Strawberry Bubblegum, the Hijacked Brain, and the Dimensions of Courtship

Posted on April 11, 2013


Those of you who know me would know and those who have been reading my stuff might surmise that I have a lifelong love of pop and rock music.  Much as I love a good song with an interesting lyric, it is important not to confuse entertainers with sages.  Just because someone sang a lyric does not make it wisdom.  The descriptions of relationships in popular music are often not descriptions of healthy relationships.  As a therapist, I am sometimes taken aback by the depiction of sexuality in the pop culture.  This is almost too easy a target.  However, they do sometimes inspire a post from me.  The latest entry in this genre is Justin Timberlake’s recent release of “Strawberry Bubblegum.”  It is a catchy pop song with a disconcerting view of what constitutes healthy (and desirable) sexual expression.  The girl in the song first captures Justin’s attention by saying, “Hey” while smacking and popping her strawberry bubblegum.  They soon are “making love like professionals the first time” as a testament to how good they are together and how smitten he is by her.  Let’s look at some of the aspects of this.

First, it appears that Justin, who is 32 years old, is suggesting he is interested in or fantasizes about underage girls.  You just don’t see a lot of adult women blowing bubbles, and this seems to be the first thing that attracts him to her.  Also Justin sings, “If you ask me where I want to go, I say, ‘all the way.’”  Referring to intercourse as “going all the way” is more of an adolescent expression.  It really doesn’t sound like the girl in the song is of age.  An adult having sex with a minor is, by definition, sexual abuse.  In addition to being illegal, there is an uneven power differential in the relationship and great potential for psychological damage for the minor.

Second, healthy sexuality involves relationship.  It sounds like the experience described here is largely devoid of relationship.  The girl doesn’t say much.  He doesn’t seem to know anything about her other than that he finds her attractive.  At the risk of sounding unromantic, intercourse is an attachment behavior.  Biologically speaking, not only is it kicking up the dopamine and endorphins in your brain, it also releases the hormone oxytocin.  Oxytocin is designed to make you attach to your partner.  It is euphemistically referred to as “the cuddle hormone.”  Hence, you have the heat and passion of a new sexual relationship.  If you don’t know the person very well, it can cause you to make some really poor relationship choices.  Your brain may be telling you to attach to someone who really is not a good choice for a life partner.  Further, having multiple partners hijacks your brains normal healthy attachment process.

Third, “making love like professionals” implies that sex is about technique and performance.  Healthy sex is about connection and mutual pleasure.  It is supposed to be awesome, but not just due to technique.  Further, “making love like professionals” also implies complete emotional detachment.  If it is just a job, that does not say much for the value you place on your partner.

Carnes (2010) identified 12 dimensions of courtship.  Most unhealthy sexual acting out involves a problem in some dimension of the courtship process.  These behaviors are generally a distortion of normal courtship.  I will not be able to do these justice in the space of a blog post.  If this is resonating with you, check out the reference.  If your sexual behavior is creating problems in your life, find a therapist to help you.

Dimensions of Courtship

  • Noticing – noticing attractive traits in others and also being able to discriminate undesirable traits in a partner.
  • Attraction – feeling attraction toward another, desire about physical, emotional, and intellectual traits of others.
  • Flirtation – using “playfulness, seductiveness, and social cues to send signals of interest and attraction” in appropriate contexts and situations.
  • Demonstration – a negative description of this would be “showing off.”  It is a normal part of the courtship process to demonstrate competence and desirability.
  • Romance – “the ability to experience, express, and receive passion.”  This includes the ability to “test the reality of the feelings.”
  • Individuation – Healthy sexuality involves staying true to yourself and who you are and not feeling compelled to defer to a partner.
  • Intimacy – This is the attachment phase requiring emotional engagement and vulnerability.
  • Touching – affirming and respectful of timing situation and boundaries.
  • Foreplay – both physical and verbal expression of passion and meaning.
  • Intercourse – “to let go and trust yourself and your partner to be vulnerable.”
  • Commitment – “the ability to bond or attach to another.”
  • Renewal – to sustain a relationship, courtship must continue.  You don’t get to stop once you close the deal.  Partners still need to communicate that they value each other.

How does this apply?  Usually the nature of the acting out indicates a problem in a particular dimension of courtship.  Fantasy sex and voyeurism are generally indicative of problems with noticing and attraction.  Anonymous sex may be indicative of issues with all of the later stages of courtship (e.g. individuation and intimacy).  Healthy sexuality involves appropriate expressions throughout the courtship process.  As noted above, part of noticing is being able to differentiate when the other person might not be a good partner.  It is probable better to not choose one’s sexual partners based upon the flavor of their bubblegum.



Carnes, P. (2010). Facing the shadow: Starting sexual and relationship recovery (2nd ed.). Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.


Posted in: Love, Relationships, Sex