Hugging good, orgasms beware. In a nutshell this is the radical message of Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow. For much of my life I have been considering the world’s problems from environmental, political and economic perspectives, and more recently to some extent also from a spiritual one. (My recent review of Bruce K. Alexander’s The Globalisation of Addiction touches on these.) I had not realised until I read this book that there was at least one other significant gap in my knowledge. Drawing on an impressive array of evidence – scientific, personal, anecdotal and mystical/scriptural – Robinson maintains that evolution has equipped us with two fundamental drives or ‘pedals’: the mating or habituation pedal and the bonding or harmony pedal. Our ignorance of these, she believes, allows the former to rule us, contributing to the breakdown of relationships and much individual suffering. By implication, this has profound significance for society.
The habituation pedal is explained by ‘honeymoon neurochemicals’, which keep us interested in a sexual partner for up to two years or so but then wear off, allowing the orgasm-associated spurts of dopamine to trigger other changes in brain chemistry that turn us off: orgasm triggers a two-week ‘hangover’ period of fluctuating mood that does not make for relationship harmony, and satiety. Evolution, it seems, has no interest in us staying with one sexual partner for longer than it takes us to bond with a resultant child. Our genes’ futures are served best when they are spliced with as many different partners’ as possible, so we are programmed, by means of the brain chemistry associated with orgasm, to go off one sexual partner and seek another. Most of us do not realise the trick the chemistry of the evolutionarily primitive parts of our brains is playing on us, instead believing the reasons the higher parts of our brains find to justify the loss of attraction (he/she just isn’t the right person, he/she irritates me when he/she does this or that…).
The harmony pedal, on the other hand, makes for long-term bonding, the sort that naturally tends to exist between parent and child. Oxytocin is the key neurochemical here, and it is triggered by stroking, cuddling, eye contact and a range of non-orgasmic sexual practices which can be grouped under the heading of karezza. The modern-day form of karezza, advocated by Robinson and detailed in a series of exercises at the back of her book, has ancient roots that can be traced to various religions, including Christianity’s Gnostic gospels, but was particularly shaped by a 19th century Quaker. Karezza, a challenge to the Catholic Church’s advocacy of sex for the sole purpose of reproduction, was condemned by the Vatican in 1952. (One wonders what women’s magazines will make of Robinson’s torpedoing of their staple: the orgasm and its centrality to sexual fulfilment and relationships.)
It is perhaps because her thesis not only flies in the face of what our instincts drive us to do (our evolutionary programming) but also contradicts much conventional ‘wisdom’, that Robinson has chosen to put so much evidence between the covers of Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow. I would be intrigued to know if any intelligent and open-minded person has emerged from this book’s diverse and entertaining pages unwilling to give the karezza approach a shot. Even if one sets aside the scientific and historical/scriptural material, the extensive anecdotes from individuals’ experiences (documenting the utter blissfulness of the full karezza experience as well as the dispiriting dissatisfaction that grows when conventional orgasms rule) appear to amount to impressive empirical evidence; they will certainly resonate with the complaints one hears from one’s heartbroken or desperate friends, if not one’s own experiences of love or the lack thereof.
If I have one complaint it is that Robinson’s style is slightly inconsistent. This, in itself, is endearing, however, as it surely reflects her passionate desire to appeal to and communicate with as many readers as possible. She appears to feel, for example, that some will be turned off by science and so has inserted a few ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ comments on scientists’ (by implication) weird interests. Similarly, she occasionally explains animal behaviour in anthropomorphic terms. I found this mildly irritating as I felt that the discoveries were fascinating enough and didn’t need to be ‘Beatrix Potterified’ (but then, as someone with a scientific background, I would say that!) Less irritating were the numerous inset quotes – humorous, scientific and philosophical – which may well help some readers get through the 354 pages (excluding the index) of what I personally found to be a gripping book in little need of dressing up. (I have to admit, though, that it was a bit frustrating to read as a singleton, as 99% is only of immediate relevance to people in relationships.)
Convinced by Robinson’s arguments, how does one convey the gist of her thinking to others? How does one convince potential, new or old partners to forego orgasms for at least the recommended minimum trial period of three weeks? Fortunately, Robinson has thought about this and supplies a handy little five-page section for this very purpose, summarising the key concepts. Her website (Reuniting.info) also offers a brilliant introduction to the ideas and here one can read a sample of the book.
It’s hard to do justice to this undoubtedly revolutionary work in the space of a short review. If Robinson is right, then, as pair-bonding mammals, most of us are likely to live fulfilling lives – to reach our full potential in every aspect of our lives – only if we are in happy and stable relationships. This book tells us how to get there (and how to experience pure ecstasy without the use of chemical assistance!) Reading it may just be one of the most life-enhancing things you ever do.