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20 Years of Love & Sex
20-Year Timeline: From the beginning of AIDS awareness to outed cartoon sponges.
Love Is a Drug: Once the realm of poets, artists and philosophers, love has been exposed as biochemistry.
When Porn Wore Sideburns: In San Jose's golden age of smut, real fans converged in the dark at theaters like the Burbank, the New Paris and the Pussycat.
Gay Nineties: Twenty years of queers in the South Bay.
The Joy of Mix: Want a real window into the soul? Don't look into the eyes—look at the CD collection.
Victims Gone Wild: How feminism has messed up relationships.
Borderless Dating: In the valley, young couples aren't afraid of diversity.
Twenty Years of Tom Cruise: What were we thinking?

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Love Is a Drug

Once the realm of poets, artists and philosophers, love has been exposed as biochemistry

By Dan Pulcrano

I HAD suspected that the experience formerly known as love was a chemically induced phenomenon. I had heard about chocolate generating a lovelike euphoria and about something called oxytocin, the hormone responsible for afterglows and feelings of attachment. (I think this was my father's version of the birds-and-the-bees discussion, even though it was long after I had left the house.)

If LSD could twist the world into kaleidoscopic art and antidepressants convert all the miserable people I know into tolerable individuals, why couldn't some gland secrete an intravenous secret love sauce with mind-altering and history-shaping capabilities? Not to mention consequences for the global economy: Where would the flower, travel, automobile, pop music, fashion, family law and antiperspirant industries be without love?

My self-serving, half-baked theory usually reserved for girlfriend-dumping conversations received some unexpected support during my first phone conversation with cultural anthropologist William Jankowiak of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas—a man with impeccable academic credentials in spite of the fact that he lives in Las Vegas.

Jankowiak informed me that in the past decade researchers have come to understand that romantic passion is largely a function of endocrinology. "We're hard-wired to engage in passion," he revealed.

Lest we get all in a funk over the helpless determinism of our chemical dependency, Jankowiak expands, pointing out that romance is "settled by cognitive processes." In street terms, we still can think about things and make conscious decisions. Whew!

But back to this love-slave business. The agent responsible for the biochemical hallucination colloquially referred to as "love" is an amino acid peptide squirted out of the hypothalamus, a gland about the size and shape of an incense cone that sits just above our brain stems. Maybe, someday, we'll see bumper stickers that say "I [hypothalamus] New York."

It would be more accurate, even though the heart still manifests the physical evidence of romantic attraction that fuels common metaphors. The thump thump inside your chest, however, may simply be the heart-rate-quickening effects of intravenously transported oxytocin.

The hormone's power first came to light in 1979 when oxytocin-injected virgin male rats began to display maternal behavior. Of course, that was back when musk oil, back hair and bushy sideburns were considered sexy. And we know a lot more about it now.

For example, while we like to think of love as a human condition, Jankowiak mentions casually that oxytocin is found in prairie bull dogs and elephant seals. Perhaps we don't consider the writhing and barking of sea mammals on a par with the love poetry of Blake or Ovid, but tell that to a seal.

It is highly likely that William Blake had elevated levels of oxytocin, as people in generally love do. The flip side of that is a lowered level of testosterone that occurs during love bouts of oxytocin poisoning. And that explains much of the difference between the desires for love and sex, as well as the irreconcilable differences between men and women.

Testosterone "fosters a tendency for rovingness," Jankowiak explains, while oxytocin encourages monogamy. "Love is focusing on one person and one person only. It's exclusive. Only one person will do. Sex, on the other hand, is inclusive. Anyone will do, really."

The dual phenomena can occur simultaneously at times. "Women can be in love with one person and have sex with another," the professor points out.

The new insights gained into human physiology in the past quarter-century probably call for a biochemical audit of history, because this can explain a lot of things. Satan, the snake in the Garden of Eden, temptation, your evil twin, the battle between the good angel on your shoulder and the pull of pleasures of the flesh—all those may just be ways of explaining the thoughts that race through our minds as we come on to various doses of testosterone and oxytocin that race through our bloodstream.

Once the realm of poets, artists and philosophers, love has been exposed as brain chemistry. The French obstetrician Michel Odent calls this "the signification of love."

It's a decidedly unromantic concept that will not sell many long-stemmed roses, heart-shaped boxes of candy or skimpy lingerie outfits.

Who knows, though? Maybe oxytocin will become the next Viagra and spark a whole new wave of Internet spam. The desire for warmth and caring will replace pressure for sexual performance. Oxytocin mickeys will overtake roofies as the date-rape drug of choice. We'll all have beautiful, snuggly, long-term relationships and live happily ever after.


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From the February 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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