Alcohol: Making Sex More Complicated

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In America, sex and alcohol go together like peanut butter and jelly. Or a fish and a bicycle. Or desire and guilt.

As a therapist, I see very few people who ask for help with their drinking. On the other hand, I see a lot of people whose lives are affected by their drinking—specifically, their sex lives.

When I think about sex and alcohol, I think about Pat, who lost most of her vaginal lubrication after menopause. She drinks before sex to distract her from the physical discomfort of intercourse—which she’s unwilling to discuss with her husband.

Or I think about Suki. Her husband found her quite desirable, but she just couldn’t forget about “the boobs I had before my three kids sucked all the shape out of them.” She hated getting undressed in front of Mario, so she drank before sex to forget about her body.

Or I think about Shaun, who was simply an alcoholic. He rarely did anything without drinking first. He especially drank before sex because he felt guilty that his sex drive was lower than his boyfriend’s (who told him regularly that alcohol had reduced his libido).

And I think about thousands of sorority women: victimized by drunk young men, and unable to take care of themselves because they chose to drink so heavily.


Consciously or not, people combine alcohol and sex for four main reasons:

Analgesic: To cope with physical pain
Genital pain, of course, but also back pain and pain in just about any joint you can name—knees, hips, elbows, wrists—the true sexual body parts.

Disinhibition: To care less about possible consequences, or various considerations, or past experience.
Some people drink so much that they have sex with someone they’d never consider if they were sober. It’s also how people can agree to have the same disappointing experience over and over; the “what the hell” of the alcohol overrides the “it was unpleasant the last three times, why would I say yes a fourth time?”

Alcohol can also provide the internal permission to do something you know you shouldn’t, but want to—like sleeping with your husband’s friend, or going to a strip club after work instead of going home.

Anti-anxiolytic: To reduce anxiety before or during sex
That includes classic performance anxiety, of course, as well as guilt, shame, and an assortment of fears, from climaxing too soon to taking too long, from fear of farting or wetting the bed to fear of God.

Aphrodisiac: To enhance desire
When someone figures they’re going have sex they don’t want, or sex with someone they’re angry with, or sex in a situation that’s especially un-sexy (like your mama’s house), alcohol can temporarily bridge the gap from indifference to willingness, or from willingness to active participation.

Some people also encourage their partner to drink to enhance their partner’s desire.


While alcohol can provide various kinds of short-term relief, there are several costs to this approach to sex.

The main one, of course, is that drinking may be someone’s central coping mechanism not just for sex, but for everything. In that case their drinking may be undermining the relationship, their parenting, their career, and their health. No one should be dependent on a single coping mechanism (even a healthy one) for all of life’s challenges; when that coping mechanism carries risks to health, safety, and intimacy, that dependence is even worse.

Another problem is that drinking before sex can make it harder to be present during sex. This is ironic, since many people want sex to be a source of emotional connection. If the thing that makes it easier for you to have sex also makes it harder to be present during sex, the net gain may be illusory.

Another problem is that alcohol doesn’t resolve whatever problems are making sex difficult, such as self-consciousness about your body or performance anxiety. The temporary relief of drinking may make sex bearable enough to limit someone’s motivation to fix things.

And then there’s the way alcohol makes clear communication difficult. And misunderstanding easy. Conflict when one or both people have been drinking can get ugly very quickly.


The way alcohol undermines communication can make someone not hear (or not believe) a “no.” It can also make someone think they’ve said “no” clearly when they haven’t been clear, even to a sober person.

And of course some people become selfish, angry, or rough when they drink. Anyone would have trouble navigating such a partner—especially if they’ve been drinking too. I hear way too many people apologize for their awful behavior when they’ve been drinking–and do the same bad things again the very next time.

I honestly don’t know how any guy can think that forcing a woman into sex could possibly be OK. And I don’t know why any sane man would want to.

Alcohol complicates the very important question of consent. Since it typically disinhibits us, makes us less anxious, and can make sex seem more appealing, it also makes regret the next day more likely. And regret can invite someone to retroactively reinterpret the events of the recent past so that they “recall” (and believe) they did not fully consent.

Additionally, even if someone consents to sex, alcohol can allow them to do activities that they might not do when sober—such as sex in public, sex with more than one person, sex without a condom, or rough sex. And so again, alcohol can invite subsequent resentment and a belief that the sex wasn’t entirely consenting.

And if both partners are drunk? The law (and our university system) hasn’t figured that out.

Obviously, being drunk is no excuse for forcing anyone to do anything. That’s absolutely unambiguous. But if one person says “I was too drunk to communicate clearly,” and the other person says “I was too drunk to understand an ambiguous refusal,” we can surely sympathize that something terribly hurtful has happened—but how do we assign blame? How does being drunk release one person from their responsibility, but not the other?

It’s difficult to protect people from themselves without infantilizing them; to put it another way, it’s hard to grant people full autonomy and then protect them from their own vulnerability and mistakes. Young college women, in particular, are demanding both sexual autonomy and protection from the effects of their own and others’ drinking. No society has ever achieved a balance of the two that would be satisfactory to people today.


Given what we know that people want from combining alcohol and sex, what are some alternatives?

~ Consider what other things could increase your desire. These might include a partner doing more housework; sex at a different time of day; a few minutes of alone time; an honest conversation about what activities or words you’d like OFF the table
~ Consider a different pre-sex routine: anti-inflammatory medication; stretching; a hot bath
~ Consider increasing your self-acceptance: get a more realistic vision of normal human bodies, including the aging process; ask your partner to focus on the body parts you like; discuss your desire to be more comfortable, with possible suggestions (such as “please stop teasing me about the size of my butt”)
~ Consider (and communicate) if you have environmental conditions for desire and pleasure that you’re not taking seriously, such as wearing socks in bed; a lock on the bedroom door; your partner’s increased personal hygiene.
~ If you feel anxious when having sex with a new partner, consider postponing sex until you know someone a lot better. Practice—out loud and with a mirror—setting limits on you want to do, such as “no blow jobs until I know you better,” or “no butt play ever,” or “I don’t need to climax every time,” or “Play with my nipples, but no teasing about the milk that may drip from them.”

If the sex in your life is typically a threesome—you, your partner, and alcohol—whether you’re the drinker or the drinkee (or both), take your first step: talk to your partner about it.


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