FamilyLife Today® Podcast

The Link Between Sex and Attachment

with Dr. Freda Bush, Dr. Joe McIlhaney | March 3, 2010
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You’ve heard it said that the brain is the most important sex organ, and Drs. Freda Bush and Joe McIlhaney explain how science bears that out. Hear them tell how the powerful chemicals dopamine and oxytocin are released during intimacy, causing a man to want to repeat the action and causing a woman to want to bond to her partner. They warn, however, that when you attach and unattached with multiple partners through premarital sex you weaken your ability to stay attached.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • You’ve heard it said that the brain is the most important sex organ, and Drs. Freda Bush and Joe McIlhaney explain how science bears that out. Hear them tell how the powerful chemicals dopamine and oxytocin are released during intimacy, causing a man to want to repeat the action and causing a woman to want to bond to her partner. They warn, however, that when you attach and unattached with multiple partners through premarital sex you weaken your ability to stay attached.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Drs. Freda Bush and Joe McIlhaney explain how science shows the brain to be the most important sex organ.

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The Link Between Sex and Attachment

With Dr. Freda Bush, Dr. Joe McIl...more
March 03, 2010
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Bob:  Yes.

Dennis:  We probably ought to give it a disclaimer to some of our younger listeners at this point.


Bob:  Well, or to their parents.  We need to let folks know that we are going to be talking about mature themes today but important themes for parents to be paying attention too, as we talk about human sexuality and the development of the brain, as you said.  How that factors into our understanding of our sexuality.


Dennis:  That is right and joining us in the studio is Dr. Freda McKissic Bush.  She is a native of Arkansas from Pine Bluff.  We are thrilled to have you on the broadcast, Freda.


Dr. Bush:  Thank you.  I am delighted to be here.


Dennis:  Dr. Joe McIlhaney who is from Austin but doesn’t claim to be a Longhorn.  Which is really…? That is quite amazing.

Dr. McIlhaney:  Well, I am so proud of it…   (Laughter) …that I am really thrilled to be here with you!


Dennis:  He is a Texas Tech guy and proud of the victory that they had at about a year ago over U T.  So, undoubtedly we will get letters about that here on the broadcast.  Dr. Bush is on the clinical faculty at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.  She serves on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and Aids as does Dr. McIlhaney.  As I mentioned both are Ob-Gyn physicians.  Joe is the founder and chairman of The Medical Institute of Sexual Health which is located in Austin Texas.

Freda you have been married 38 years.  Joe has been married for 47 years.


Dr. McIlhaney:  Forty-nine, yesterday.

Dennis:  Forty-nine years.  Wow

Dr. Bush:  I will have been married 40 on July 5th.


Dennis:  Well, we need to update our information here a little more.  You all have written a book called Hooked:  New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting our Children.  Joe, I want to go to you on this.  Popular culture is telling us that sex is just a physical act.  Your book proves that theory wrong, correct?


Dr. McIlhaney:  Yes.  It proves it dead wrong based on the most modern neuroscience; based on the MRI’s.  The brains of people involved in romance and lust and love and the PET scans of people during those kind of interest.  They show us that sex is a whole body experience.  As you said a while ago the brain is the biggest sex organ of the body and most important really.

Bob:  When you are defining sexual activity or behavior you are using a more broad definition, Dr. Bush, than you will find in the popular culture, right?

Dr. Bush:  That is correct because sex is a whole body experience.  We define sex at the Medical Institute for Sexual Health as any activity that will stimulate the body for arousal.  Even self pleasuring is defined as sex because it stimulates the same areas of the brain for arousal and for satisfaction.  They also whether it is the traditional sexual intercourse or not you can transmit sexual diseases.  You can get pregnant and you have the attachment with neural chemicals in your body.


Bob:  The attachment?  You’re talking about emotional attachment that takes place?


Dr. Bush:  Emotional, psychological attachment so that is why we have to define it so broadly and as not just a physical act.


Bob:  Did the research that you have done here or that you have looked at, did it indicate that there are differences in what is going on in the brain depending on what kind of sexual behavior people are engaging in?


Dr. McIlhaney:  Oh, yes!  As far as sexual interest goes we did not actually have research that showed what is going on in the brain during physical sexual intercourse.  For example the area of the brain that lights up when someone is interested or is romantically interested in someone else is a very different area in the brain, than lights up when someone is lusting after another person.

So this means for example a girl or a guy who has someone hitting on them, you know is showing real interest in them cannot tell whether it is because they are romantically interested or whether they are lusting after them.  We have kidded at the office that we need to develop a little portable MRI machine that a girl or a guy can point it at someone that is coming after them to see which it is.

Dennis:  And determine whether…

Bob:  Is this love or something else?


Dennis:  Or is it lust?

Dr. Bush:  We can actually turn the machine on ourselves sometime. 

Dennis:  Oh!


Dr. Bush:  We may not be sure.  The only way you can tell the difference really is to allow time to get to know them.

Dennis:  Your book as I was reading it is really provocative… 


Dr. McIlhaney:  Good.

Dennis:  …and I thought what an interesting pair of people both who have decades of experience as Ob-Gyn physicians.  To have come together and collaboratively written something that really is on one of the hot topics of our day.  From your practice how have you seen this to be such a relevant issue, Freda?

Dr. Bush:  Well, I can tell you.  I am reminded of the 14 year old who was brought in by her mom because the mother had just found out she was sexually active.  Well, what I found out in taking her sexual history was the young lady had actually started having sex when she was 12 and had 14 different partners.  When I questioned her about the number of partners, her response was “Well, I only have sex with my boyfriend.”

So, our popular culture had led her to believe that it was okay to have sex at 12 or 14 as long as you have a relationship with the person and for her that relationship was a boyfriend.  What I had to…

Bob:  So, wait… wait…I have to get this right.  You are saying in a two year period she had 14 different boyfriends…


Dr. Bush:  That is correct.


Bob:  …and had been sexually active with each one of them?

Dr. Bush:  That is correct.

Bob:  Okay, alright.


Dr. Bush:  It was okay in her mind because the culture…


Bob:  Because it was her boyfriend. 

Dr. Bush:  ...tells us it is okay with the boyfriend.  Now you can do the math and play it forward and see how many she would have by 18 because obviously these relationships were not long term.  So, it was instructive for me to not only talk to her but also to talk to the mother about what this would mean to her body physically.  What it would mean to her psychologically and emotionally.  I had the scientific information that I could share with them both.

One of the important things I had to help the mother to understand was that studies have shown that the parents are the most influential in their young persons’ decisions.  So, the mother was actually abdicating her responsibility by bringing her in to say “help her to do what she is doing safely.”   Instead of saying as I instructed her what is it that you desire for your young person? What is it that you want to see her do?

Dr. McIlhaney:  No matter whom the parent is I think they find it hard to talk to their kids about sex.  I think that you are absolutely right.  Add on to that a persons’ past, if he or she has had a past or multiple sexual partners that makes it even double hard for them to talk to them, especiallyto give them good guidance.  The kind of guidance we are talking about here to guide them away from being involved sexually until they get married.  It is a little bit foreign to those parents, themselves, but they have just got to do it today.

Dennis:  They really do.

Dr. McIlhaney:  The risk out there for the young people is so enormous.  Fifty percent of sexually active kids today are right now infected with human papillomavirus.  That is just one statistic.

Dennis:  Say that again.

Dr. McIlhaney:  Fifty percent of sexually active kids today, high school and college kids are infected with Human Papillomavirus, which is the cause of cervical cancer and a lot of throat cancer now.  It is not that fifty percent of the kids will get the cancer but they have the virus and they are potential victims of those problems.

Dennis:  There are no symptoms usually for this.


Dr. McIlhaney:  That’s right.  Not until they actually have abnormal cells developing in their bodies.  That is just one statistic I throw out to say that parents just really must talk to their kids today.


Bob:  Well, I wanted to ask you about that because the young girl that you talked about Dr. Bush the 14 year old who had already had 14 sexual partners by the time she was that age. She was sexually active since she was twelve.  That’s an extreme example of what is going on in the culture is it not?


Dr. Bush:  I do not think it is because many of the young people see the videos and they see the movies and the reality T.V. shows.  I mean one show is not reality but “Friends” for example: I remember watching one episode where the young girl was trying to count up the different sexual partners she had had. I think she got to nineteen and she gave up.  This was older than a fourteen year old.  If they see this on T.V. and there is no one in the home to counter or to give them guidance otherwise they will think “Oh, I am behind.”

Dr. McIlhaney:  Bob, I think your question illustrates the issue for parents.  I think a lot of parents would say that is an extreme case.  They probably would say it is extreme to think that for example that about a third of sexually active college kids have had more than six sexual partners.  So, this whole issue, the amount of activity these kids are involved in has moved so far past what most parents believe has happened.

In addition to that, I would just like to point out the most destructive thing I think that the so called Comprehensive Sexuality Education people have done is to try to separate out the sexual behavior from the rest of what we are as human beings.  That is the most destructive thing they have done.

Bob:  This is where I want to talk to both of you about what are the consequences of the choices young people are making.  If somebody is going to graduate from high school and have had, we will say four sexual partners by the time they have graduated from high school, okay.  If it’s a young woman who has had that kind of a history or a young man who has had that kind of a history I am thinking the risk of sexually transmitted diseases is obviously there.  The emotional scarring that comes and this is part of what you are talking about in your book Hooked.  The emotional scarring that occurs is there.  Are there other emotional or physical risks that parents and children both need to be aware of if you’re going to be sexually active outside of marriage as a teenager?

Dr. Bush:  What they may not understand that even with one act of intercourse they will be attached to that person they are having intercourse with.  These attachments can last a lifetime.


Bob:  When you talk about being attached again explain what you mean.

Dr. Bush:  That is the hormones.  Joe?


Dr. McIlhaney:  For example when we do anything exciting there is a hormone called dopamine released in our brain that makes us feel like the world is good, that we have been a success.  It’s   really fun.  It’s a very important hormone. 

It is necessary for us because it is what gives kids this excitement about leaving home and taking the risk and going out and being independent which is a huge risk for them.  So it is a hormone that does that positive thing for us.  But it also can be negative because if a kid, for example, enjoys speeding at 100 hundred miles an hour down a twisted road he gets a dopamine kick for that, too. 

Bob:  Yes.


Dr. McIlhaney:  It makes him want to repeat it.  That being said, when a kid or any of us have sexual intercourse we have a huge outpouring of dopamine into our brains.  It is a major dopamine stimulator for us.  For the unmarried kid it makes him want to repeat that sexual act again and again and again.  It is really the hormone that is secreted with addiction, with drugs and nicotine and so forth. 

It is certainly released with sex.  It is released with sex for a married couple also which makes them want to repeat the sexual act which then allows them to get pregnant and have babies.  So, again it is a very important hormone that produces this addictive nature which can either have good or bad affects as we talked about earlier about almost anything with us as human beings.


Dr. Bush:  What is also happening with that sexual intercourse is in the female brain, they are more receptors for oxytocin which makes us bond to the person.  In the male brain they are more receptors for vasopressin which also makes him bond to the person that is causing this good feeling.  So even just with one act of intercourse those hormones are secreted.  The woman is bonded or attached to the man and the same for her.

They will want to repeat that touching and with the repeating of the touching that’s feeling good that leads to the act of intercourse, which then leads to the release of dopamine.  One of the things also is important is that the woman trusts the man more.  The more she touches him…


Dr. McIlhaney:  Because of the oxytocin.


Dr. Bush: …because of the oxytocin.  There is even a study that shows that even with a twenty second hug, this is not intercourse, this is just a meaningful hug that will increase the woman’s trust and also make her then lower her guard as for as relationship with that particular person.

When you are in a relationship not only do you have the dopamine that rewards you for the repeating of the act, you have the oxytocin and the vasopressin that makes you attached.  Thus, we have the name of the book Hooked.  You become attached, addicted, bonded to each other.  Which in marriage is a good thing because children are reproduced and you will stay and attach and bond to those children and care for them and help them grow up and our race survives.

Bob:  If your fourteen and you have had fourteen partners?


Dr. Bush:  Then you are still attached to that person.

Bob:  To all fourteenof them?

Dr. Bush:  Yes, but the other part that we have not talked about is the physical changes that occur in the brain.  There are actually connections or synapses between the neurons where these hormones flow and send their impulses.  Those synapses actually are strengthened when we repeat a behavior and they become stronger or they are weakened. 

So, when you hook, attach, unattach with multiple sexual partners you actually weaken the ability to stay connected.  Studies have shown that when you do eventually marry you are more likely to divorce because you have actually strengthened the pathways that weaken your ability to attach.


Bob:  You have exercised you brain in such a way that it is now good at unattaching.

Dr. Bush:  Very good!


Bob:  Yes.

Dr. McIlhaney:  That is right.

Dennis:  I was thinkingabout this passage as I was reading your book.  Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees.  They were trying to trap Him about divorce.  They asked Him was it lawful to divorce ones wife for any cause?

Jesus said “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female” and He said, “therefore, a man shall leave his mother and father and hold fast to his wife and they shall become one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together let no man separate.”

In other words all these hormones in the brain and all these synapses that begin to take our habits and our patterns of living that are connected God designed our brains and our bodies to be connected to one person for a life time…


Dr. McIlhaney:  That is right.

Dennis: …in marriage.  That is what we ought to be challenging our children to be thinking about and living their lives for protecting their brains and yes their bodies from experimenting sexually.  So they can experience the very best thing that God has for them and that is the assignment for parents.

Dr. McIlhaney:  That is right.

Dennis:  This is a tough culture to do it.  We have been given the assignment of raising the next generation but we can do it with Gods’ help and with the scripture.

Bob:  So, you think we should take Genesis 2:24 and instead say a man shall leave his father and mother and the dopamine and oxytocin should only flow… 

Dennis:  Freely!

Bob:  When they are together.


Dennis:  Yes!  Let it flow freely!


Dr. McIlhaney:  You just said the bottom line of our book.  We find that every bit of this science we have looked at.  Both this and the science about the diseases and so forth but particularly this science shows that human beings are designed and the secularists use that word the Reproductive Anthropologists use the word designed.  Human Beings are designed to be with one other person sexually and monogamously for life.

Dennis:  Yes.


Dr. Bush:  One of the reasons parents are important during these adolescent years is also because the Brain Frontal Lobe, the Prefrontal Cortex where we make those decisions, where the dopamine has its greatest influence is not fully mature until the mid twenties.  So, when you actually look at the structural physical design or development of the brain, those cells have not been fully myelinated. 

Therefore judgment, the decisions for looking at the future and considering consequences are not complete until the mid-twenties.  So, you need parents to help them through those years when they cannot make those decisions for themselves.


Bob:  When they are brain damaged.  You are saying, right?

Dr. Bush:  No, not brain damaged it is just…



Dennis:  They arenot mature!  They are not mature and any parent of a teenager knows exactly what we are talking about.


Dr. Bush:  Right!  The growth of these synapses is proliferated or increased before birth and again when they are in their pre-puberty times.  It is in those times that between the puberty and the mid-twenties that the …



Dennis:  The hard wiring gets…

Dr. Bush:  The hard wiring, yes.


Dennis:  Gets fixed.

Dr. Bush:  If we do not guide them and help them make those critical judgments, if we do not help them see consequences then we are leaving them to make major life changing decisions that will affect them long term without the proper guidance and direction.

Bob:  I guess ultimately we are not going to persuade our children or even persuade ourselves towards sexual monogamy inside of marriage and away from promiscuity simply by saying this is what your brain was made for.  Ultimately that is a moral choice that a person makes in response to what God calls him to or rejecting His standards or obeying His standards.

But it is fascinating to see how some science validates what the Bible teaches.  I appreciate the research and the work that you guys have done in the book Hooked which we have in our FamilyLifeToday resource center.  New Science on how Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children you can go to for more information about how to order a copy of the book.  Again it is

On our website you will also find more information about the resource called Passport2Purity® so that parents can begin at an early age pointing young people in the right direction when it comes to purity and sexual behavior. 

I also want to mention Dr. Meg Meeker’s helpful book called Your Kids at Risk How Teen Sex Threatens our Sons and Daughters.  This is very important information about the health risks that are involved in sexual promiscuity.  Again there is more information about these resources on line is the website. 

Go to you can order from us online if you would like or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY.  It is 1-800-358-6329.  That’s 1-800 F as in “family” L as in “life” and then the word TODAY.  Get in touch with us and we will let you know how you can get any of these resources you need sent to you.

Now I want to make mention of something here, we are about four weeks away from the celebration of the resurrection of Christ at Easter.  Four and a half weeks away and just a couple of years ago the team that was involved in making the Jesus film.  The most viewed motion picture of all time about the life of Jesus, have created a new film that’s called Magdalena through her eyes.

 This DVD tells the story of the life of Jesus as seen through the eyes of Mary Magdalene.  It is a powerful story and the DVD is being used all over the world and it is having a profound impact.  Particularly in the lives of women who are viewing it.  This month we want to make a copy of the Magdalena DVD available to those of you who can help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount.  I think many of you are aware that FamilyLife Today is listener supported.  We depend on your donations to continue the work of this ministry.

The DVD is our way of saying thank you for whatever you are able to do in support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  So, if you will go online at and you make your donation there and you would like to receive the DVD just type the word “MAGDVD” as one word in the key code box on the online donation form. 

We will send you a copy of the Magdalena DVD as our way of saying thank you for supporting this ministry and for standing with us financially here at FamilyLife Today and we hope you have an opportunity to not only view the DVD yourself this year in advance of Easter but maybe have some friends over and watch the movie with them as well.

Now tomorrow we are going to be back to talk to Dr. Joe McIlhaney and Dr. Freda Bush about the impact that promiscuity has on our bodies.  We will talk more about that tomorrow.  I hope you can be with us for that.  

 I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine.  We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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