Alcohol: It Makes Sex Even More Complicated
Many people use alcohol as part of their sexual routine.
Many people use alcohol to lower their sexual inhibitions.
People often use alcohol as an analgesic, disinhibitor, anti-anxiolytic, or aphrodisiac.
Good sex requires good communication. Alcohol can prevent this, which a drinker might not notice.
In America, sex and alcohol often 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 Kristin. 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 Dan, who was 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 wife’s (who told him regularly that alcohol had reduced his libido).
Why Do People Mix Alcohol and Sex?
Consciously or not, people combine alcohol and sex for four main reasons:
1. 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, by the way.
2. 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.
3. 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 or taking too long, from fear of wetting the bed to fear of God.
4. Aphrodisiac: To enhance desire.
When someone figures they’re going to 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), they may use alcohol to temporarily bridge the gap from indifference to willingness, or from willingness to active participation.
What’s the Problem With Alcohol and Sex?
While alcohol can provide various kinds of short-term relief, for better or worse, 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. Unfortunately, conflict, when one or both people have been drinking, can get ugly very quickly.
Consent, Regret, and Alcohol
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.
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 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.
Given what we know that people want from combining alcohol and sex, what are some alternatives to the above difficulties?
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; or 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; or your partner’s increased personal hygiene.
If you feel anxious when having sex with a new partner, consider postponing sex until you know the person a lot better. Practice—out loud and with a mirror—setting limits on what you want to do.
If the sex in your life is typically a threesome—you, your partner, and alcohol—take the first step: talk to your partner about it.
Marty Klein, Ph.D., is a certified sex therapist and a licensed psychotherapist. He has written five books and 200 articles about sex. His TV appearances include 20/20 and Nightline.