'In Conversation' with Robyn Williams and guest Mary Sharpe

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Robyn Williams Transcript: Robyn Williams: And so we turn to sex, it was dealt with compellingly in All in the Mind this week, the aspect of desire and we shall now worry about the orgasm. And yes, I do mean worry because there’s a school of thought that too much of the big hit might sometimes be the source of addiction. It’s a small school of thought perhaps but one worth thinking about. Mary Sharpe is in the Department of Divinity at the University of Cambridge where she keeps an eagle eye on the science of sex.

Mary Sharpe: Well in the past few years there’ve been some very interesting developments in the field of science that helps us understand the difference between love and lust.

And unfortunately quite often you confuse the two. Basically falling in love happens in the limbic system of the brain, the primitive brain which is about 100 million years old and it’s part of our survival. Mary SharpeSo what happens is that when we’re attracted to somebody we are hoping to promote our species and survival of our species and when they actually engage in sexual activity we get a massive blast of dopamine into the reward centre which thanks us for passing on our genes.

Robyn Williams: And makes us want to do it again!

Mary Sharpe: And makes us want to do it again because that’s part of dopamine’s reaction, it is very addictive and it promotes craving behaviours. Now unfortunately it’s not just craving the love it’s craving the dopamine and just like in many other aspects of addictive behaviours, it’s the dopamine we’re after, it’s not the chocolate cake, it’s not the gambling per se, it’s not even necessarily our love interest, it’s the fix or the hit we get from the dopamine.

Robyn Williams: So where does the love part come in?

Mary Sharpe: Well that’s really the oxytocin and that’s again in recent years we’ve learned a little bit more about oxytocin and that seems to appear at different places and different times in the body. When nursing mothers produce milk for the babies, producing oxytocin, which helps expel the milk, when men ejaculate it’s often present there too, the blood surges through the contractions to help place the semen strategically where it ought to go. But more importantly it’s the oxytocin in the limbic system that promotes bonding and that’s the real love interest. Unfortunately you can’t just get an injection of it and fall in love instead, and stay in love.

Robyn Williams: It did occur to me yeah.

Mary Sharpe: Yes well it would be rather nice, much more importantly we’ve actually got to slightly change our behaviour and just tweak the way we make love in a way that actually will enhance our ability to produce many more oxytocin receptors and allows us to fall in love and stay in love.

Robyn Williams: So if I’m a sort of serial lover leaping from bedroom to bedroom it could be that my limbic system is over-riding or maybe too strong for my other part?

Mary Sharpe: That’s right. Basically it’s you’re craving that high because what happens when the neuro receptors get an overdose of dopamine and of course the body doesn’t like overdose of anything, it shuts down. And it seems it can take up to two weeks to get back to homeostasis and during that time there’s a sort of zigzag of high and low which is basically the emotional roller coaster we often feel in relationships after intense sexual passion. So we you know we love them, we hate them, we want to be away from them, we can’t be without them, so there’s this sort of push-pull attraction repulsion fact that seems to be in relationships and actually longer term causes emotional separation is at the root of it. So we just need to learn to make love in a way that promoted the oxytocin and the love and get the steady doses of dopamine which we do need, we don’t want to eliminate the dopamine, we want steady doses so that we’re not driven by lust but generated by love.

Robyn Williams: Well of course all this is happening when we’re least able to control necessarily what we do because we’re being teenage and you know the hormones are flooding and burgeoning and so on. How do you learn this skill of balancing both your behaviour and your hormone supply when there are so many pressures on you and when it’s so confusing?

Mary Sharpe: Well indeed I think that’s the biggest trouble, one of the areas we’re going to have to look at most carefully is what happens with teenagers because that’s when an awful lot of addictions take place. And there was a study done in Columbia last year that indicated that teenagers who’d been engaged in sexual behaviour also are more likely and more susceptible to be involved in recreational drugs which is really quite a concern so it’s the fact that when you get this high of dopamine and then it drops off with a sudden rise in prolactin the satiation hormone we’re creating, we want that high again so we look for other drugs. And so if we’re getting that high and low from sex then we want the high again from anything we can get and if drugs are available we go for that. So what’s the answer? Well certainly to regulate sex and we can benefit from lots of tender loving care through massage, through stroking, through kissing and cuddling. You don’t actually have to engage in the sexual act. Although that is a modified way of making love which is for teenagers of all ages because the problem exists if you’re in your teens or when you’re older that sets off that high and low and causes a separation. And the despair in relationships because high levels of prolactin in the system, which I see, surge when you get the drop in dopamine tend to cause despair and upset and puts people off relationships altogether. So lots of smooching and cuddling and all the nice things that people used to do before sex became the main drug and addiction. If we do of that and we try to go back to that. If we encourage teenagers to do that I think we’ll able to help somewhat even with people who are drug addicted or addicted to other substances. There’s already studies showing that with increased oxytocin it helps in withdrawal symptoms.

Robyn Williams: So what you’re more or less saying is that yes, you should get plenty of practice and you don’t learn these skills unless you’re actually doing it at some informed level but don’t necessarily go in for the big hits immediately, don’t sprint to the finish every time.

Mary Sharpe: Well that’s right but I mean I think there’s a serious need for a whole revamping of the sex education program, there is no doubt about it because while you know well meaning liberal educators think well we’ll just tell them about condoms and contraceptives then everything’s OK. What really needs to happen is that we have a fundamental understanding and you teach children, youngsters cause they are thoroughly interested, they are not interested in anything more than relationships and sex. So they could actually understand what’s going on in their brains, what’s going on their bodies when you feel attracted, when you feel aroused and then how to deal with that in a way that’s not going to cause unwanted abortions making them more susceptible to even violent crime because the ancient Chinese recognise a close correlation between recent loss of seminal fluid and violent crime. They are going to be in a much stronger position, more resilient to deal with love and relationships in a way that’s beneficial to them mentally and physically and intellectually.

Robyn Williams: So what would you actually say to them if you had them on your hands at some sort of sex course that here are some ways in which you might explore the possibilities and this is how you hold off going right to the end which you might do, every now and then as part of the full experience. And how would you translate that into everyday real practice?

Mary Sharpe: Well certainly I think you tell them intellectually, give them lessons about what’s actually going at a physiological biochemical level but you give them workshops on practice with massage, you can give them foot massages, head massages, hand massages, lots of lovely loving things you can do and that increased level of oxytocin eases the need for the high blast of dopamine. So it eases that sort of aching desire. Also it gives them more focus on their work and it can help them give them a sense of mission cause that’s a sort rebel without a cause feeling particularly a lot of young men feel. Women tend to be more focussed on babies and maybe careers but men, it’s like rebel of what do I do, what am I doing with my life? I think it will give them more focus and if they’re more loving not just to their girlfriends or partners or whatever, but they might be nicer to their old folk, or nicer to their parents. I think you would change in these sort of violent mood swings that seem to be so typical of adolescence.

Robyn Williams: OK, well going to the reward itself, you know the orgasmic blast with the dopamine and so on, there’s been lots discussed recently about the inequality of experience of men and women. And some people have even suggested that a high proportion of women don’t necessarily experience an orgasm and that big hit. So how does that story pan out in your kind of analysis?

Mary Sharpe: Well that’s absolutely true. An awful lot of women complain that they don’t receive the benefits or feel the big blast. But that’s often because they’re afraid or they feel that they’re being attacked almost and if men are very focussed on getting their hit, then some of the niceties of foreplay go out the window. The ‘brace yourself sheila’ approach, the Australian approach, doesn’t go down terribly well and causes the muscles to contract and women aren’t ready. You’ve both got to be incredibly relaxed and I can recommend a fantastic book if I may called Cupid's Poisoned Arrow by Marnia Robinson and you can see more about it on her website at www.reuniting.info which explains that this is ancient spiritual wisdom, the ancient Chinese knew about it, the ancient Indians, the Buddhists, the early Christians, it’s in the Sufi tradition and even in the Jewish Kabala; that when men and women use their sexual energy in a very relaxed way and not going for that big rush, then they can achieve all the benefits and the harmony and the incredible well being of a different kind of orgasm, the heart orgasm if you like rather than just focussing on the genital orgasm and both benefit.

Robyn Williams: What’s all this got to do with terrorism?

Mary Sharpe: Good question. Well terrorists are no different from everybody else and one of the effects of lack of dopamine, so if you have a deficiency of dopamine it can often cause despair, depression, you see the world in colourless sense, or too much dopamine it can be that you become very aggressive. As I mentioned the ancient Chinese saw a close relation between recent loss of seminal fluid and violent crime. That sort of anger and frustration are very typically and very closely related to the cortisol and other sort of neural chemicals are released through orgasm and people who are most susceptible to extremes, that can build up to extremes, that can build up and cause anger and frustration. Now if you can’t beat up your wife as a lot of people do, or you can’t beat up the government then you’ve got to beat up somebody and you’ve got a collective group you know filling unhappy and full of injustice and then they want to blame somebody. I believe that it’s possible if we learn to make love in this different way and it’s inherent in all the cultures. It’s not something imposed by America or anywhere else, it’s there. If we learn to do that then we wouldn’t feel this need, we will be loving and at peace. So it’s got spiritual dimensions and you’re not going to hate your neighbour, you’re going to love your neighbour and that means the Americans, the west or whoever you perceive whether it’s the Iranians or the Iraqis, the Jews, the Arabs, Catholics, Protestants whoever you perceive to be your enemy that will dissolve because internally you’ll feel well and you won’t have that aggression.

Robyn Williams: Yes but the question of feeling badly we’re talking about a great number of men who are coming often from societies without close relationships with women. Is that part of the cause as well?

Mary Sharpe: Undoubtedly because in many Arab cultures for instance no sex before marriage is strongly encouraged because they feel and rightly in many cases that if you can’t afford to look after a wife and a family you shouldn’t get married. Well if you’ve got high unemployment in many of these areas and no hope of a job then you’ve got an awful lot of sexual passion and you know frustration building up. Now in Egypt for instance you have this system of urfi marriages, where they’re clandestine marriages in effect, where young people get together, say they’re in love, write a contract between them saying they are in love and that they’re married, got a couple of their pals to sign it and witness it so ostensibly it’s a legal contract and then they go off and do the things that married people do. And quite often babies appear but because the clandestine marriage and the families haven’t agreed which is of course a major part of the culture, then quite often fathers say no way is my son going to be responsible for bringing up that child or for paying for it. And it seems that the Egyptian courts are full of questions about these urfi marriages and whether or not they are regular. So you can’t ignore the sexual drive, it’s a question of managing it but if you have this idea that you can’t marry until you’ve enough money, but there’s high unemployment there’s no money, you have a problem.

Robyn Williams: And also if you regard women as simply being a source of babies rather than companionship then there’s another one.

Mary Sharpe: Well a third element not even just companionship, you’re actually all the ancient traditions and this is inherent in some of the Gnostic Gospels that I was studying that you can use sexual union for a higher level of spirituality, the two become as one. It’s like return to the Garden of Eden where you can achieve that higher state of well being and oneness and creativity. So it’s not just about having babies but I think, and I truly believe that at various times when emperors want to expand their empires the thought that women might have control over their fertility there’s no way that they’re going to allow that and the women must get married. There was the Lex Julia in ancient Rome that forced women within a year of becoming widows to be remarried if they were of childbearing years. In Hitler’s time, when lots of his soldiers were being killed women the Bund Deutscher Mädel were taken off, mated off with some of the Aryan good looking young studs, and I think in Constantine’s time that was the case too in ancient times. It’s interesting that just yesterday I heard a news report that in Iran they’re encouraging women to get married younger because they’ve got too many women getting a university education and not getting married. And because they can’t find men of a suitably elevated educational background. Well I see more education but of the right kind, that’s what we need.

Robyn Williams: And I can see why you’re in the Department of Divinity here in Cambridge.

Mary Sharpe: Well think you a little spreading divinity around.

Robyn Williams: If I were to ask you to choose some music, what might you off the top of your head choose.

Mary Sharpe: Pachebel’s Canon.

Robyn Williams: Pachebel’s Canon why?

Mary Sharpe: Because it’s the most beautiful music for making love to.

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