Why Is Alcohol The Number 1 Sex Drug? And Does It Matter?

To make sex more compelling, Americans take huge amounts of Viagra, anti-depressants, hormones, and various exotic things from health-food stores. Asian societies have hunted sharks and rhinos to near-extinction for the legendary (and nonsensical) sexual properties of the fins and horns.

To improve sex, people also use street drugs, primarily marijuana and cocaine. But the largest-selling sex drug by far is alcohol. That’s true for all ages, genders, and income levels.

It’s apparently been true since the beginning of recorded time. Who ever heard of a Roman orgy without wine, or an ancient Greek celebration without Dionysus? Even Shakespeare noted that drink “provokes the desire,” although he also cautioned “but it takes away the performance.” And today, a fraternity party without alcohol is, well, study hall without the studying.

Why exactly is alcohol such a popular sex drug? For better or worse, here are some common reasons (note: this is NOT an endorsement of alcohol use!):

It reduces inhibitions

We become less choosy about partners (“beer goggles”), less self-conscious about our bodies, more willing to do things that we otherwise feel anxious or moralistic about. We also become less concerned about the consequences of our behavior, regarding both others and ourselves.

It helps us forget

Forget ourselves, our past experiences, our resentments toward our partner, our resentments toward every member of the other gender (or same gender if you’re gay); forget what we promised ourselves we wouldn’t do, forget what happened the last time we drank a lot before sex; forget why lube is worth whatever hassle it takes to find and use it; forget to check what time it is.

It’s an analgesic

Alcohol reduces our awareness of physical pain (“I was feeling no pain!”). Not only does that help increase range of motion, short-term stamina, and willingness to have sex, it also helps people with chronic pain feel younger and more graceful. Or at least less old and stiff. Of course pain is a warning sign, so we ignore it at our peril. The tissue around a penis or vulva can get very, very sore in a very short time when we’re not appropriately aware of those delicate nerve endings.

It makes us more suggestible & impulsive

We’re more likely to go along with someone else’s suggestion without thinking, and more likely to follow our own impulses uncritically. For people who are uncomfortable with admitting their own sexual desires, this allows them to do things without a sense of responsibility (“I didn’t decide, the alcohol decided”).

To put it another way, alcohol is an effective way to get someone else to have sex when they don’t especially want to.

So that mostly sounds pretty positive, right? Aside from the calories, then, what’s the problem with alcohol as a sex drug?

Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. It turns out that the very qualities that make alcohol a popular sex drug also make it a troublesome sex drug.

Alcohol numbs us emotionally and mentally

That is, both our feelings and our thoughts. Enjoyable sex is about increasing our mental presence, not decreasing or obliterating it. Of course, that’s what’s problematic about sex for many people—all that extraneous thinking and disempowering feeling before, during, and after it. But the solution isn’t being less present.

Impulsivity is a poor method of decision-making

Of course, acknowledging what we desire, deciding to pursue it (and to refuse what we don’t want), and actual planning require identifying ourselves as sexual beings. And possibly “perverts,” too (that’s my patients’ judgments, not mine). Having sex while taking little or no responsibility for our sexual choices is an important (if not entirely conscious) goal for many people. Self-acceptance is a far better solution to this existential challenge than alcohol-induced loss of control.

Emphasizing contrasting agendas
We all know how convivial it looks when people drink together. And we all know how quickly the geniality can turn ugly. Tiny misunderstandings can become huge insults, and small disappointments can become scary threats. When one person responds no when the other says yes, alcohol can magnify the difference into a big problem that can’t be resolved with calm talk.

Difficulty negotiating verbally

Almost everyone agrees that “communication” is a key element of enjoyable sex. Since no one makes as much sense after a few drinks as they do when sober (unless they’re incoherent when they’re sober), drinking has to undermine sex. In particular, those half-conversations of “um, a little more to the left, please,” or “I’m not quite ready for that, let’s keep doing this a little longer” invariably get lost in the shuffle of alcohol sloppiness.

This is also where consent can get problematic: “I didn’t know you meant no,” “Why didn’t you just say stop,” and “C’mon, you were having a good time, too” get all mixed up in the haze of drinking. Judging what someone means when it’s dark and you’ve both been breathing heavy and the music is loud is hard enough. When one or both people have been drinking, it’s much, much harder.

In fact, the sexual assault problem on college campuses is completely tied up with male and female binge-drinking.

It turns out that verbal communication contains a certain amount of subtlety that quickly gets lost after just a couple of drinks.

Difficulty controlling body parts

No one says “let’s drink a whole lot before playing tennis” or “drinking makes me a better swimmer.” And no sober person thinks their driving improves after drinking.

That’s because alcohol affects every aspect of our physicality: our reflexes, our visual perception, our control of our hands, feet, body, and head. If you use any of those in sex (and who doesn’t use all of them?), control of them is compromised after drinking. Simple rule: anything that makes it harder to thread a needle or change your car’s oil also makes it harder to have sex the way you intend.

Waking up…

…next to…who? ‘Nuff said.

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