Transcript: Wed., Oct. 20 at 11 a.m. ET

On Love: The science of sex

Judy Dutton, author of
Judy Dutton, author of "Secrets From the Sex Lab" (Broadway, 2010) (Photo by Carrie Villines)
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Ellen McCarthy and Judy Dutton
Washington Post Staff Writer and author of "Secrets from the Sex Lab"
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 11:00 AM

How do you know if you're really in love? Why do people cheat in relationships? Judy Dutton, author of "Secrets From the Sex Lab," joined Style's Ellen McCarthy to discuss her book and answer your questions.

The Post's Ellen McCarthy writes about weddings and relationships in Sunday's Arts & Style OnLove section.

Dutton is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She's contributed to Cosmopolitan, Maxim, Glamour, Redbook, Women's Health, The Knot, The Nest, msn.com, Match.com, and other magazines. Dutton has covered a range of topics including dating, relationships, sex, health, personal finance, news, and entertainment.

For more marital and relationship advice and to see how other couples have gotten to the altar, visit our On Love section.

The transcript follows.

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Ellen McCarthy: Hi all, Thanks for joining us today. I'm excited Judy Dutton is able to be with us. She spent several years exploring the findings coming out of research labs that focus on the science of sex. Feel free to send questions, comments and you own insights.

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Ellen McCarthy: Judy, Maybe you could begin by telling us what got you interested in this research.

Judy Dutton: Certainly! As an editor at Cosmopolitan, Maxim, and other magazines, you hear a lot of strange stuff, and the strangest was an article I did on the Orgasmatron, a device with electrodes on the spine that gives orgasms with the push of a button. There was a lot of science behind how this contraption worked, and I was fascinated. From there I learned that there were entire laboratories devoted to studying sex in all its facets. For example, a laboratory in Chicago found that the scent of pumpkin pie mixed with lavender causes a 40 percent increase in blood blow to the genitals. I was so intrigued by this research I had to learn more, as well as learn how this knowledge could make our sex lives even better.

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Alexandria, Va.: I've always heard that men were "wired" to cheat but I think that's junk science. I think that men's propensity to cheat has more to do with societal mores and opportunity rather than real genetic tendency. If it's said that primitive man needed to "spread his seed" (hence the cheating tendency) I think it could also be said that a primitive woman would not have been tied to just one man in case he was impotent. Nature just doesn't seem to hold monogamy for either sex in high regard. I believe men and women are much more alike than we think they are... what do you think?

Judy Dutton: I couldn't agree more, and science backs this up: Both men and women are wired to cheat. Some studies even suggest that they cheat at equal rates, since who, after all, are all these men cheating with? That said, women are sometimes more covert about it. Women may also cheat for different reasons than men. Women may cheat to "trade up" to a better partner.

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New York, N.Y.: I was in a long term relationship with a woman for several years. I went through a stressful period in my life and as a result lost this relationship. We went through a nasty break-up and I behaved in many ways I regret. I am afraid my behaviors are unforgivable. I regret the end of this relationship and want to start again with this woman who I loved very much. Do you have advice as to how I could get back in touch with this person? Can you suggest a best way to apologize?

Judy Dutton: Nothing is more flattering and convincing than an honest apology and a bold statement along the lines of "Losing you was the biggest mistake of my life. If you think you could ever find it in your heart to give me a second chance, I would be grateful and you won't be sorry. But if not, I completely understand. My loss." Try to say this in person, but if not, a phone call or email is fine too. You may as well lay it all out there!

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Anywhere, USA: I'm a male. Over the years of my relationship, it's been quite clear that there's a correlation between my spouse's sex drive and the monthly cycle. Is this unique or is this the experience of others as well? As I read articles and opinions on how to align male/female drives, I feel like I never see this -- and yet it certainly seems to entirely govern my relationship. I've learned how to thrive in that cycle, but it would have helped to have known that this would be a fixed reality.

Judy Dutton: Absolutely, studies show that when women are ovulating (typically 10-14 days after the start of their menstrual period) have a higher sex drive. During ovulation they'll also wear skimpier clothing, initiate sex more often, and reach orgasm twice as often as during other times of the month. So if you can ride this wave, by all means take advantage of it!

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Leesburg, Va.: Why are so many people who are totally competent in their business lives, such a blithering mess in their personal, love lives?

Judy Dutton: Great question! I think it's because a lot of people have this idea that love and sex should "just happen naturally." so they just wing it. no wonder they flounder. a little instruction (in terms of reading books, doing your research online) can go a long way. don't necessarily depend on your friends' opinions. they mean well, but they may harbor a lot of wives tales. the best experts to ask are scientists, which is why my book is devoted to the science of sex.

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How to choose?: I am at a point where a choice needs to be made. One potential person I have been seeing for a while. We are comfortable together and get along very well. I like this person and could imagine a happy future. Only thing that bothers me is age. This one is quite a bit younger. The other is someone my age who seems both very compatible and interested. I can't in good conscience pursue both, so I feel a decision is necessary. On what grounds should one make this type of decision? I feel totally lost and conflicted.

Judy Dutton: If you're attracted to the younger prospect because you want to have kids, know that age isn't the only factor to affect fertility. of those who visit infertility clinics, 40 percent find it's the woman's issue, 40 percent find it's the man's issue, and 20 percent are unknown causes. I'm personally a fan of finding someone compatible, and if similar ages makes you more compatible then that's the way I'd go.

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Ellen McCarthy: I'd be curious to hear how much research is being done on this topic today. Have we come a long way since Kinsey?

Judy Dutton: Absolutely. There are laboratories around the world devoted to sex research and they're making discoveries that seem very sci-fi. for example, an MRI scan of your brain can tell if you're in love. an MRI scan of your partner's brain can tell if they're cheating. they've discovered a "cheating gene" that makes people prone to cheat. They've even discovered a "cheating vaccine" that works wonders on rodents called meadow voles.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: I've always heard that women reach their peak, sexually, at age 40. Does the science back this up?

Judy Dutton: That's a good question and I searched high and low for any research to back this up, but didn't find any. The best explanation I found is merely that women in their late 30s and 40s know their sexual responses and know how to speak up about their needs in bed. this alone makes sex more pleasurable, thus boosting their interest in sex.

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Arlington, Va.: You came from the world of Cosmo and the like, and then really investigated the science. I'm wondering how much of the sex-related features in women's magazines are based on fact. A lot of it seems highly embellished, if not total B.S. to me.

Judy Dutton: I thought the same thing as you did going into magazines like Cosmo, but found that they are indeed rigorously factchecked. all those zany stories are real, you could not make that stuff up. I remember a story at cosmo called "weird ways i orgasmed" where one woman ran a marathon and orgasmed when she crossed the finish line. it was true cause it's too strange to fabricate. sex is highly unpredictable and strange stuff really does happen.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you believe a man who repeatedly tells his wife he loves her, but has had an affair? Can men be trusted after an affair?

Judy Dutton: Oddly. many people who cheat report that they are "happy" and even "very happy" with their main relationship. so yes, I do believe that people can love their partners but stray. everyone makes mistakes. so yes I do think a cheater can reform him or herself. still, if the cheating is constant that's another story.

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Washington, D.C.: What does the research say about sex as people age? As people age they often develop conditions that can make sex really uncomfortable and so may have to modify the 'act'. Does this adversely affect the relationship?

Judy Dutton: Research shows that sexual satisfaction levels tend to dip in the 40s but rise again in men's and women's 50s. so we all have some good sex to look forward to. but yes, as you say, some conditions can make sex uncomfortable so some adjustments may be in order. still, these adjustments force couples to become creative, and creativity can be refreshing and a way to break out of a sex rut.

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Ellen McCarthy: Can you tell us about some of the findings or insights that surprised you most in doing this research?

Judy Dutton: I was surprised to learn that sexual attraction is shaped by forces well beyond what we're consciously aware of. For instance, the vowels in your name can make you more or less attractive. For men, names with a's, e's, and i's are hot, like Matt or Mike. For women, o's and u's are hot, like Lola or Judy (which I guess is good for me).

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Philadelphia, Pa.: How important are endorphins? I always argue that a lot of life involves how we get our endorphins, either through sex, alcohol, or exercise. Or are endorphins overrated?

Judy Dutton: Oxytocin, the feel-good chemical released during sex, is incredibly important. studies using an oxytocin nasal spray show that it causes people to be more trusting and get along better with their partner. I wish i had some oxytocin nasal spray in my bathroom cabinet. but having sex is an even better way to get that oxytocin rush.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm curious about your take and any science behind the idea of finding "the one."

Judy Dutton: There's definitely a lot of science showing that sexual attraction is shaped by forced beyond our consciousness. for example, in studies where women sniffed men's sweaty t-shirts, scientists discovered that when someone we're dating "smells good," it's because they're genetically compatible to us. when someone we're dating smells "off," that's a sign that they're not genetically compatible. So, science is unraveling some really subtle ways our body helps us hone in on the right partner.

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Love and MRIs: Very interesting topic. I just want to caution, as a psychology researcher, that functional MRIs cannot be used to diagnose anyone/thing at this point (e.g., whether a particular individual is cheating). Due to individual differences in brain structure and function, the state of the science is still based on group averages/between group differences.

Ellen McCarthy: Thank you for chiming in.

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Princeton, N.J.: What is your take on sexless marriages? I have been married for 18 years, the last 10 of which my husband and I have only had sex about once or twice a year. My life is so busy that I don't feel like I miss it, but sometimes when I'm in bed late at night I think it would be nice. The problem is, I have no sexual desire towards my husband. He is in great shape, very handsome, and not a physical turn off at all. But I feel like if I spend the rest of my life with him I'll never have sex again, because he just doesn't do it for me.

Judy Dutton: Studies estimate that fifteen to twenty percent of couples are in what's defined as a "sexless marriage," which means they have sex fewer than ten times per year. But this is not a problem unless one partner is unhappy with this arrangement. a lot of couples think they "should" be having sex all the time but "shoulds" really don't matter, so don't get caught up in them. if you or your partner do want to have sex more often, one piece of advice i'd say is that shaking up what you do IN bed isn't necessarily the answer. shaking up what you do outside the bedroom-say, novel "date nights" like thai cooking class or dance lessons-may be the way to go. Novel activities stimulate the brain's reward system-the same circuits that get activated when couples first fall in love. So, you're essentially goosing your brain chemistry into making sparks fly again.

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Washington, D.C.: What would these scientists say to the gay teens who've been taking their own lives about their sexuality?

Judy Dutton: It's tragic that gay people still suffer so much stigma, although the bright side is if you pull back and look at the big picture, acceptance of homosexuality has come a long way. Homosexuality was deemed a mental illness up until 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association finally removed it from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Very few people consider homosexuality a mental illness these days, so that's progress!

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Washington, D.C.: What's your take on the "he's just not that into you" premise? Is it true that guys who send mixed messages or who don't aggressively pursue you are not that interested? I go back and forth between thinking it is true, and thinking that sometimes the nicer guys are more reserved and less aggressive. But I don't want to fall into the trap of making excuses for people. What are your thoughts?

Judy Dutton: I think it's true that when a guy is interested in you, he will make it 100 percent clear-you won't have to analyze emails with your friends or wait for a phonecall, it'll be very clear to you that he likes you. so if a woman's getting the runaround she probably wasting her time. a "nice guy" may be reserved and not aggressive, but he will definitely make it clear if he's into you.

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Baltimore, Md.: I've read that a stable, regular sex life is important for an adult to be mentally healthy. Is there any evidence to back this up? What kind of effects could a 'deficit' lead to?

Judy Dutton: Regular sex is incredibly important. in "happiness studies" scientists calculated that regular sex brings as much happiness as an extra $50,000 per year. regular sex also lengthens life span, lowers risk of heart attacks, lowers blood pressure, stress levels, and even makes you a better public speaker. a "sex deficit," I guess, could lead to more stress, less happiness, shorter life span, heart attacks, poorer public speaking skills, etc. (i outline these benefits in the first chapter of my book)

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Washington, D.C.: Let's say, hypothetically, you're dating several people at one time and need to make a decision. One is consistent and devoted, but you're not attracted to him/her. The other is boisterous and fun and your chemistry is strong, but he/she has not put in as much work. Would it be a poor, immature decision to choose someone solely based on sexual attraction?

Judy Dutton: I don't think it would be a poor or immature decision. instead, it would be a very wise decision to go for the person where there's strong chemistry. even if this person's more trouble, science suggests that "strong chemistry" leads to a more lasting relationship and (if you want kids) stronger offspring. "chemistry" is the body's way of nudging us toward the right long-term partner.

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Wired to cheat?: I'm always fascinated by the "wired to cheat" theory, whether it applies to my own gender (I'm a woman) or any other. I've always found that when I'm casually looking for a partner I may feel attracted to many different possibilities and be very flirty, but when I find someone I like I feel intense desire to settle down, to the point where people remark on how I've changed. I realize cheating is very common, but I just don't get this OMG EVERYONE GETS BORED, SOOOOO TA-DAH AFFAIR! thing. Are some people wired like me? Are we rare?

I can't imagine, for example, that my girlfriend is "wired to cheat" either; it seems completely counter to all I know about her to assume that when she says she feels safe and secure and couldn't imagine wanting anything else she's lying or valiantly "fighting" "wiring" for the sake of my feelings. Yet, so many people have told me that monogamy is an unnatural, difficult effort people agree to undertake because love is work.

Does anyone else out there find not settling down to be exhausting, or am I out of my mind?

Judy Dutton: You're in good company! Cheating isn't actually all that common. According to a 2006 survey of over 10,000 married Americans by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), 22 percent of men and 13 percent of women will cheat on their spouse at some point in their lifetime. stretch that out over 30 or 40-some years and very few people are actually cheating at any given time. It's too stressful to cheat, since you risk throwing away a great relationship!

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Arlington, Va.: How do I know when I am truly in love?

Judy Dutton: That's a big question and I don't think science will ever truly be able to unravel the answer, although they are certainly trying! In fact, these days, an MRI scan of your brain will tell you if you're in love or not. Certain parts of the brain light up when you're in love. Unfortunately this type of MRI scan isn't widely available to the public, but maybe soon it will be. right now one company called "no lie MRI" can scan the brain and tell if someone is cheating. that's not exactly what you're looking for, however. I guess my only advice for you is if you think you're in love, give it a shot with this person. throw yourself into it. the only way you'll know is to make a go of it.

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Playing: Have you done any research or studies on the prevelance of sexual play acting? I mean things like setting up scenarios and then acting them out in the bedroom. I think it is a great way to add spice to the relationship, let yourself be wild, and explore taboo areas. But sometimes I wonder if it is just "weird."

Judy Dutton: It's definitely not weird, it's a fantastic way to spice things up. Researchers estimate that as many as 60 percent of adults harbor fantasies with unconventional themes, and that 14 percent of men and 11 percent of women will follow through with them at some point.

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Anonymous: Did this undertaking change the way you approach your own sex life at all?

Judy Dutton: It's made me much more comfortable and accepting of everything I once thought was "weird." Like, low libido or sexual dry spells, or offbeat fantasies, or odd ways to orgasm, everyone who's ever felt like they're alone with a particular problem or experience should know that they have plenty of company.

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Rockville, Md.: What about someone determines whether I will be attracted to them?

Judy Dutton: A ton of things affect attraction, and many are very surprising-the way they smell, the vowels in their name, whether she's ovulating, the strength of their handshake, even the length of his fourth finger in relation to the second! science has discovered a ton of interesting data about attraction (in chapter 2 of my book i list them all)

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Any chance that we are all born gay -- and that certain neuro-pathways develop/mature to create opposite sex attraction?

Judy Dutton: I've never heard that theory. In fact, scientists still aren't sure why certain people end up gay and others don't. they haven't found a "gay gene" or anything like that, although many of the scientists I spoke to said there does seem to be an inborn element to it.

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Chemistry: I think it appropriate to mention that one's "chemistry" with another partner can be seriously compromised/enhanced by the use of alcohol, drugs, stimulants, etc. What say you?

Judy Dutton: Absolutely. And the effects will never last, so people had better make sure they like each other as is, without any additives!

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Suitland, Md.: Hi, I am approaching my three year cancer-versary for breast cancer. I broke up with my boyfriend while I was in radiation since he was constantly AWOL. I went through some other losses at the same time so it left a big dent in my ego. I've been on tamoxifen since Valentine's Day 2008. I'm just wondering what my chances are of falling in love again. My sex drive is in idle mode, but I've found I can still get turned on. Any advice as to how to talk myself into feeling attractive?

Judy Dutton: Congratulations on being cancer-free for three years! And I'd say your chances are falling in love again are very high, even if your sex drive is idling. my best advice is to get your blood pumping in some way-try running a 5K, dance lessons, etc.-since the accellerated heart rate can lead to "excitation transfer" where you become attracted to people around you. plus, learning new activities (italian lessons, thai cooking class) also boosts dopamine levels, which rise when we're in love.

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Gay genes: What about bisexuality or "fluid sexual orientation" in women? It seems we hear about this all the time lately, and I'm curious about it because I'm pretty sure I was born bi, rather than that I experienced some sort of mind-opening moment that made me realize I might like to try more than one gender. Does the science suggest that women's sexualities are fluid, or that some of us are like that, or more women than men are, or what? It's always confused me a little.

Judy Dutton: Yes, science does suggest that women's sexuality is more fluid, and that men's and women's sexual orientation is largely inborn, verses caused by something in their upbringing or environment. I can't think of any specific studies but I've seen them, they're out there. so your experience is far more normal than you might think.

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Arlington, Va.: I left my girlfriend because even though we had extremely good sexual chemistry she just wasn't intellectually smart enough for me. Do you think I am wrong to want someone smarter?

Judy Dutton: Not at all. In one study of more than 5,000 men and women by economist Shane Mathew Worner, a man's likelihood of being "very happy" increases by eight percent for every extra year of education his wife has.

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Bethesda, Md.: There seems to be a growing debate about whether humans are built for monogamy. What did you find in your research?

Judy Dutton: The science suggests that humans are built for what's called "social monogamy" (one mate) but also built for "sexual non-monogamy" (one-time fling on the side). so, you're married to one person but some might falter at some point.

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Years of drought: I had a wonderful sex life in my 20s and 30s, but I've been celibate for over 10 years since my divorce. I enjoyed sex, but I don't seem to miss it much. Is this mainstream?

Judy Dutton: I'd say it's much more common than people think. Even in marriages, studies estimate that fifteen to twenty percent of couples have sex fewer than ten times per year-and these people have partners! So being happily celibate is certainly common enough and hopefully coming out of the closet.

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Oakton, Va.: If your spouse was very promiscuous at a young age, does that increase the chances that they will cheat?

Judy Dutton: One study shows that every sexual partner someone has while young increases their odds of cheating later on by one percent. So yes, promiscuous people may be more likely to cheat. But I wouldn't write someone off because of this! Anyone can decide to become monogamous, and maybe someone who was once promiscuous will know they're not missing anything since they've been around the block.

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Arlington, Va.: How much is too much? In other words is twice a day every day too much?

Judy Dutton: I don't think there is such a thing as "too much"-it's whatever you (and your partner) have the time and inclination to enjoy. And there are many studies showing the benefits of frequent sex. In one study, on average, men and women who had sex regularly were judged four to seven years younger than their actual age.

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Richmond, Va.: Is is true that men are more likely to feel sexuallly excited in the morning and women more likely to be aroused in the evening? Which gender is more likely to feel excited in the afternoon?

Judy Dutton: Studies suggest that men's testosterone levels and sex drive are highest in the morning. Women vary on a monthly menstrual cycle, and their sex drive is highest when they're ovulating (10-14 days after the start of their period). Not sure about the "afternoon sex peak" although there are plenty of variations on this, so if afternoon works for you and your partner, then that's your peak. enjoy!

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Ellen McCarthy: Thanks for such a lively discussion, everyone. And thanks especially to Judy Dutton for taking the time to be with us today. We'll be back in a couple weeks for another OnLove chat. I hope you'll join us again then!

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