I'm sticking with you

Observations on love

It's abstinence rather than absence that makes the heart grow fonder, or so a controversial Bush appointee is telling the adolescents of America, and trying to back it with some puzzling "love" science.

Dr Eric Keroack is the chief of family planning programmes at the US department of health and human services. When, last November, President Bush appointed the obstetrician, known for his anti-abortion work and advocacy of abstinence, there was a collective gasp of disbelief from pro-choice advocates.

With an annual budget of $283m, Keroack will oversee federally funded programmes related to teenage pregnancy education. A stated aim of the family planning programme is "to provide access to contraceptive supplies and information". How could a man who has publicly said that he believes distributing contraception is demeaning to women carry out this work?

But it is not just his provocative politics that worry critics. They are also concerned about Keroack's grasp of science and his scientific theories of love. He has written that having premarital sex with multiple partners alters brain chemistry, specifically the "love hormone" oxytocin, in a way that makes it harder to form relationships later in life. Premarital sex reduces a person's ability to bond, he has said. Young people who have many partners will run out of the hormone.

"The gift of sex is like a piece of sticky tape on the arm," he has written. "When pulled off for the first time it's strong. Each time this is done, part of each person remains with the tape. Soon it is easy to remove because the residue from the various arms interferes with the tape's ability to stick. The same is true in relationships, where previous sexual experiences interfere with the ability to bond."

Keroack has been thinking about the science of love and sex for some time. In 2003, he gave a PowerPoint presentation to the International Abstinence Leadership Conference, with garish capitalised headlines such as "Premarital Sex Is Really Modern Germ Warfare". It was also, he said, "JUST like HEROIN", with its ability to eliminate pain and create euphoria (and that is supposed to put off adolescents?). Prolonged exposure to the natural hormone oxytocin would lead to a decline in the response one had to it. Thus, too much sex would eventually numb you to emotional relations with another person.

Rebecca Turner, of the California School of Professional Psychology, who was responsible for early research into the effects of oxytocin on the brain, is less than happy that Keroack quotes her scientific work as support for his theories. "His interpretation of the scientific literature does not show sufficient expertise, in my view," she has said.

Which is a kind way of saying that the sticky-tape theory of love is bunkum and should not worry young Americans any longer.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia