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Teenagers and young adults across Europe drink and take drugs as part of deliberate sexual strategies. New findings reveal that a third of 16-35 year old males and a quarter of females surveyed are drinking alcohol to increase their chances of sex, while cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis are intentionally used to enhance sexual arousal or prolong sex.
The study was conducted by researchers in public health and social sciences from across Europe. More than 1300 people aged between 16 and 35 and who routinely socialise in nightlife settings completed anonymous questionnaires.
Virtually all of the survey participants had drunk alcohol with most having had their first drink when 14 or 15 years old. Three quarters of the respondents had tried or used cannabis, while around 30 percent had at least tried ecstasy or cocaine. Overall, alcohol was most likely to be used to facilitate a sexual encounter, while cocaine and cannabis were more likely to be utilised to enhance sexual sensations and arousal.
This likely comes as a surprise to few of us, and most of us also know that this is not just an issue in Europe.
Here's the thing: alcohol and most drugs have the opposite effects when it comes to sex that those using them to try and improve sex are seeking. Booze, coke, X and many other recreational drugs actually inhibit sexual desire -- even though they can make you feel mentally like you want it more, your body feels differently -- and sexual response. They tend to decrease female arousal and vaginal lubrication (making it more likely for condoms used during heterosex drunk to break), make it less likely to get or sustain an erection, and less likely to have an orgasm or the kind of sex that's worth writing home about. While it can be easy to mentally feel more aroused or excited about sex when you're drinking or doing drugs, the effects of those substances make it very difficult for your body to agree with you and respond in kind. Alcohol and most recreational drugs will also make you feel nauseated and out-of-sorts, and having sex when nauseous and dizzy is a lot like being on a boat and seasick: it's not usually pleasant. Having a sex partner throw up all over you is not usually interpreted as sexy by most people, either.
There's also some extra not-at-all-benefits when it comes to sex, booze and drugs. Drinking and drugging is something we know, with a lot of data over a long time to back it up, presents higher risks of negative consequences from sex for users, as well as higher risks of being sexually assaulted.
When a person is partying, they're far more likely to take risks -- or forget about reducing them them -- they wouldn't otherwise. Safer sex or birth control use is often blown off or used improperly (and with the extra vaginal dryness, without lube, condoms will be more likely to break). People consent to sex in situations or with partners where they wouldn't otherwise. People who are unsafe are more easily misperceived as safe, because our judgment and perceptions are chemically altered. The idea that booze is more likely to "make sex happen," means that often, someone is relying on someone else not being clear in their choices or able to give real consent. If sex is more likely to happen because someone is drunk, there's a point at which we're not talking about sex at all, but about rape. Initiating or continuing sex with someone who can't see straight or who is blacking out means you're doing that with someone who is not in a position, practically or legally, to give consent: it means you're raping or being raped, not having sex. At least once every couple of weeks, we get an advice question here at Scarleteen from someone who went to a party, got blitzed, fell asleep on a couch or bed and woke up to find someone on top of them attempting to rape them or raping them. People who sexually assault other people tend to look for easy opportunities, and this is one it can be very easy for those folks to find.
Just so you understand the place I'm coming from here, and so this is all above board, while I may have a lot of great health habits myself -- I'm vegan, I stay pretty active, I bike and walk rather than driving, my spiritual practice is very conducive to managing stress -- I also started smoking at 11 and only quit successfully for a nine-month period once in my life. I remain a person very annoyingly addicted to cigarettes 27 years after I had that "harmless" first one. I do drink, and while I didn't much in high school or college, I did use some recreational drugs (though not to enhance sex: the idea sex is enhanced when you're dry as a bone and someone's face looks like it's melting is something I figured out pretty quickly didn't make a lot of sense). Legal and other risk issues aside, I'm not going to be dishonest and say I regret that use, because I did often have a good time. Doesn't mean I'd recommend it, mind you, especially given that I had some protective factors with that a lot of youth don't have. Point is, I'm not about to finger-wag anyone experimenting with drugs and alcohol: my talking about the downsides of these isn't about value judgments, but about making sound choices in alignment with your health, safety, the goals for your life and having a sex life that really is a good one.
As usual, these are your choices to make, we just want to be sure you make them with as much information and thought as possible. Just be aware that if you're using to try and make sex more likely to happen, that you're taking risks of rape or raping, not sex. If you're using to try and make sex better, you are, in fact, using substances which will usually have the opposite effect, for you, your partner or both of you. And even if, because your brain is all mushy, it seems like it feels better at the time, or okay at the time, you might not feel the same way the morning or month afterwards when what you're left with from the experience is minimal or no memory of the event, but have a pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection, social drama, injury or assault that'll be what you remember most. You make a habit of this stuff and you've got a substance abuse problem to deal with on top of everything else in life you have to juggle, as well as ongoing health problems, continually elevated sexual risks and dysfunction. Alcohol and many recreational drugs -- and even cigarettes, as I figured out late in the game -- can create serious, hard-to-break addictions more easily then you think, and those addictions tend to creep up on you: you don't tend to know you have them as bad as you do until you're struggling to crawl your way out.
It's no party.
By virtue of counseling youth about sex for a decade, we know that a lot of the times, sex doesn't meet your expectations or happen as often as some might like it to. But more times than not, the problem is really about unrealistic expectations, rather than actual sexual problems or a greater lack of opportunity for sex than other people have. If the sex you're having hasn't been so hot, try and tackle the things that really will improve your experiences, like choosing partners who really are invested in shared pleasure, better communication with partners, more time spent exploring each other's bodies and minds before leaping into activities you feel obligated to do, and step away from activities you just know you aren't enjoying, even if you feel like you should. Do what you can to deal with relationship problems, body image issues, sexual orientation and gender identity conflicts or parental or cultural control out of bed, not in it. And if you find that you feel inhibited when it comes to initiating or having sex, trust your instincts: if you don't want to do it or don't feel comfortable doing it sober, rather than trying to chemically erase those feelings, take a look at where they're coming from, why you have them, and trust your own mind's no until you're in a situation or a headspace where it's a great big YES.
We also have to acknowledge that being a young person, especially today, can be really stressful, and we know that teens and young adults at this point in time are often managing increasingly elevating stressloads. Looking to drugs and booze to relieve or escape from stress isn't at all surprising, and all kinds of people do it and have always done it all of the time: even when we're not talking about illegal substances, certain legal, daily foods and drinks people like to mainline -- like meat, dairy, caffeine, salt and sugar -- are often used to deal with stress, even though they tend to physically increase it.
Trouble with drinks and drugs as coping tools is that they're not really coping tools at all, and don't actually reduce stress: they tend to just create one more source of it, and the feeling of momentary escape from stresses, which actually isn't coping at all. The stresses are still there, and you still need to manage them, the morning after, the month after, 18 years after.
So, if you're feeling like you need a great escape, and your stressload has just gotten really outer limits, I'd encourage you to do what you can to develop a few healthy ways of managing and reducing your stresses which are actually effective and which don't out your health or well-being at risk: you're going to need them through your whole life. Some healthy ways of doing that include meditation, exercise, extra sleep, talk therapy or massage therapy, doing the hobbies and activities you enjoy, hanging out with friends, taking a weekend off from everything, taking a long shower or bath, writing in your journal, walking the dog, taking a nap in the yard on a sunny day. If you're feeling stressed to the gills, you'll also want to look at the sources of that stress and see what you can do to get rid of some of them. Things like a dead-end relationship, more classes at school than you really need, one too many extracurricular activities, conflict or drama at home, eating poorly (and that includes dieting), rushing to get into college when you'd rather take a year off, trying to manage too large a social network, or sex when it just pits too much on your plate or you don't feel ready are all sources of stress you can manage or work to reduce by making different choices in alignment with what you need to deal.
And know what? Sex that you and your partner really do want -- or masturbation you want all by yourself -- and both feel ready for when your head is clear is one of those healthy stressbusters. Orgasm physiologically helps chill you out... but again, having one, or a really good one, when you're blitzed out of your head isn't likely. Even if you do get off when you're drunk or high, the risks are so much higher than they need to be that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to do it wasted when you could do it sober.
If you need some extra information on booze or certain recreational drugs to make your own choices or to help your friends or partners with theirs, do your homework. The Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland has excellent straightforward and in-depth informational pages about pretty much any substance you could think of, including alcohol, X, meth, cocaine, and weed. If you or are friend are going to experiment, know your risks -- physical, psychological and legal, long-term and short-term -- and at the very least, be moderate and choose a safe space with others you know, without a doubt, are safe to you, understanding that their behavior still isn't a guarantee since substances do often cause a person to behave differently. And if you're looking for a fantastic way to get or have sex, just know that booze and drugs are very unlikely to do anything but stand in the way of that.