to ensure procreation. We engage in sexual behavior because it is enjoyable. However, as will be reviewed later, what is considered pleasurable, may well be influenced by one's interpretation of the stimuli.

Cognitions - How a stimulus is interpreted influences how individuals respond to that stimulus. Zellman and Goodchild (1983) surveyed 400 teenagers and found that the behaviors girls felt conveyed romantic interest were the same actions boys considered invitations to sex. Since societies create very different gender roles for men and women, differences in interpretation of the same data are bound to occur (Wade, et al., 1996). Wade's comments indicate that culture influences sexual behaviors, not only through performance of behaviors that are considered appropriate, but also through interpretation of those behaviors.

Cognitions and arousal - Based upon the results of surveys such as the Kinsey studies (1948 1953), men have been considered to be more sexually responsive than women. Early studies comparing men and women's subjective responses to erotic films supported that theory. However, when studies were conducted comparing male and female physiological responses to male-produced, male-intended erotic films, researchers found that men and women actually experienced the same physiological arousal (Laan, Everaerd, Van Bellen, & Hanewald 1994). When participants were asked to express their feelings about the stimuli, men reported sexual arousal and positive affect, yet women reported disgust and lack of arousal. In other words, both men and women experienced the same physiological arousal but different subjective arousal. When women viewed an erotic film produced by women for women, the female participants showed the same physiologic arousal as they did to male-produced films, but reported significantly greater sexual arousal, interest and positive affect. As interpreted by the researchers, the difference was due to how women interpreted the content of the films. Essentially, this study indicated that interpretation of the stimuli is of great importance in subjective feelings of sexual arousal. Cognitions affect sexual arousal in another fashion. According to Kalat (1996), inhibition of arousal can occur in individuals who believe that sex is shameful. These individuals experience sexual arousal, but have difficulties achieving sexual orgasm because of their thoughts.

Palace and Gorzalka (1992) studied sexually functional and dysfunctional women and found that cognitions and physiological arousal were simultaneously important in sexual arousal. They hypothesized that cognitions and physiological arousal comprise a feedback loop to determine overall sexual arousal. These many studies indicate that the thoughts individuals have regarding various stimuli impact individuals sexual motivation through influencing their arousal or their interpretations of behavior.

Attraction - Numerous elements have been identified as playing a role in attraction. For example, attraction is a function of proximity (how frequently you cross paths with someone), familiarity and similarity (e.g. in looks, or attitudes) (Kalat, 1996). This has been supported both with studies of attraction to friends and to romantic partners.

Playing hard-to-get also contributes to human's attraction to one another (Hatfield, Walster, Piliavin & Schmidt, 1988). Apparently individuals make attributions about potential significant others based upon how quickly that person returns a show of interest. Those who are easily attained are less attractive than those who are more difficult too attain due to the traits the relationship-seeker attributes to her. For example, relationship seekers fear that easy-to-get women might display inappropriate behaviors in public. However, a hard-to-get woman who indicates interest in the relationship-seeker has positive traits attributed to her such as warmth and friendliness.

Another overwhelmingly important element in attraction is physical attractiveness. As stated previously, research between attitudes and behaviors are not always consistent. Research on what individuals find attractive in potential dates provides further evidence for this inconsistency in human sexual behavior. Although subjects stated that physical attractiveness was one of the least important elements in their attraction to someone else, in actual experiments using blind dates, the only factor which predicted whether subjects desired a second date with the same person was the attractiveness of the blind date (Walster, Aronson, Abrahams, & Rottman, 1966). This was true for both male and female participants of the study. In a study on physical attractiveness and relationship length, the factor which best predicted whether couples would remain together nine months after they began dating was the similarity in their physical attractiveness (White, 1980). This "matching" phenomenon in which people tend to select mates that match them in terms of physical attractiveness, has been replicated and expanded upon with consistent results (Feingold, 1988). It might seem that we learn to appreciate beauty from the culture that we are born into, yet studies of pre-school children indicate that they too, prefer attractive classmates and also make attributions based on classmates' physical characteristics (Dion & Berscheid, 1971).

Attraction to others is yet another element of sexual motivation that has its roots in both nature and nurture -- it is obviously innate to seek out attractive others, yet we still lean towards mates who are more similar to us, an apparent influence of culture and learning in addition to an inherited predisposition.

Learning - Learning is, of course, highly influential in sexual motivation. We copy the behaviors of those we respect and admire. We learn to repeat behaviors that are rewarded (and sexual behavior is rewarding for most) and we learn to discontinue behaviors that have negative outcomes.

Conditioning is believed to influence sexual motivation. Certain stimuli may increase sexual arousal. For example, one might become sexually aroused by candlelight due to the learned association with sexual pre-encounters such as a romantic, candlelight dinner. It has also been proposed that conditioning accounts for sexually dysfunctional behaviors and sexual deviance (O'Donohue & Plaud, 1994). For example, a pedophile (person sexually aroused by children) might have been accidentally sexually aroused in the presence of a child. Principles of conditioning indicate he would seek this same combination of factors in the future in order to achieve the same pleasurable circumstances again. In her study of sexual motivators, Barbara Leigh (1989) states that fear of rejection, a learned component, is indeed the reason most often given by single men for not engaging in sex.

Matching theory (Carli, Ganley, & Pierce-Otay, 1991), which states that individuals within couples are frequently very similar in attractiveness ratings, is easily understood using the principles of conditioning. For example, an average-looking man who is rebuffed whenever he approaches beautiful females should reduce his attempts to interact with beautiful women. Similarly, he should rebuff less-attractive women if he could interact with more attractive women. Who he ultimately couples with should be very similar in looks due to the conditioning of each person's partner-choosing behaviors.

Conditioning as a theory to explain sexual deviance and dysfunction is not without its critics. O'Donohue and Plaud (1994) examined several studies which used behavioral and aversion therapy to change sexual behaviors. Due to methodological problems in the studies they examined, they believe that conditioning plays a much smaller role in sexual motivation than previously believed. Thus conditioning may play some role in the sexual motivation, but how much of a role it plays is not clear.

Culture - As mentioned throughout this essay, culture determines what behaviors are gender appropriate, what behaviors may or may not be performed in public, and what behaviors are considered sexually arousing. Yet culture and learning are inextricably tied together. An individual could not acquire his or her culture's norms without learning taking place. Conversely, there is very little one could learn which is not influenced by culture. For example, when we model the behaviors of individuals from our own society, we are copying behaviors that are more than likely already societally-influenced. If we view behaviors performed by individuals from another culture, we do so through lenses already colored by our society's influence. Hence any learning we might acquire from a culturally-different person is mediated by our own culture first.

Attitudes and Culture - Attitudes are defined as relatively stable evaluations of a person, object, situation or issue (Wood et al., 1996). Studies have shown that behaviors normally considered proper in one culture, may be improper or unarousing in another. In other words, attitudes towards sexual behaviors are culturally learned. For example, some cultures find kissing repulsive (Tiefer, 1995) while other cultures insist on same-gender sex as a rite of passage into adulthood (Herdt, 1984).

It is still noted, even in newer surveys in the United States (e.g., Laumann et al., 1994), that men and women have different attitudes toward sexual behaviors. For example, men are more interested in a variety of sexual behaviors, such as group sex, than are women. These divergences are undoubtedly, as mentioned earlier, a function of the gender roles each society impresses upon its members. A comparison of Swedish and American college students sought to examine if indeed the difference in men's and women's attitudes could be definitively tied to culture, rather than inherent gender differences (Weinberg, Lottes, Shaver, 1995). Specifically, it was believed that men and women in Sweden would have more convergent and relaxed attitudes toward sexual behaviors than the American participants. Sweden is generally known to have more relaxed sexual standards. It is believed that this is due, in part, to several years of mandatory sex education and the relatively equal power that women have in society. The study indeed showed that Swedish men and women had very similar attitudes towards sexual behaviors. Americans, as expected, had very different attitudes about what constituted appropriate sexual behaviors. While the current author cautioned earlier against drawing causal conclusions from a descriptive study such as this, the information further indicates that culture is associated with differences in sexual attitudes.

The influence of learning on sexual motivation is quite profound. Attraction, cognitions, and sexual orientation, variables mentioned previously, are also influenced by learning. Thus a key component which determines the level of our sexual motivation is learning.

Conclusion

In conclusion, sexual motivation is influenced by complex relationships among numerous factors including hormones, cognitions, learning and culture. Because these variables are also associated with one another, in addition to sexual motivation, it is difficult to place them in discrete categories. Finally, the inability to clearly isolate the many variables involved in human sexual motivation ensures that this topic will continue to fascinate researchers for a very long time.