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Women, Alcohol, and Sex

What are the sexual effects of alcohol on women?

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Research has shown that the sexual effects of alcohol are different for men and women. This is likely the result of both physical and social differences in the way women’s bodies and men’s bodies react to alcohol and respond sexually.

Not surprisingly, the amount of alcohol consumed has a large impact on whether there will be negative sexual effects of alcohol for women. Most of the research in this area has been with women who are, or were alcoholics. The main effects for these women of alcohol on sexuality are:

  • Reduced sexual arousal
  • Difficulty achieving orgasm, achieving orgasm less frequently
  • Overall lower sexual satisfaction as compared to non-alcoholics

The actual number of alcoholic women who have these difficulties is hard to tell, as researchers numbers vary wildly. Some estimates are as high as 30-40% of alcoholic women having arousal problems, and 15% having difficulty achieving orgasm.

In another study of 74 alcoholic women in rehab, 41% reported some negative sexual effects from drinking (interestingly, 49% of the women reported positive sexual effects).

Contradictions in the reported sexual effects of alcohol on women

There is a contradiction in the research on alcohol’s effect on women’s sexuality. Research indicates that even after one drink alcohol reduces a woman’s physical sexual response. Vasocongestion and vaginal lubrication both progressively decrease with alcohol consumption. But several studies have shown that women both expect and report higher levels of sexual arousal when alcohol is involved.

In one laboratory study of 18 women who masturbated while their sexual arousal was being measured, the researchers found that women who had consumed some alcohol (but were still under the legal limit (0.08% to 0.10%) had decreased vaginal blood measures, took longer to reach orgasm, and had decreased intensity of orgasm. But these same women subjectively reported that their sexual arousal and orgasmic pleasure increased at higher levels of alcohol consumption.

Explaining the contradiction

It’s worth noting that this is no the only area of sex research where physiological measurements and subjective reporting are different. It’s possible that the way we measure sexual response doesn’t correspond to the way people actually experience it (in other words: it’s not all about genital blood flow and heart rate). It’s also possible that women are expecting positive sexual effect from alcohol and are uncritically interpreting what’s going on in a way that meets their expectations.

But there are other important considerations. In another large study, which included a nationally representative sample, more than half the women reported that sexual activity was more pleasurable when they drank. The real question we should be asking is not what is it about alcohol that makes women report this, but why might women find sex more pleasurable when they have been drinking?

Is it possible that being raised in a sex phobic culture makes it difficult for women (and likely men too) to enjoy sex when they are fully conscious? Is it possible that the disinhibiting effects of alcohol are required for people to let their guard down enough to have satisfying sex? These would be difficult things to prove, but they are worthwhile questions, and if there is any truth to them it’s a sad comment on our societies approach to sexuality.

Is alcohol really “courage in a bottle”?

The adage that alcohol is “liquid courage” is probably the basis for many drinks imbibed. But one study suggests that this is a misguided effort. In this study, where women kept a log of both drinking and sexual activity, the only significant difference between the three groups (women who drank no alcohol, moderate drinkers, and heavy drinkers) was that female initiated sexual activity happened more when women weren’t drinking. This study is one of the few that didn’t rely on retrospective accounts of sexual behavior, and here the greatest amount of sexual initiation took place in the absence of alcohol.

Sources:

  1. Crenshaw, T.L. & Goldberg, J.P. Sexual Pharmacology: Drugs that Affect Sexual Function. New York: Norton, 1996.
  2. Malatesta, V.J., Pollack, R.H., Crotty, T.D., et al. “Acute Alcohol Intoxication and the Female Orgasmic Response.” Journal of Sex Research Volume 18. (1982): 1-17.
  3. Norris, J., Masters, N.T., Zawacki, T. “Cognitive Mediation of Women's Sexual Decision Making: The Influence of Alcohol, Contextual Factors, and Background Variables.” Annual Review of Sex Research Volume 15. (2004): 258-297.
  4. Seagraves, R.T. & Balon, R. Sexual Pharmacology: Fast Facts. New York : Norton, 2003.
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