The Science of Lesbian Love


Your eyes meet across the room and a spark seems to pass from her eyes to yours. Your stomach leaps, your heart races, and suddenly you can’t swallow and your palms are sweaty. You’re smitten, and you’re sure she feels the same way. It’s so electric that how could she not? It’s fate, it’s kismet, it’s karma, it’s…science? Not to diminish the romance of the moment, but a lot of what happens between the moment that you notice the future love of your life and the moment you say “I do” and commit to buying matching Subarus has actually been researched and documented by science. So how did you get to sharing your plaid shirts and rainbow suspenders? Let’s walk through the stages of lesbian love.

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First, she set off your gaydar.

Okay, sure, lesbians fall for heterosexual women all the time, but odds are good that you’ll notice the other lady-loving woman in the room. For a deeper discussion of the science supporting the existence of gaydar, see our article from last year, but a good summary of the field can be gleaned from a 2014 study conducted at Northeastern University that sought to confirm whether lesbians had better gaydar than straight women. In the study, 67 straight women and 43 lesbians were asked to identify lesbians and heterosexuals among nine target subjects. The lesbians were much better at identifying other lesbians, which makes a ton of sense from a mate identification point of view. So when you locked eyes with the tall blonde across the room, something about her probably subconsciously signaled to your brain that you two both liked Ellen DeGeneres and “The L Word.”

Second, she smelled lovely to your brain.

The brain plays the biggest role in attraction (sorry, heart!). The orbitofrontal cortex, an area right above the eyes, for example, is involved in decision-making and emotional processing—and is the first to activate when your eyes lock with hers. In 2006, a research team based at the Stockholm Brain Institute used positron emission tomography (a PET scan) in an effort to test how the brain processes sex pheromones—chemicals emitted by the body to attract sexual partners. Their research determined that lesbians and heterosexual men exhibited more blood flow in the brain after sniffing a female pheromone-like chemical called EST and that their anterior hypothalamus activated (in contrast, normally it is the piriform cortex and amygdala that are activated when the brain processes odors. The hypothalamus is suspected to be associated with sexual arousal). This indicates that when you see that girl across the room and catch her scent, it sets off a storm of electrical activity in your brain that stimulates your body to respond to her.

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Third, you got butterflies in your stomach.

As part of that response, your brain signals the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline while it simultaneously produces more epinephrine and norepinephrine. Adrenaline is the fight or flight hormone and its release into the bloodstream causes your heart to beat faster and stronger. The combination of the hormone norepinephrine and the closely related neurotransmitter dopamine cause you to laser focus onto the object of your attention…and also feel pleasure and excitement that you’ll remember vividly. Cortisol, a stress hormone, also spikes, and you feel like you’re on high alert.

Fourth, a kiss confirmed she’s the one.

Did you know the science of kissing has a name? It’s called philematology, and now I’m desperate to know how many board certified philematologists there are in the world. Kissing has a variety of social functions, but from both a technique and a biological perspective, humans use kissing as a way to quickly weed out incompatible partners. According to a study by a professor of psychology at the University of Albany, 66% of women reported no longer feeling attracted to someone after the first kiss. This may be in minor part because in a study from 2000, Claus Wedekind of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland found that women prefer the scents of partners whose major histocompatibility complex genes (think immune system) are different from their own—meaning that they’re unconsciously screening mates to find ones who would produce offspring with the strongest immune systems. Even though lesbians can’t produce genetic offspring (yet), there’s no reason why you’re not also testing your partner for genetic compatibility.

Fifth, you started obsessing.

Serotonin levels decrease by up to 40% for people in the obsession phase of love. The neurotransmitter serotonin is a mood stabilizer, so when it’s being overridden by massive amounts of dopamine from being in love, it can cause obsessive-compulsive disorder-like symptoms, like constantly checking your phone to see if she’s texted or doodling “Mrs. Sara Bareilles” a million times (just buy the t-shirt), a problem that’s compounded by dopamine’s effect on the reward center of the brain. You literally are addicted to her, and every message you get, every look, every touch is like a drug “hit” that temporarily gives you a love high. You addict.

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Sixth, you stay addicted, at least in the short term.

Women emit the chemical oxytocin when they fall in love (men do too, but estrogen enhances oxytocin’s effect while testosterone diminishes it, so their emissions look different). Oxytocin fosters emotional bonding between individuals, so the combination of the released oxytocin and dopamine in the bloodstream sustains the feeling of love and euphoria more than just the initial love at first sight rush. Two women falling in love with each other is, to quote psychologist Dr. Lauren Costine, an “oxyfest.”

Once all these short term chemical effects have worn off, however, how do you keep the relationship going? Sky diving. Whitewater rafting. Bungee jumping. Doing activities that cause a similar chemical spike as when you first met her—adrenaline and dopamine, primarily—can foster similar feelings of love and excitement for both of you. A study conducted in 1993 showed significantly higher relationship satisfaction rates for couples that engaged in exciting activities than for those that did “pleasant” activities (presumably such as nice dinners or watching a movie). So head out for some basejumping or hang gliding and revitalize your relationship!

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Getty Images

Or if rappelling down waterfalls isn’t your style, you can also try working on your “responsiveness.” Responsiveness in relationships is linked to an increase in sexual desire among couples that live together. Responsiveness is simply recognizing your partner’s needs and fulfilling them. No but really. It is another way to view the Five Love Languages. Does your partner like to be told she’s beautiful and wonderful? Send her little e-cards throughout the day. Does she like it when you make her dinner? Have something on the table when she comes home from work. Does she like to be cuddled? Set a bath and big spoon her in it. Does she like presents? Find things to bring home a few times a week that show you were thinking of her. Does she like spending quality time together? Get out a puzzle and spend a few hours puzzling. Often relationships become so routine that we forget to do the things that we know our partners would appreciate. So make an effort. As a bonus, an international team of psychology researchers discovered a link between a woman’s sexual desire and how responsive she perceived her partner to be, so being responsive can also stave off the dread “Lesbian Bed Death.”

Ah, science. It’s almost as beautiful as lesbian love.

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