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Dear Sexpert,

I’ve heard that although alcohol decreases sexual inhibitions, the physiological effects of alcohol may negatively impact sex. What are the effects of alcohol on the body that could affect my sexual experiences?

— Frisky While Tipsy

Dear Frisky While Tipsy,

In Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” a character says of alcohol: “It provokes and unprovokes. It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.” What the porter is referring to is those physiological impacts on sex. To be clear, when I speak of sex, I am referring to any act involving contact with the vulva, clitoris, vagina, penis, testicles, or anus between one or more consenting people for the purpose of sexual pleasure.

I’m sure we have all heard of the term “whiskey dick” to describe a penis’s inability to become erect. There is indeed a biological explanation behind this phenomenon — according to Mayo Clinic, as the amount of alcohol in blood increases, the brain’s ability to sense sexual stimulation decreases. Therefore, parts of the nervous system essential for sexual arousal and/or orgasm, including respiration, circulation, and sensitivity of nerve endings, are impeded by elevated blood alcohol levels. Specifically, in terms of circulation, alcohol compromises the blood flow pattern necessary to maintain an erection by causing blood vessels to dilate. A 2009 study also found that dehydration leading to decreasing blood volume couples with the increase of a hormone called angiotensin, which is associated with erectile dysfunction. This impacts “performance,” or the ability to obtain or maintain an erection. 

Alcohol’s effects are not limited to people with penises. Beyond increasing hormones associated with erectile dysfunction, dehydration can cause vaginal dryness. Lack of lubrication during sex due to vaginal dryness can contribute to pain or discomfort. Further, elevated blood alcohol levels decrease vasocongestion, or the phenomenon that describes the swelling of the vaginal tissues that make the vagina receptive to penetration by a finger, object, or penis. 

You may be wondering why anyone would want to engage in sex when drunk if alcohol can impair physiology in such a way that inhibits sexual performance or pleasure. It is commonly believed that alcohol enables people to overcome sexual anxieties or inhibitions. This belief is often due to “positive expectancies,” or perceptions of a more positive sexual experience when alcohol is involved. These include enhanced sexual drive, affect, and sexuality.

Despite these beliefs, alcohol’s inhibitory effects can have negative impacts on individuals’ judgment or decision-making, such as the following:

  • Rendering individuals unable to give consent (or inaccurately assess affirmative consent from one’s partner) to sexual activity and
  • Increasing sexual-risk taking behavior, including failing to use or improperly using contraceptive methods or safer sex barriers like condoms or dental dams.

It is of paramount importance to ensure that all partners are able to affirmatively consent to sexual activity before it occurs (and throughout it!) — whether or not alcohol is involved. However, alcohol may compromise one’s mental state, by making one unconscious or otherwise mentally incapacitated. Some more obvious signs of incapacitation are vomiting, stumbling, or being unconscious, but others can be less clear. If in doubt, it is best to delay any sexual activity until those involved are no longer under the influence of alcohol.

If you wish to learn more about the physiological effects of alcohol on the body, you can schedule an appointment with a medical professional at University Health Services. To learn more about the intersection of consent and alcohol, you can visit https://umatter.princeton.edu/respect/consent

Further, if you are concerned with a sexual experience you had, whether or not it was under the influence of alcohol, or wish to speak further about issues of consent, contact the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, and Education office. 

— The Sexpert

Information regarding the physiological effects of alcohol retrieved from Go Ask Alice, UMatter, Medical Daily, and SHARE.

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