Oxytocin and Sexual Trauma

In their book, HOOKED, Drs. McIlhaney and Bush discuss the role of the brain in sexual relationships. When two people engage in sexual activity, there is a complex interaction of neuro-hormones, including dopamine and oxytocin that takes place within the brain. In addition, there are physical changes that involve the reinforcement of selected synapses and the demise of others, in response to behavior. This pruning of synapses leads to the “molding” of the brain in response to behavior. The authors of the book warn that casual sexual encounters, such as “hook-ups” can have unexpected consequences beyond the usual ones of exposure to sexually transmitted infections and possible pregnancy. They then propose that normal bonding responses can be damaged with continued casual sexual encounters, as the brain “molds” to the behavior of repeated “hook-ups” and “break-ups”.

Recently, the Medical Institute has received inquiries concerning the consequences of non-consensual sex and rape. Specifically, is oxytocin released and is there a bonding issue between the victim and the perpetrator? There is no easy answer to that question. Although oxytocin is the subject of many current research projects, the number of studies actually involving human subjects is limited for obvious reasons. Additionally, scientists are discovering that there are gender differences when it comes to the response to neuro-hormones, such as oxytocin, making it difficult to generalize studies limited to one gender.

Miranda Olff at the University of Amsterdam is exploring the relation of oxytocin to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She authored a paper entitled “Bonding after trauma: on the role of social support and the oxytocin system in traumatic stress”. The paper, published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, provides some insight into the question posed; is oxytocin released with non-consensual sex and does bonding occur as a result? She begins with an explanation of what happens in a psychologically traumatic event.

Trauma, the author notes, is a Greek word for “wound” and rape is certainly a traumatic event. When a person is raped, damage occurs both physically and psychologically. The body does not react in the same way as it does to a consensual sex act. Instead, it initially reacts with a “stress response”. Sudden and severe stress causes the body to produce Cortisol and Adrenaline, which causes an increase in heart rate and breathing and a decrease in digestive activity. The “stress response” is a complicated reaction between different parts of the brain and the peripheral nervous system, which prepares the body to fight, flee or freeze, in order to survive.

Olff’s article continues by explaining that once the immediate danger is past and the initial trauma is over, another part of the stress system helps to restore the victim to a normal state. The vagus nerve slows the heartrate, breathing slowly returns to normal, and the hormones, such as Cortisol, that were initially released, begin to decrease. Oxytocin is believed to play a major role in this restoration process. In a study led by Laura Kubzansky in 2012, both men and women given oxytocin nasal spray in a socially stressful situation demonstrated a healthy recovery from stress as indicated by a greater vagal rebound, than was seen in the men and women who were given a placebo nasal spray.1

Oxytocin has been shown to be released by the body in response to pleasurable stimulation, such as massaging, hugging, and even pleasant conversation. The social surroundings of a rape victim following the trauma is very important to the healing process, “since the biological system that produces feelings of calm and attachment can only be activated in socially favorable circumstances”.2 Studies done with Oxytocin and borderline personality disorder patients indicates that oxytocin does not result in trust with those suffering chronic interpersonal insecurities.3 If recovery from the trauma is not complete, lasting effects, such as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, can occur. Therefore, it becomes very important for the emergency responders, emergency room personnel, and police personnel, to be trained to work with victims of sexual trauma, in order to promote a healthy recovery from the trauma.

In summary, it appears that oxytocin is not released with traumatic sexual encounters, such as rape. The body instead reacts with a “stress response” in order to survive the trauma. The body releases oxytocin in an effort to recover from the trauma of the event, but only when a secure, safe environment is sensed can a victim commence the healing process.

1. Kubzansky LD, et al, “A Heartfelt Response: Oxytocin Effects on Response to Social Stress in Men and Women,” Biological Psychology, 2012 Apr; 90(1)” 1-9
2. Olff M., “Bonding after trauma; on the role of social support and the oxytocin system in traumatic stress,” European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 2012; 3: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3402118/ page 4, accessed Jan 30, 2015.
3. Bartz Jennifer, et al, “Oxytocin can hinder trust and cooperation in borderline personality disorder,”Soc. Cogn. Affect Neurosci. 2011 Oct 6(5): 556-563