If you’ve ever taken an online quiz about your sexual partner’s “post-intercourse behavior,” then chances are you’ve heard about oxytocin. The so-called “cuddle hormone” gets a lot of talk but, unfortunately, a lot of misunderstanding, too. Robert Froemke, who works in the NYU department of neuroscience and physiology and is an assistant professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, regularly researches the hormone.
“Oxytocin is just a nine amino acid peptide. When it’s released into the brain, it basically acts like a volume knob on incoming information — of any kind — turning up the salience and helping us pay attention to whatever is going on,” Froemke says. “It might help make us care more, attend more, or trust more, if there’s already a trend there, but it doesn’t necessarily have to work like that.”
According to Cosmo, “oxytocin is a hormone that’s released in a woman’s body following an orgasm and makes you want to bond with your guy after getting it on.”
But that’s not the entire story, and ignorance about the hormone could lead to some confusion about how you think you’re supposed to feel after sex.
“Human sexual behavior is much more interesting and complex than just involving one neurochemical,” Froemke says. “Cuddling involves more than oxytocin, and conversely, while generally the case, not everyone needs (or wants) to cuddle with their partner after sex.”
Oxytocin gets its cuddle and trust correlations because the events that typically release the hormone tend to be intense forms of physical contact like sex, child labor, and nursing. And this is true of everyone, not just females. If a sexual partner is already feeling warmly toward their mate, oxytocin likely enhances their bond. It can also intensify orgasms and can be slightly sedating and relaxing, Froemke explains, so it has the ability to enable more of a bond between partners.
“‘Trust’ and ‘love’ are complex psychological concepts that might arise from the action of oxytocin on certain nerve cells and brain areas, but then that’s more about the operation of those brain areas than just oxytocin per se,” he says.
One of the biggest misconceptions about oxytocin is that it acts by itself. Thinking, love, trust, doubt, and so on all arise from the reactions among neurochemicals, not from just one wave of oxytocin. There’s only one biological process that absolutely depends on oxytocin, and that’s lactation.
One of the biggest misconceptions about oxytocin is that it acts by itself.
The biggest difference between how men and women release oxytocin is only in the fact that, for women, oxytocin has two major functions: uterine contractions and milk ejection. A 2009 report showed that men released more oxytocin than women while kissing, but the results were fickle and official findings were never published.
So if you or your partner have no interest in cuddling after sex, it probably has nothing to do with oxytocin release or how much one partner cares or trusts the other.
Still feel like something’s missing in your post-sex routine with your partner? You can buy oxytocin supplements, but Froemke says that research indicates that the peptide is just too big to cross from the bloodstream into the brain.
“Honestly, in my view,” he says. “The alternative is not to try oxytocin supplements, but to engage in behaviors and experiences that release the brain’s own oxytocin.”