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Tue, Mar 10, 2009
The Sunday Times
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The joy of sex talk
by Chua Mui Hoong

As you read this on a Sunday morning, chances are you've come across conversations like these in your life, or been told of such exchanges:

She: You don't love me anymore. We never talk.

He: You talk all the time. We never have sex. You don't love me anymore.

She: I'm not in the mood for sex when I feel you don't love me.

He: I want to have sex with you all the time, isn't that proof that I love you?

She: See! You can only think about sex. You don't love me as a person anymore.

He wants sex to feel loved, she needs to feel loved to feel like having sex.

We say such differences spring from the gender gap. Men are from Mars, women from Venus. In the eternal conundrum that is the dance between male and female, there are many theories as to why the sexes differ in modes of communication, in the way they love and in their approach to sexual bonding.

Is it social conditioning? Evolutionary biology - where evolutionary pressures conspire to shape the behaviour of men and women over the centuries? Or are such differences hard-wired into the brain?

I did my usual 'research' on topics like these: I read perfunctorily. I talk to friends. I consult myself.

A fascinating book, The Female Brain, by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, sums up recent research on this topic.

According to her, brains of men and women are hard-wired differently and res-

pond differently to hormonal and chemical changes, and these differences affect the way the sexes respond.

When it comes to sex, the area in male brains devoted to sex is three times as large as a woman's. Enough said.

Studies of the prairie vole, small furry animals said to belong to the 3 per cent of species of mammals which are monogamous in habit (the percentage apparently includes humans), help shed light on the brain chemistry in love.

Prairie voles get into a frenzy of non-stop mating for 24 hours when they meet - and then bond for life, nesting together and raising their young together.

Scientists say mating releases two key hormones influencing social behaviour - oxytocin and vasopressin.

Oxytocin is well-known among readers of women's magazines as the 'bonding' hormone. When under stress, women gather in groups and talk things out.

When I go through an emotional upheaval, I call close friends for breakfast, dinner or supper, and inflict the hows, tos and wherefores of my situation on sympathetic ears. (I do the same for my friends.) Never mind that all that talking doesn't solve

anything. The bonding releases oxytocin and makes us feel better able to cope.

Men don't have that kind of patience. A friend went to meet a childhood buddy who had just gone through a divorce. He told the grieving husband: 'I give you 15 minutes to moan. After that, get on with your life.' Then they went on to talk about school days and guy stuff. Apparently it's considered acceptable to make your friend condense his misery into 15 minutes flat. And then expect lifestyle changes to be made, problems solved. 'Otherwise, don't call me next time.'

When my former schoolmate wanted to talk about her boyfriend problems, we met for lunch, stayed for tea, then had dinner. We were together for eight hours. We had a great time and left cheerful, rejuvenated - and no nearer a solution.

Oxytocin makes women feel bonded, secure, loved, making them more inclined to feel sexual. In other words, they are in the mood when they feel loved.

Men's social attachment however is influenced by vasopressin, a hormone that boosts a man's energy, attention and aggression.

Sex releases vast amounts of vasopressin in males, triggering pleasure centres in the brain, and strengthening attachment to the female engaged in the activity. In other words, sex makes him feel more loving.

Thus the dictum about a woman needing to feel loved before she wants sex, and a man needing sex to feel and express love may be grounded in brain chemistry, fuelled by the different actions of brain chemicals.

Studies of prairie voles show that sex releases oxytocin and vasopressins in males. Oxytocin makes him recognise and feel bonded to one particular female (and not just any female he has sex with). Knock off that gene and the creature forgets not only who its partner is, but also who its friends are.

Oxytocin and vasopressin both activate the pleasure chemical dopamine, which sets off a positive feedback loop - whereby more coupling with one particular partner releases more of the hormones which activate the brain's pleasure centre - bonding the pair strongly for life.

Scientist speculate that a similar biochemistry loop of love takes place in humans.

In fact, some scientists think there is a 'monogamy gene' for men. Prairie voles which are monogamous, have a tiny piece of DNA other varieties of voles lack.

When the montane vole - a different species of voles with multiple partners - is injected with this missing gene, it suddenly turns into a devoted partner, and spends more time frolicking with its offspring. Such genetically modified voles are less inclined to run off with a younger female.

Might the same be true of human males? Could the propensity for monogamy be - at least in part - genetically determined? If so, women might want to ask for a DNA test for their men to ascertain if they have enough of the requisite vasopressin gene.

With bewildering theories on gender gaps, what's a man and woman to do, in the daily communication battlezone?

In the interest of preserving gender harmony, let's just consider the important facts: Men's sex centres are three times the size of women's. When men have sex, they feel bonded and relaxed - the way women do when they talk to their friends.

Why, women should just see sex with their husbands as similar to a good heart-to-heart talk with their girlfriends: As a (male) form of communication.

She: I'm really tired. I need a cuddle and a heart-to-heart talk to de-stress.

He: Sure, let's cuddle and talk my way. Then we'll talk your way.

This article was first published in The Sunday Times.

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