Consider the three following situations:
You've been dating someone for six months and have been having sex since the second week of dating. Both you and your partner have talked about anal sex, but neither of you have tried it before, and you're a little shy about being the one to suggest doing it. After being out at a party for your work, and having a bit too much to drink you decide to try anal sex for the first time.
You’ve been single for over a year since a bad break up and you haven’t had sex with anyone (other than yourself). After months of failed attempts to start dating again, you decide what you really need is casual sex. On the advice of friends you go out to a bar, and after a night of drinking and dancing you go home with someone who seems hot enough.
You and your partner have been together for two and a half years. Sometimes when you’ve both been drinking, you go home and have really messy, wild sex, that’s not like the sex you have when you’re sober.
In which of these situations is it “okay” to have sex when you’re drunk? Are all of these situations examples of risky sex?
Like all sexual decisions, the decision to have sex when you’ve been drinking is one that is best made once you clearly understand the sexual risks, and have assessed the sexual risk for yourself and your partner(s). It’s easy to say you shouldn’t ever drink when you’re going to have sex, but this isn’t very realistic, and drinking small amounts of alcohol in moderation won’t necessarily have a negative effect on your sexuality.
One concern often raised about sex and alcohol is that that drinking alcohol leads to increased risky sexual behavior, like not using protection to prevent STDs, or having sex that later you regret you had.
Research does show that there is an association between alcohol consumption and having sex without condoms, but there is also research that suggests that the relationship isn’t clear cut and factors such as age of the individuals and their relationship status can influence condom use.
Clearly the relationship between alcohol and risky sex is more complicated that one might assume. But there are still some important things to consider about alcohol and risky sexual behavior:
- For better or worse, alcohol will influence your judgments and perceptions. This seems particularly important if you are going to have sex with someone new, or have a new kind of sex with a current partner, as there will be a great deal of new information to process, and you have been drinking, the alcohol will have some influence on your decision.
- Many of the effects of alcohol are not actually physical, but are psychological. These are called “expectancy effects” and it means that because we expect to feel more relaxed and aroused when drinking, we do. This is important because it shows that you can achieve this same sexual effect without alcohol.
- There are both long term negative effects of alcohol on your sexuality and many short term effects if you drink too much. Even if these don’t increase the chances of having risky sex, they will reduce the pleasure you experience, and can even prevent you from having sex at all.
So what about the first three scenarios? If research tells us anything, it’s that generalizations are possible, but when it comes to specific sexual situations, each one is unique. How risky the sex you have is depends on many factors, but possibly the most important one, and the one you can control, is how aware you are of the risks. Understanding how factors like drinking alcohol impact your decision making is essential to making decisions that are in the best interest of your health.
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.