Alcohol and sex—shifting the question from, “How much is too much?” to, “Why is drinking important to you anyway?”
When I worked as a peer sexual health counselor, my most controversial workshop was on drinking and consent. The workshop was a prerequisite to attend an annual, college-wide, clothing-optional party celebrating safer sex. (Whatever you’re thinking here, I understand. I, too, have many feelings about the Safer Sex Party.) Unfortunately, the drinking and consent workshop was mandatory because so many people came to the party drunk or high with the intention of hooking up. As you might imagine, some of these folks disagreed with the idea that you shouldn’t have sex while intoxicated, and trying to start a discussion on the topic was like playing with matches. The phrases “alcohol negates consent” and “you can’t give consent if you’re drunk” ignited a fireworks display of hands and hostile questions shooting into the air:
“But what if they’ve only had a couple of drinks?”
“How am I supposed to tell if my partner is too drunk to give consent?”
“What if it’s my long-term partner, who loves and trusts me?”
“What if we make an agreement before drinking about having sex later?”
“If two straight people have sex and they’re both drunk, why is it always the man who gets in trouble?”
Although there are some clear-cut guidelines for knowing how much alcohol is too much—if someone is passed out or incoherent, for example—alcohol’s effects vary from person to person and across situations. For this reason, it is difficult to give advice for figuring out how many drinks is too many. So I don’t have clear answers for many of the questions people have asked me about alcohol and consent. This post gives excellent advice, in my opinion, on how to navigate consent in situations where one or both partners have been drinking.
Although I don't have concrete answers to questions about how much alcohol before sex is too much, there is an important question that nobody has ever asked me, but that I think is just as important as the questions raised above. In addition to asking how much alcohol before sex is too much, we need to ask why it’s so important to some people that they/their partner can drink before sex? It’s not simply a coincidence that people have sex after drinking. People drink alcohol before sex for lots of different reasons, and some of those reasons can be signs that a sexual encounter will be at best unfulfilling and at worst harmful to oneself or one’s partner.
Are you/your partner drinking to lower your inhibitions about having sex?
Lots of folks use alcohol as liquid courage. Because alcohol lowers your inhibitions, it might make it easier to ask someone to have sex, or to agree to sex with a new partner. But if you need to drink to boost your nerve, it may indicate that you’re not quite ready for whatever sexual encounter you’re thinking of having. People who have sex after drinking are more likely to have unplanned sex and may be more likely to regret having sex (Oswalt et al., 2005; Skinner et al., 2008; Walsh et al., 2011). My general guideline is this: if you wouldn’t do it sober, maybe you shouldn’t do it at all.
Are you/your partner drinking in order to improve your sexual experience?
Many people believe that drinking makes sex feel better, but there is a fair amount of research refuting that belief. In multiple studies, people who drank any alcohol before having sex (with casual partners) said that their experience was worse than people who did not drink before sex. Both men and women felt more regret, more negative affect, and less positive affect after a hookup if they drank alcohol prior to the experience (Fisher et al., 2012; LaBrie et al., 2014; Lewis et al., 2012; Owen & Fincham, 2011).
Regarding physical sensation, the same amount of alcohol that makes you tipsy may make you less sexually responsive (Crowe & George, 1989; George & Stoner, 2000; Prause et al., 2011). At blood alcohol content levels over about .05, male-bodied people’s erections get smaller, and female-bodied people take longer to orgasm and are less likely to orgasm at all. For reference, BAC of .08 is many states’ cutoff for legally driving. At BAC levels over .08, many male-bodied people have trouble reaching orgasm. In simpler terms, the infamous problem of “whiskey dick” is a real scientific phenomenon.
(As an interesting side-note, some research suggests that low levels of alcohol in the bloodstream [BAC of about .02] are associated with increases in sexual responsiveness [see George & Stoner, 2000]. So there’s evidence that if you drink before sex, you should do it in moderation.)
Are you intentionally seeking a partner who is drunk?
Hmm, if you answer yes to this question it means you need to do some soul-searching. Researchers have found that men who sexually assault women often target women who are drunk (Abbey et al., 1996). If you are seeking out a drunk partner because they are less likely to resist your advances, this is a serious red flag that you could be sexually aggressive. Take a step back and re-assess what you’re hoping to get out of a sexual encounter. Are you considering how your potential partner feels about engaging in sexual behavior with you? Would your partner have sex with you if they were sober? If not, then you may be taking advantage of them.
Alcohol complicates sex in multiple ways—consent, pleasure, respect. Focusing so much on defining “how much is too much” distracts from the ways that drinking any alcohol might affect your sexual experiences. In addition to thinking about what your/your partner’s limit is, think about whether—even within that limit—having sex after drinking will best meet your and your partner’s needs for pleasure, fun, intimacy, and respect.
Abbey, A., Ross, L. T., McDuffie, D., & McAuslan, D. M. (1996). Alcohol, misperception, and sexual assault: How and why are they linked? In D. M. Buss, & N. Malamuth (Eds.), Sex, power, conflict: Evolutionary and feminist perspectives (pp. 138-161). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Crowe, L. C., & George, W. H. (1989). Alcohol and human sexuality: review and integration. Psychological Bulletin, 105, 374-386.
Fisher, M. L., Worth, K., Garcia, J. R., & Meredith, T. (2012). Feelings of regret following uncommitted sexual encounters in Canadian university students. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 14, 45-57.
George, W. H., & Stoner, S. A. (2000). Understanding acute alcohol effects on sexual behavior. Annual Review of Sex Research, 11, 92-124.
LaBrie, J. W., Hummer, J. F., Ghaidarov, T. M., Lac, A., & Kenney, S. R. (2014). Hooking up in the college context: The event-level effects of alcohol use and partner familiarity on hookup behaviors and contentment. Journal of Sex Research, 51, 62-73.
Oswalt, S. B., Cameron, K. A., & Koob, J. J. (2005). Sexual regret in college students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34, 663-669.
Owen, J., & Fincham, F. D. (2011b). Young adults’ emotional reactions after hooking up encounters. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 321-330.
Prause, N., Staley, C., & Finn, P. (2011). The effects of acute ethanol consumption on sexual response and sexual risk-taking intent. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 373-384.
Skinner, S. R., Smith, J., Fenwick, J., Fyfe, S., & Hendriks, J. (2008). Perceptions and experiences of first sexual intercourse in Australian adolescent females. Journal of Adolescent Health, 43, 593-599.
Walsh, J. L., Ward, L. M., Caruthers, A., & Merriwether, A. (2011). Awkward or amazing: Gender and age trends in first intercourse experiences. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35, 59-71.
I am a developmental researcher focusing on relationships and health in adolescence and young adulthood. My goal is to enable people to have healthy, fulfilling sexual relationships.