Today’s culture is replete with images of alcohol and sex, to the point where romantic occasions seem incomplete without the “lubricant of love.” And where the media is concerned, alcohol is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Think chilled wine to top off anniversaries; glasses of champagne at glamorous banquets; or fruity drinks on bikini-clad beaches.
But to what extent does alcohol really enrich the art of lovemaking?
As far as courtship goes, alcohol lives up to its reputation—at least in theory. Driven by the belief that booze heats up hookups, both sexes report greater sexual eagerness after getting buzzed. In fact, around 12% of boys and men worldwide report having sipped the stuff to enhance their first sexual experiences.
And for better or for worse, alcohol gives users an efficacious set of “beer goggles.” In a 2008 study published in Alcohol and Alcoholism, for instance, participants found others more good-looking after drinking vodka—and the attraction wasn’t limited to members of the opposite sex.
Another 2010 study determined that sober participants were better at detecting facial symmetry than their inebriated peers. This could explain why so many partygoers wake up thunderstruck after enjoying steamy one-night stands with seemingly attractive partners.
These findings shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, especially since many of us know someone who has earned a track record for tipsy conquests. Yet the science behind them might. According to several studies, men who expect to get excited after a few drinks enjoy fuller erections than those who don’t. That means the stimulating effects of alcohol might stem from the placebo effect, not basic biology.
It’s the same for women. Though most report greater arousal after a few cocktails, their sexual organs aren’t physically as “ready.” And unlike men, women aren’t able to perform optimally even if they expect to. Sorry, ladies—menstrual cramps weren’t the only disappointment nature had in store.
The plot only thickens from there. Research shows that alcohol actually kills libido and sexual responsiveness on a physiological level—meaning champagne-fueled miracles between the sheets might be rarer than your friends think.
Let’s start with women. No matter how turned on they might feel, women can actually experience painful intercourse, vaginal dryness, and difficulty achieving orgasm after one too many beers. Ouch. What’s worse, women tend to drink more alcohol when they notice they’re not in the mood, which only exacerbates the issue.
Intoxicated men also have trouble “getting it up” and ejaculating when the time is right. Because the challenges men face in bed are better-studied than those of women, let’s start with the scientific basics.
For one thing, as a depressant, alcohol decreases the flow of information to essential regions of the central nervous system. By altering respiration, circulation, and penile sensitivity, alcohol therefore makes it harder to get hard.
Furthermore, alcohol causes blood vessels throughout the body to dilate, which prevents those in the penis from closing. Because vessels surrounding the organ normally seal off during erection, this can also keep it flaccid.
Finally, alcohol dehydrates the body and signals the brain to churn out angiotensin, a hormone associated with erectile dysfunction.
As the years roll on, men’s performance continues to sag. Even those who have achieved sobriety suffer abnormally-high rates of erectile dysfunction due to excessive past alcohol use. And due to alcohol’s effect on hormone secretion, men with alcohol use disorder (AUD) also experience testicular shrinking, low testosterone levels and sperm count, and other forms of sexual dysfunction.
Like most things alcohol-related, there are a lot of misconceptions around drinking and lovemaking. Most people prefer escapades in the bedroom to go out with a bang, not with regrets. So for a better sex life, try these tips to reduce drinking together:
- Dine Without Wine. To cut back on alcohol without dampening the mood, substitute a ritzy bottle of wine for a sweet treat or a special dinner that can be whipped up together.
- Compliment Away. Let a partner know how sexy he or she looks after shedding a few pounds, or how much cheerier they seem sober—a little positive reinforcement can go a long way towards a better sex life.
- Stay Young, Go Dancing. Schedule an alcohol-free get-together to rekindle chemistry naturally. (This includes that next stint in the bedroom.)
- Clarify Goals. Partners that drink together don’t always think together. Be clear about drinking goals (i.e., how much is too much) and how a partner can help achieve them. A couple is more likely to succeed as a team if both are on the same page.
- Spend Wisely. Keep track of money spent (or not spent) on booze. Put away all the money saved for a romantic trip to the country or a fancy outing at the end of each month.
- Get Support. Couples should see a counselor or addiction specialist if alcohol is causing trouble with a partner, or if there’s trouble hashing out a drinking goal together.
If alcohol consumption is causing trouble in the sack, the Ria Health team can also help drive it down (bonus: abstinence isn’t required). Our team of nurses, doctors, and coaches will work to develop new drinking goals, keep track of progress, and combat setbacks. If you have a pal whom you suspect needs help, visit our website or contact a friendly representative today to learn more.
Kimberly Nielsen writes about health issues, and has written for various scientific newspapers and blogs. She is currently studying biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and plans to pursue a graduate degree in Public Health.