Can “Fifty Shades of Grey” Sex Change Your Brain?
What Brain Science says about Fifty Shades of Grey Sex
Whether you are a Fifty Shades of Grey fan or not, it is worth exploring the effects that this type of sexual play has on our brains, if any.
Fifty Shades Trilogy has been intentionally marketed to women and girls to entice them into BDSM – where sex is about domination and pain. The business minds behind the success of the books and movies spent years with focus groups of women testing the exact phrases and imagery such as “Mr. Grey with See You Know.” Women who would never have been interested in BDSM now see the erotized violence as alluring and the author and Hollywood have made a fortune convincing us to think this way.
And people who have never tried this type of sex are trying it out – after all we can make sex mean anything we want to, right?
The idea that we can just make sex mean something entirely different than what it used to be to us is based on the illusion that the mind and body are separate – that we can use our mind to control the body. It suggests that the body is detached from the mind, it is a tool for the mind. Whatever we decide sex means to us the body must obey. If we choose for sex to not mean anything then the body will adapt and follow our will. Today we can decide that sex can be fear-inducing and domineering and tomorrow it can be tender and heart-centered. This logic is flawed however because it is based on the premise that the mind and body are not connected.
This is not the case however, the mind-body connection is well documented in psychological research. There is an inseparable connection between the mind and body and to suggest that the mind can operate independent of the body is not accurate. The body has its own cellular memory, its own wisdom. Also, the human body is governed by the forces of neuroscience.
We may decide that the introduction of aggressive and dominant sex means nothing of significance in our relationship – and that our body can easily obey our decision for sex to mean something at other times – for it to be an expression of the tender feelings we have for our partner. This approach is based on the belief that we can simply change the channel internally – from distant/unemotional sex to warm, loving sex. Sex can mean whatever we want to in the moment.
However, this is not the way our mind/body connection works. The science of neuroplasticity reveals that our brain can be influenced and new neural pathways can be developed to reinforce new ways of being. Our behaviors can shape our brains. Our will to act in a given way has consequences for our neurobiology. We can hard-wire new behaviors and alter how we function.
Sexual experiences involve intense emotional experience and so encode into our biology rapidly. Experimenting with highly charged new sexual behaviors effects our body and brain. The choice does set us up for consequences that can be persistent. Reversing the effects can be challenging and more complicated than what the process of forming them.
The greater concern however has to do with the principle that neurons that fire together wire together. The Fifty Shades variety of sex – fear inducing and domineering – connects arousal, aggression and fear together. These three emotions have similar responses in the body: the heart rate increases, there is a change in the respiratory rate, blood pressure and the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. With the overlap of this sensory stimuli for these three emotions being experienced simultaneously, the brain associates one experience with the other. Neurons that fire together wire together. Therefore, fear and aggression automatically end up triggering sexual arousal. Neural networks get fused over time.
The choice to vacillate between tender and loving sex and domineering aggressive sex becomes less of a choice because due to the rewiring of the brain over time and with the experimentation of these practices, individuals and couples can experience numbness and lack of sexual arousal with the introduction of fear or violence.
The research on sexual trauma reinforces this point and also can explain some of the appeal of Fifty Shades. If formative sexual experiences involve both threat and pleasure the neural pathway are created that fuse fear and arousal. Without exploration and understanding of this phenomena, individuals can find themselves involuntarily reenacting sexual victimization, due to their bodies lack of arousal without the introduction of fear.
It is at this point that we are no longer willing our body to participate in the type of sex we choose. Our body will make the choice for us because it needs aggression/fear to be turned on. We then become enslaved to what our body dictates is arousing. If we choose warm, loving sex we do not feel the same stimulation that we feel in domineering, aggressive sex. This trajectory continues as the body becomes habituated to domineering experiences and like all other chemical addictions, requires more and more intense experiences to produce a high. As with drug/alchohol addiction, the addicted brain develops tolerance to the substance and requires more and more of it to produce the same high. The same is true of the aggressive sexual play, the brain requires new levels of intensity to produce a sustained high.
The point here is that this type of play is fusing sex and violence in our brains and behavior. We have the choice whether this is the experience we want to reinforce. If love, security, attachment and commitment are important experiences for us, it is worth considering whether these behaviors are moving us closer to these behaviors or further away. The science provides a direction that is definitive and not gray at all – it is rather quite black and white. We are shaping our brain by the sexual play we engage in. The repeated experiences can become less of a choice and more of an automatic habit.