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The Neurobiology Behind Taking People Home Imani Crews

“How about another round? I don’t have class until 1:20 pm tomorrow?” Jane smiles as she orders another round of Bud Lights. John nods with a smirk. Hours have gone by since John and Jane were introduced. Their conversation covers everything from international politics to John’s secret obsession with the band Semisonic. Things have been going well, and an hour later it's closing time and way past the last call for alcohol, yet here they are, still at the same bar stools inches away from each other. The sexual tension is palpable. What is going on? Is someone going make a move and how do they even make that decision?

Researchers have begun looking into the neurological processes that affect decision-making regarding sexual advances. A study conducted at Duke University hypothesizes that gender may actually affect the complex interactions between neural functions contributing to the approach and avoidance of sexual partners (Victor, Sansosti, Bowman, & Hariri, 2015). Of the many neural system at work in the brains of both John and Jane, two systems are especially implicated in the sexual decision-making process: the ventral striatum, associated with approach behaviors, reward drive, and impulsivity; and the amygdala, associated with the avoidance of threatening stimuli (Victor, Sansosti, Bowman, & Hariri, 2015,). Researchers used the number of sexual partners reported by heterosexual participants to determine different levels of sexual behavior for both men and women. The relationship between varying levels of sexual activity and the neural networks associated with the sexual decision-making were then assessed by monitoring the activity in both the ventral striatum and the amygdala when participants completed tasks aimed at stimulating either brain areas.

The results found that men who reported larger numbers of sexual partners exhibited high activity in the ventral striatum and low activity in the amygdala (Victor, Sansosti, Bowman, & Hariri, 2015). Women who reported a higher number of sexual partners exhibited high activity in both the amygdala and the ventral striatum. Essentially, when Jane’s deciding to leave the party with John, she’s also contemplating the potential reward of having sex against the risk of going home with someone she may not know. John, on the other hand, is more likely to avoid a sexual situation entirely if he views as being potentially risky.

These results paint a clear picture of sexual behavior within a strict gender binary. Men are from one planet and women are from another. But is that true? Is our behavior simply a product of innate gendered neurobiology or do we adjust our behavior based on prior experiences. Who has the luxury of impulsivity in our society? Would these results be different if Jane didn’t grown up hearing horror stories of men at bars with cruel intentions, or if John grew up in a society where women were the oppressing gender. What if it were Jenny and Jane or John and Jim at the bar? Yes it’s closing time, but at the last call for alcohol is the neurobiology behind taking people home just a reflection of different gendered privileges?

Victor, E. C., Sansosti, A. A., Bowman, H. C., & Hariri, A. R. (2015). Differential patterns of amygdala and ventral striatum activation predict gender-specific changes in sexual risk behavior. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(23), 8896-8900

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Created with images by Pablo Merchán Montes - "untitled image" • andrew welch - "untitled image" • Pablo Heimplatz - "untitled image" • LexScope - "untitled image"

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