We can’t get away from the drinking-before-sex trope – but does alcohol really affect your libido?

Many people find they’re more liberated after a couple of glasses, but does alcohol genuinely fuel sexual desire? 

In British and American culture, it’s almost impossible to untangle sex and alcohol. On TV, drinking is a lubricant that means characters go from club to bedroom before rolling around hungover. Dates are centred around romantic dinners with glasses of wine for both new couples and those in committed relationships. While single people might be more likely to meet a sexual partner on a dating app than they are in a bar, these meet-ups still tend to happen over drinks.

Many of us would argue that we’re more relaxed and liberated after a couple of glasses, and that makes us more ‘up for it’. But is feeling hornier a pavlovian response to being in an alcohol-infused environment or does alcohol genuinely fuel sexual desire? 

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A lot of research into sex and booze is (perhaps predictably) done on men, looking at the impact of drinking on libido and erectile dysfunction. But there is some research out there that’s looked at the impact the booze has on our sexual function.

For example, a 2019 study from Sexual Medicine found a positive association between the amount of alcohol consumed and levels of desire, lubrication and satisfaction. One reason for this might be down to increased testosterone levels in women after drinking, but researchers are still yet to find conclusive evidence for this. 

Drinking is associated with sex — but does it actually increase our sex drive?

The psychological impact of alcohol might be to blame, says sexologist Catriona Boffard. “In the moment, being drunk can decrease our anxieties –a major psychological factor that can consistently get in the way of wanting sex,” she says. As we learn more about the impact of mental health on our physiology, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that feeling more comfortable makes it easier to function in the bedroom.

“No matter if you’re single or coupled up, being drunk may mean you’re feeling more frisky and more willing to engage sexually with someone,” Bafford adds.

But that’s only to a point. In an article in Psychology Today, Michael Castleman, author of Sizzling Sex For Life, says that 13 of 16 studies he reviewed “showed that as women become intoxicated, they report increasing sexual arousal. But high doses – [that lead to] stumbling drunkenness – suppress arousal.” 

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When it comes to orgasms, Drinkaware points to some qualitative research that suggests women may also find it more difficult to reach climax or have less intense orgasms after drinking alcohol.

“Participants commonly reported… numbness while on alcohol. These changes in sensation appear to have influenced length and intensity of sex as well as orgasm,” researchers from the 2016 Archives of Sexual Behaviour paper wrote. While orgasm isn’t the only sign of good sex, researchers pointed out that alcohol’s ability to increase libido “does not necessarily increase or allow for optimal performance”. 

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But being a few drinks in just doesn’t do it for some people – and that’s OK. “Many are simply less inclined to want sex after drinking because they have what is known as a more sensitive sexual inhibition system or ‘sexual brakes’. There exists a multitude of reasons why someone wants to have or not have sex, and for some people, they aren’t just going to have sex because they are drinking,” says Boffard.

And, of course, it goes without saying that mixing alcohol with sex can be dangerous in certain circumstances. “We may be more open and interested in taking risks when drinking, and alcohol can also lead to aggressive behaviour which could make sex a very unsafe space,” notes Bafford.

The long-term impact of alcohol on our sex lives

We know that alcohol has a mark on our health that goes beyond a hangover, and the same can be said for our sex drive. A 2014 paper reported that alcohol damages the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis that links the hormone centres and our sex organs. In alcohol abusers, dysfunction of this axis was shown to be associated with a decrease in libido and infertility. 

“Alcohol can also have a major impact on our physical and psychological wellbeing, and this can lead to a nasty cycle of dependency. Some people can become dependent on a substance, like alcohol, in order to have sex, which may mean they experience high levels of anxiety around sober sex. And because alcohol affects functions including orgasms, it can create a very unhealthy cycle of anxiety,” adds Boffard.

While a glass of wine can be the perfect way to kick off a romantic evening, it’s hardly healthy to rely on alcohol when it comes to sex. But the research does seem to suggest that being in a situation where you feel comfortable, are with a trusted partner and can maintain tipsiness over drunkenness, a glass or two might actually improve your sex. Cheers to that. 

Images: Getty

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