Alcohol is often wrapped up in our ideas of dating and sex. We meet a date for drinks, we celebrate a long-term relationship anniversary with drinks, we use alcohol as “lubrication” and “liquid courage” when we want to approach a stranger at a bar, or get on the dance floor.
And yet, the terms lubrication and courage might be the most laughable things to attribute to alcohol, given how it impacts our sexual functioning!
This blog post will be talking about light to moderate alcohol use. It is not inclusive of substance abuse disorders. It will, however, challenge what we think of an unproblematic drinking, as the data shows that even small amounts of alcohol have a disruptive effect on our physiological and emotional experiences of sex.
For cisgender women, alcohol can increase sexual desire temporarily. Alcohol raises the level of testosterone which can increase your sexual desire. Given what we said about alcohol often being linked to sex and a good time with a partner, some of this desire might also be stemming from your anticipation of sex itself. These can be good things. However, alcohol also negatively impacts physical arousal. So you might be thinking about sex (desire) but struggle with sexual performance: insufficient blood flow to the genitals which will impact your ability to self-lubricate, and will also impair your sensitivity to stimulation. The clitoris, just like the penis, is made up of erectile tissue that swells and grows when aroused. Attempting sex without enough lubrication or engorgement of the clitoris and surrounding tissue can make sex feel less interesting even with initial desire, and can lead to painful sex, and delayed, muted, or absent orgasm.
The impacts are also obvious for cisgender men, and not too dissimilar. Alcohol increases angiotensin, which is a hormone linked to erectile dysfunction. Alcohol also depresses your central nervous system, and decreases blood flow to the penis, both of which make physical arousal challenging. It can also cause delayed ejaculation and orgasm, or the inability to achieve either. Even if you are experiencing intense desire for sex, if the arousal is not there, this can lead to frustrating situations.
If you are transgender, the impacts on your anatomy will be similar, but perhaps even more pronounced. For trans women with a penis, any erectile dysfunction already occurring due to their GAHT will be more pronounced. For trans men, the vaginal atrophy that can occur on GAHT might lead to more discomfort with the lack of arousal and lubrication when alcohol is added to the mix.
Consuming alcohol to the point of intoxication can also lead to risk-taking behaviors in sex. Remember: alcohol itself, in any amount, is indeed a toxin. It is a shorter runway that you might think of this toxin having an impact. It can be challenging to remember safer sex precautions to prevent STIs and pregnancy if you’ve been drinking, and might lead you to forget boundaries a partner has set.
Alcohol is a depressant. That means the effect of alcohol can be confusing to those consuming it. Many people feel great when they first begin to drink. They feel a loss of inhibitions, and an increase in mood. This is where that term “liquid courage” comes from. And yet, as the effects of alcohol wear off, your body will try to find its way back to homeostasis. This process often leads to an over-correct, tipping you into feelings of anxiety and/or depression. What might have started as a carefree and fun evening might suddenly turn; a romantic vacation that involves a lot of drinking might be less fun by day three. Those feelings of low inhibition and high invincibility become negative self-talk, worry, and conflict. Everyone processes alcohol differently, so this might be 5 drinks in for one person, and just 1 drink for another.
Much of the research on alcohol and sexual functioning profiles heavy drinkers, and indeed, heavier use will lead to larger consequences. However, it is important to remember how “heavy drinking” is defined: 15 drinks in a week for men, and 8 for women. This is much lower than many people guess. Of more concern, because of the way we lose track of time when drinking, many people do not know they are having this many drinks in a week before a therapist asks them to count. Something you can do for your sexual health and happiness, without a sex therapist involved, is evaluate your level of alcohol consumption, and adjust if needed. If you find that you are struggling to adjust to a more moderate or light classification, it might be time to seek help from a therapist.
Mary-Margaret Sweeney, MSW, LCSW, CST is a certified sex therapist licensed and practicing in the state of Indiana. You can read more about her practice and reach out about working together here.