Sex can be the ultimate expression of romantic love and intimacy. Or an emotional roller coaster. Or a tension reliever. Or it’s all about procreation. Or it’s simply a good time. It can be all of these things and more.

Sex means different things to different people. And whatever it means to you isn’t necessarily constant, either.

It can mean different things at different points in your life, or even from one day to the next.

And you know what? It’s all perfectly normal.

Women are at the mercy of their roller-coaster emotions; men are firmly in control of the few emotions they have. At least that’s what popular wisdom would’ve once had us believe.

These ideas have deep roots, but humans are much more complex than that.

There have been some studies to suggest that women are more expressive about emotions, at least in the United States and some Western European countries.

They also suggest men have the same or greater physiological response to emotional stressors.

This difference could be due to the influence of the culture in which we live. Maybe we’ve simply been acting on what we were told is acceptable.

These days, people are less inclined to conform to simple gender categorizations.

Whatever your gender and whether you openly express it or not, your emotional response to sex is uniquely yours.

Do you need to feel some level of emotional attraction before any thought of sex enters your mind? If that sounds like you, you’re surely not alone.

Maybe you need to connect on a spiritual level. Maybe it’s their mind or the fact that you share some basic philosophies of life.

Perhaps you felt that first twinge of excitement when they made you laugh ’til you cried.

Or it’s a case of je ne sais quoi — that certain something you just can’t put into words, but you know it when it happens.

You’re seeking intimacy. Once your feelings are in the zone and you’ve made an emotional connection, you may begin to feel physical arousal.

Outside of that zone, you’re just not into sex. You’re into making love.

Some people are physically drawn together like magnets.

There’s a chemical reaction, a hunger, a purely physical craving for getting physical with another person. It’s lust.

When the chemistry between people is just right, getting physical can grow into so much more.

A 2012 retrospective review found two areas of the brain that track the progression from sexual desire to love. One is the insula. It’s located in the cerebral cortex.

The other is the striatum. It’s located inside the forebrain. Interestingly, the striatum is also associated with drug addiction.

Love and sexual desire activate different parts of the striatum.

Sex and food are among the pleasurable things that activate the lust part. The process of conditioning — of reward and value — activates the love part.

As sexual desire is rewarded, it becomes a bit of a habit, which can lead you right down the path to love.

As feelings of lust start to turn into love, another area of the striatum takes over.

People are intricate creatures with many layers.

For some of us, there are clear dividing lines between emotional attraction and physical attraction. They don’t necessarily come together.

You might be emotionally attracted to someone without having the slightest sexual urge. Or you have a mind-blowing physical attraction for someone who doesn’t really do it for you emotionally.

Even in long-term relationships, people can alternate between making love and having sex — or forgoing sexual activity entirely — and that’s OK.

A 2018 study suggests integral links between sexual, emotional, and reproductive brain processes having to do with the endocrine system and, in particular, a hormone called kisspeptin.

According to a Tufts University neuroscience blog, sexual arousal doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but in a context.

It involves cognitive, physiological, and neurological processes, all of which include and are influenced by emotion. Makes sense.

The rush of hormones involved in sex means that certain feelings are fairly common during or immediately following sex.

Nobody feels every emotion every time, of course.

Among the more positive ones are:

  • euphoria
  • total release
  • relaxation and calm
  • satisfaction

Depending on the circumstances, you might have some less than positive emotions, such as:

  • vulnerability
  • embarrassment
  • guilt
  • feeling physically or emotionally overwhelmed

If you have postcoital dysphoria, you might even feel sad, anxious, or tearful after sex.

We don’t always recognize it when it’s happening to us, but it’s obvious in hindsight. It’s not the stuff of science fiction or fantasy. It’s very real.

Sexual arousal can deactivate parts of the brain that help you think critically and behave like a rational human being.

Yes, you actually take leave of your senses.

Good judgement and reasoning are lost to sexual desire, swept away in the excitement of it all.

When you snap back to reality, you might wonder, with a tinge of regret or embarrassment, what you were thinking.

Hint: You weren’t.

Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus, which opens the floodgates when you have sex.

That rush of oxytocin is involved in the physical part of sex. It can also boost emotions like love, affection, and euphoria.

It well deserves its reputation as the love hormone. Alas, you can become hooked on the feeling or outright enthusiastic about love.

Oxytocin keeps you coming back for more.

The biology of lust, attraction, and attachment is far from simple. Hormones certainly play a role.

Generally speaking, lust is driven by testosterone and estrogen, regardless of gender. And lust is driven by the craving for sex.

Attraction is driven by dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.

Attraction may or may not involve lust, but the brain’s reward center is a factor. That’s why you get all giddy or feel like you’re walking on air in a relationship’s early phase.

Attachment is driven by oxytocin and vasopressin. That’s what sets the stage for bonding and long-term relationships.

There’s some overlap of hormones, hormone levels differ, and there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

Let’s face it: Sex and love are complicated. We’re only skimming the surface of what makes humans tick.

The scientists among us continue to delve into the mysteries of our sexual desires and emotions and how they play on each other.

Yet it’s entirely possible that we’ll never solve the equation, leaving a little something to the imagination.

There’s any number of reasons why you might want to compartmentalize sex and emotion.

It’s a good idea to explore your motivation so, if needed, you can deal with any unresolved issues.

In any case, there’s no right or wrong here. You’re not locked into one way of being for the rest of your life.

If you’re looking for a casual relationship or a “friends with benefits” situation, here are some suggestions:

  • First and foremost, be honest with the other person. It’s only fair.
  • Talk about what you’re willing — and unwilling — to give physically and emotionally, along with what you expect in return.
  • Discuss birth control and safe sex practices.
  • Work together in establishing rules to avoid getting overly attached or dependent on each other.
  • Talk about what you’ll do if one of you starts to want something more.

Keep in mind that whatever your plan or however careful you may be, feelings can crop up anyway. Emotions are funny that way.

So, despite the hormones and biology of it all, maybe you need something to help deepen the bond.

Here are some ways to get started:

  • Don’t let physical intimacy become an afterthought, a thing you do as time permits. Schedule it. Make a date. Give it top priority.
  • Incorporate affectionate touch throughout the day. Hold hands. Stroke an arm. Hug. Cuddle up. Give each other a massage. Touch doesn’t necessarily have to lead to sex right away. A little anticipation goes a long way.
  • Make eye contact and hold it. Do this often — when you agree, when you disagree, when you share that inside joke, and when life gets overwhelming.
  • Let your guard down. Be emotionally vulnerable and available for each other. Be their person.
  • Kiss. Really kiss. And take your time about it.
  • Communicate your emotions. Say “I love you” if that’s how you feel.
  • What turns you on? Candlelight, sensual music, a long soak in a hot tub? Whatever it is, take the time to set the stage and get in the mood.
  • Communicate your physical desires. Take turns leading each other through what you like.
  • When things get physical, tune in to your senses. Touch, see, hear, smell, and taste with every fiber of your being.
  • Really be there in the moment with this person who wants to be in the moment with you. Let there be nothing else. And by all means, turn off the TV and cell phone during your time together.

Let’s face it. The world would be pretty boring if we all felt the same way. When it comes to sex and emotions, there’s no right way to feel. Just be yourself.