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This is your junk on booze

Here’s what we know about how alcohol affects your brain, your body, and your birth control.

by Yvonne Piper, MLIS, MS, RN, FNP

A lot of folks believe that drinking can be a good way to warm up for sex. A glass of wine or beer may relax you, but more is not better in the case of booze and sex. Alcohol can seriously mess with your sex life, and I don’t just mean for daily drinkers or binge drinkers. Drinking more than your body can handle can mess with your enjoyment or ability to have sex. (Yes, #whiskeydick is a real thing.) Let’s look at how drinking impacts your body, your brain, and your birth control.

First, a few disclaimers

Let’s get a few important things out of the way up front:

  • Consent is part of sex. Always. Period. Alcohol may impair your ability to communicate and to give and receive consent.
  • F#@king under the influence (FUI) is something that happens. I’m not here to judge it, just sharing what science says about it and some ways to amp it down if that feels right.
  • While I’m focusing on booze here, it’s not the only substance that can change what decisions you make about sex and how your body works during sex.

Booze and your brain

We won’t get too far into the science here, but alcohol slows down your brain—even though it may not always feel that way. The first drink can feel more like a stimulant because it releases a chemical called dopamine, which is like a reward for your brain. After a couple more drinks, another chemical called GABA takes over. It’s GABA that slows down your brain, which is why you may find your brain isn’t exactly at peak performance after a few rounds.

This can impact your choices in a bunch of ways. One study showed a link between drinking and more sexual partners for women—which is fine in principle, but may not be what those women would have chosen without drinking. Another study showed that many women who hooked up while binge drinking reported “major unintended sexual consequences,” like sex without a condom, types of sex they wouldn’t have without drinking, and sex while blacked out. Another study showed that folks who report FUI may be more likely to need emergency contraception or to find out they have a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Does alcohol affect your chances of having safer sex? Some research notes decreased plans to use condoms after drinking, while other research shows that people may use drinking as an excuse not to use condoms. So far we can’t answer this chicken and egg question, but either way it’s clear that there’s a link between drinking and doing sexual things you wouldn’t have done while stone-cold sober.

Considering the risks, why do people seem to feel more like hooking up after a few drinks? Some people believe alcohol leads to sexual behavior. One study showed that people report feeling more sexually aroused after they reach a blood alcohol level that makes them legally drunk. At the same time, their bodies showed no signs of increased arousal. Which leads us to how drinking impacts your sexual function.

Booze and your body

It’s no surprise to anyone who has ever had a hangover that alcohol has some major effects on your body. We don’t fully understand how alcohol and sexual function work together, but there are clear downsides to overdoing it.

For starters, alcohol causes dehydration. If you don’t have enough fluid in your body, you have less saliva. What else requires good hydration? That’s right, getting wet and making pre-cum. After a few drinks, your body’s natural lubrication may be reduced. Sure, this can be fixed with some lube, but you or your partner might be caught off guard or disappointed if you find that your bodies work differently during drunk sex.

Alcohol can mess with later stages of sex, too. It can make it difficult to keep an erection, or lead to early ejaculation. It doesn’t take a ton of drinks to cause penis issues: one study found that having 8 drinks per week may make it harder to get or maintain an erection. For some people, higher levels of drinking also seem linked to delayed orgasms.

Booze and your birth control

If your birth control method is something that needs to be used each time you have sex—like condoms or a diaphragm—drinking may get in the way. We already know from the “Booze and your brain” section that alcohol can change people’s willingness to use condoms. (BTW, this goes for both men and women.)

While there isn’t as much research on other birth control methods and alcohol, we can certainly imagine how drinking might impact them. Can you pull out as well when drunk? Can you remember to reinsert a NuvaRing on time if you pass out immediately after sex? (BTW, if you want booze-proof birth control, check out these party-ready methods.)

There’s still so much we don’t know

It’s hard to study the link between alcohol and sex. There are a couple reasons for this:

  • Unless a researcher is following you to the bar, then back to your boot-knocking location, it’s hard for them to say exactly what went down. Most research on this topic relies on somebody’s memory of what happened, and since alcohol can mess with memory, this is tricky.
  • Some folks use other substances when drinking, like marijuana (which can also impact decisions), or tobacco, (which can also mess with sexual function). It can be hard to know what caused what.
  • There may be common factors that impact both drinking and sexual health, like mental health conditions or difficulty getting good medical care.

While the research may not be scientifically rock solid, we’re not totally in the dark about the effects of alcohol on our bodies and choices. As in all aspects of your health, you are the person who will know best how drinking changes your brain, body, and birth control use. And as always, it’s up to you to decide if you want to change anything about those parts of your life.

Yvonne Piper, MLIS, MS, RN, FNP has her dream job as a primary care provider at Lyon-Martin Health Services in San Francisco, CA. She has TA'ed two rounds of UCSF's Coursera class on Contraception and loves helping her patients choose the best birth control method for their crazy-busy lives. When she isn't at work she can be found lifting at her Crossfit box, hanging out with her pet rats, or volunteering as a trainer with San Francisco Sex Information (SFSI).

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