Love vs. Sex: so what’s the difference?

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When Fifty Shades of Grey was released to the cinemas, people around the world proclaimed that what Christian and Anastasia were engaging in was completely love (WHAT?!? Some of you may ask). To be honest it is a very common pattern in entertainment media! Whenever I watched the latest Glee episode during high school I’d know a couple was in the making when making out came into the picture. Even when the news tabloids gossip about a celebrity hooking up with that new guy, everyone starts speculating if they are in a relationship. In the 21st Century this is how we know a couple is professing their love to the world, because the message we have been fed through the influence of media is this: love equals sex.

From a very young age I believed it too: that in order to develop and maintain love in a relationship I had to initiate some sort of sexual excitement. But after years of living this fallacy, I slowly realised the truth: love and sex are not the same thing. We are living in a world that is distorting the true picture of what love and sex really are, blurring the line between the two.

So, what’s the difference?

When I looked up the word love on the American Heritage dictionary it was defined as a tender affection for another. I really wanted to dig even deeper and searched up the word affection, which was defined as a tender fondness for another. I ended up reading the definition of fond[ness]. It was the same abstract description based on feelings. I personally am a very emotionally inclined person, but I truly wanted to know about what it means to love someone, and thinking of love as a tender feeling just didn’t feel right. What they were defining sounded more like a feeling of attraction than love itself. Feelings fade as time goes by, so if I didn’t “feel love” for another by the American Heritage dictionary’s definition I must have just fallen out of love!

So after years of learning about God’s plan of love this is the tangible definition I have come to recognise:

Love (lŭv) n.
An act of vulnerability and self-giving; it is a consistent act of continually placing someone else’s wellbeing before your own self-interest

This is exactly what Saint Paul was describing love to be to the Corinthians! That love is vulnerable because it is patient and kind; that love is self-giving because “it does not insist on its own way”; that love is caring because “it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” of one’s dignity as a child of God; that love is consistent because it bears, believes, hopes and endures all things (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7).

The very first time I encountered this definition of love without even realising it was when I was invited to attend a bioethics talk by a Catholic doctor who described sex in just one sentence:

“Sex is the physical expression of love between a married man and a woman, and that ultimate unity between two people in love creates a new life.”

HOLD ON (you may be saying) but you said that love and sex are not the same thing!

Yes, I said that and I truly meant it. Let me explain:

Sex is a physical language that is expressed after love has been developed and matured and after that true love has been professed before God in the sacrament of matrimony. Developing and maturing love precedes the act of sex. But if love and sex were the same, then it would also work the other way around. This is not the case, because although sex IS part of the equation of love, it is NOT a catalyst for love to develop. Love is what needs to be developed and matured before sex can come into the picture to strengthen the bond between a married man and woman.

For this reason, although not the same thing, love and sex are interlinked when seen in the perspective of relationships between man and woman. They are both acts of vulnerability: whereas love concerns itself more in caring for another person unconditionally, sex is the proclamation of that same act of self-giving in the physical level. When one is getting naked, they are becoming vulnerable to the other. One is saying to the other: “I give my entire self to you: heart mind, BODY and soul”. You are laying yourself completely bare in every single faculty of your being!

This fact is corroborated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2361 “Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realised in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church

That ultimate commitment and loving unity that is being professed through the act of sex is truly “not something simply biological”. But I personally do believe our biology proves this truth about the way God created us with love and sexuality in mind.

So, why do we get confused?

In this day and age we can be confused about the difference and interlink of love and sex. It’s not just because movies, TV shows or music videos send us the message that love is all about sex, but also because of how sex makes us feel after engaging in it. Yes, sex serves as an agent that strengthens the bond between spouses and this is not just a theory or a theological truth. Even when two people engage in sex outside of marriage, they can become attached to each other ‘quite mysteriously’. It is actually not a mystery but a science-backed fact.

Right after sex, our bodies release oxytocin in our brains and into our bloodstream. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter and hormone (commonly coined as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone), which influences our empathy and trust levels towards our partners, strengthening the bond between each other. This hormone is even released in our body when we kiss or cuddle! No kidding: research shows that 20-second hugs help to release the oxytocin and bring that warm fuzzy feeling, reducing stress during times of trouble.

Women in particular release higher levels of oxytocin compared to men. That is why women tend to fall in love (or believe they have fallen in love) with a man after sex. It’s because oxytocin creates a sense of attachment to someone who we don’t even really know that well or even people we don’t particularly like. Oxytocin muddles our rationality because the feelings it ignites cause us to think that “maybe I do love this person”. But it’s not that we love this person. What is actually happening is that the chemicals that are meant to bond us to our partners through sex are affecting our body. It’s what oxytocin is meant to do! This is why sex is such a great gift in the sacrament of marriage! Because it is a sacred act God blessed us with so we can unite ourselves completely with our spouses.

God created us out of love, for the purpose of experiencing that very authentic love through connection with those around us whether we are called to the vocation of the marriage, single life or religious life – yes, even those in a life-long commitment to celibacy are called to love. Especially for those who are in married life, engaged to be married, in a relationship or are still single and looking for love, we need to remember this: sex is never the means to develop authentic love. It is so important to see the distinction between love and sex: love being the self-giving act that is developed over time and sex the act of complete self-gift and loving commitment between a married.

MacGill (2017). What is the link between love and oxytocin?
Harvard Health Publishing (2014). Hugs heartfelt in more ways than one
Hodgekiss (2011). Sex: Why it makes women fall in love – but just makes men want MORE!
Watson (2013). Oxytocin: The Love and Trust Hormone Can Be Deceptive

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