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Alcohol and Sex

What are the sexual effects of alcohol?

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Updated October 02, 2006

For better or worse, there is an intimate relationship between sex and alcohol in our culture. Many people use alcohol to “loosen themselves up” in anticipation of having sex with a new partner, and it is a commonly held belief that alcohol is an aphrodisiac. But the actual sexual effects of alcohol are complicated, and there are many serious negative sexual consequences of drinking too much and drinking too often.

In thinking about the effect of alcohol on sexuality we can consider:

  1. Short term sexual effects of alcohol
  2. Expectancy effects (which means the impact of what we think alcohol is going to do for us sexually)
  3. Long term health and social effects

Much of the research on the effects of alcohol on sexuality has focused on the physiological rather than social. Because of this, the long term social sexual effects, such as difficulty maintaining long term relationships, depression, and social isolation are underrepresented in the research. It is interesting to note that the sexual effects of alcohol on women seem to be very different than the sexual effects of alcohol on men.

Short term sexual effects of alcohol

Soon after consuming alcohol, research has found the following common effects:
  • Alcohol has a “disinhibiting” effect, which can make people “loosen up” and feel more comfortable initiating or engaging in sex.
  • Alcohol may make you feel more socially confident and in small quantities may facilitate more socializing and sexual communication.
  • In small amounts alcohol has been reported to have a positive impact on sexual desire and arousal.
  • At the same time, research shows that even after a few drinks sexual response is reduced.
  • In large amounts alcohol makes sex difficult to impossible. While in moderate amounts alcohol can have an impact on engaging in risky sexual behavior, although this impact is not fully understood.
  • As drinking increases both men and women will experience a reduction in sexual arousal, men may have difficulty getting erections, and both men and women may have difficulty experiencing orgasm.

Expectancy effects of alcohol on sexual behavior

In studies where people have been given drinks that were non-alcoholic but told they contained alcohol, researchers have found that participants report increased sexual arousal similar to those who actually consumed alcohol. This is explained by the fact that when we expect or anticipate a certain physical effect, we often experience it or report it to be the case.

What this points to is the fact that our expectation of an effect can actually influence our sexual experience. If you think you’re going to be more comfortable and more open to sexual stimulation, you may in fact be more open.

Expectancy effects aren’t “fake” and the people experiencing them aren’t lying. But they expose how complicated the relationship between our minds and bodies is, particularly when it comes to sex.

Long term sexual effects of alcohol

Chronic alcohol abuse, or alcoholism, inevitably has a devastating effect on sexuality, including:
  • Erectile disorders and dysfunction in men
  • Loss of sexual desire, significant decrease in sexual arousal for men and women
  • Difficulty experiencing orgasm for men and women

Chronic alcohol abuse also results in a variety of problems that have secondary sexual effects. For example, people who are chronic abusers of alcohol may have fewer long term relationships, they may be less able to find or maintain sexual partners, and they may have social, health, and financial difficulties that make them less desired sexual partners.

What is unknown is the point at which these sexual effects are irreversible. There has been some research with long term alcoholic men that has suggested some men are able to regain erectile functioning after a period of time without alcohol. But how much time is needed, and what kinds of gains can be made are uncertain.

Sources:

  1. Crenshaw, T.L. & Goldberg, J.P. Sexual Pharmacology: Drugs that Affect Sexual Function. New York: Norton, 1996.
  2. 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.
  3. Seagraves, R.T. & Balon, R. Sexual Pharmacology: Fast Facts. New York : Norton, 2003.

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