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I drink to get drunk and get drunk to have sex

May 9th, 2008

Dr Petra

A report out today from Liverpool John Hopkins University suggests European young adults are drinking and taking drugs as a means of enhancing their sexual experience. 1,341 16-35 year olds in the UK, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Slovenia were questioned about their sexual habits, alcohol and drug consumption.

The study raises some important and interesting issues, although I had some concerns that the sample size was small given the range of countries studied, and there hasn’t been enough differentiation between sexuality or age of participants. After all a 28 year old gay man may well be having very different experiences of sex, drugs and alcohol than a 16 year old straight girl.

While newspaper coverage of this research has implied some kind of European league of drunken sex, there are some interesting findings from the research. For a start, despite our media (plus often our health and education systems) seeing our youth as depraved, this research indicated that young people in the UK were not that different from their European counterparts. Moreover the study is one of the first to ask specifically about the links between deliberate alcohol and drug use and sexual behaviour.

Previous research has often assumed that young people drink or take drugs and then somehow just fall into bed with each other as a result. This study indicates more clearly something that many young people, researchers and educators have known for a while. That alcohol and drug use is deliberately and strategically linked to sexual behaviour.

For many young people, alcohol or drug use plays a large part in their social lives. If you want to go out and find a date the most popular places tend to be pubs or nightclubs. There is pressure in particular on men to do the chatting up, and since that’s nerve wracking then having a drink or three can help build confidence.

We also live in a culture where binge drinking is increasingly popular, where measures are larger (or where double or triple measures or larger glasses are promoted) and where alcohol prices are dropping.

Over the past few decades drug use has become more commonplace, and again easier to access and cheaper to buy. For many teens and adults, drug usage is a normal part of a regular weekend social routine.

Whilst many of the papers and radio stations have been using this research to tut-tut about the bad behaviour of teens, this isn’t really going to solve problems. Until we tackle issues around licensing hours, the cost and availability of alcohol and our attitudes to drug or alcohol use this problem will continue.

Some schools do tackle sex education and issues around drug or alcohol usage, but they tend to address these issues as separate topics, and often focus in a finger wagging or negative tone – say no to drugs, don’t drink, and if you have sex you’ll get an STI/pregnant. So unsurprisingly many teens just switch off.

Alcohol and drug use can be a particular problem relating to sex as particularly alcohol use can lead to people forgetting to use condoms. The use of alcohol and some drugs can lead to guys finding it harder to get or keep an erection, which again can lead to condom avoidance. People may also forget to use condoms in the heat of the moment – in fact most research on condom use indicates people know they should use condoms and don’t particularly object to them, but because they were drunk or stoned they just didn’t think about using them or couldn’t do so effectively.

The use of drugs or alcohol and sex remains a controversial issue. Many would agree a glass of wine may give someone the Dutch courage to ask for something they wouldn’t ordinarily do, reduces inhibitions and makes people feel more fruity. There have certainly been recommendations from some quarters that drugs like cocaine, GHB, ecstasy or Quaaludes either increase the desire for sex, or prolong sexual activity.

The problem is that if you drink a lot it begins to impair your sexual functioning. For men it means that erections may be affected, and for both women and men there are problems with desire reducing once alcohol consumption increases. Feeling sick or hungover can also cause problems.

While drugs can make you feel horny, often the drugs that make you feel the most loved up don’t necessarily help you get sexy – so again erections can be impaired and sensation in the genital area reduced. This means people often mix drugs and alcohol to feel sexy and be able to act sexy.

Talking about drugs/alcohol and sex is difficult because all are issues where parents, teachers and educators fear that if they are discussed in anything other than a negative way it will lead to experimentation and ‘risk taking’. This means that frank discussions are often impossible, while young people find out more about sex/drugs/alcohol from their peers who may not always be accurate or helpful.

This makes it difficult for us to identify situations where people are knowingly experimenting with drugs/alcohol and sex as a passion booster, situations where people are just getting off their heads and having sexual encounters that may or may not be all that good, and situations where people feel they can only go through with certain sexual activities by being wasted first.

It is also hard to have discussions without a judgemental subtext. We live in a highly sexualised culture where we’re expected to do it loads, have masses of orgasms and last for hours. Moreover if we can do anal, threesomes, foursomes or moresomes or try out kinky new toys or outfits so much the better. Which is fine if that’s what you fancy when sober. But if it’s only what you do when you’re spangled that may not be the right kind of sex for you.

Yet how can we speak about these issues when we’re constantly having to promote a ‘just say no’ message around drink/drugs/sex. And how fair is it to expect such messages to be given when all the while sex and alcohol are very much fixed within a consumerist agenda. You can’t expect people to say no if all the while they’re being given messages that your life will be so much better if you’re doing it, and enjoying drink too.

Hopefully this new research will allow for some more thoughtful discussions within this area, and may well challenge how we address sex education and promoting sexual health messages.

We can’t ignore this issue, or just assume sex happens because people were wasted. Young people are making deliberate choices about drugs, sex and alcohol and we’ll only be able to give them useful sex advice if we acknowledge this and allow for some open discussions about these issues – which don’t just revolve around telling young people what they shouldn’t be doing.

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