How Different Drugs Affect Sex
Some drugs can open you up to complete ecstasy, while others are complete boner killers.
All illustrations by Carly Jean Andrews
"A lot of people use a lot of different drugs," Matthew Johnson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, recently told VICE. "And a lot of people have sex. You name the drug, and someone says they love having sex on [it]."
If you've ever spent any time in a club, on the internet, or at college, you know Johnson's onto something. Most of humanity likes to get freaky. And from the moment we figured out how to burn, ferment, or otherwise synthesize mind-altering substances, from alcohol to cocaine to LSD, we've found ways to incorporate them into our sex lives, expanding and refining the raw pleasures that come with having sex.
Given how long—and often—humans have mixed drugs and sex, you'd think we might understand the two pretty well by now. But as Johnson—who runs clinical trials testing narcotics' effects on human behavior—can attest, drugs affect us all a little differently. Some have a direct pharmacological impact on the way we experience the world, while others affect our brains so dramatically that their impact on our sex is a total crapshoot. They can open us to complete ecstasy or lead us to make risky, dangerous decisions that can negatively impact our health and the well-being of our partners. They can even play a disturbingly crucial role in the sexual assaults that happen all to often across this country.
It's important that you have some information on what you're getting into before you jump into the sack or a bathroom stall with a baggie full of something. To help you out, we've trawled through drug enthusiast forums, combed over what limited studies exist, and consulted as many people—from casual tokers to psychonauts, from amateur enthusiasts to doctors and psychiatrists—as we could to put together this rundown of all the info that's out there about humping high on drugs.
All illustrations by Carly Jean Andrews
Booze is probably the most commonly used drug for initiating or enhancing sex. Going by some studies , alcohol may be involved in over half of all sexual interactions in America, at least among young people—although we don't know if it's always used for inebriation or just social lubrication. Predictably, stories of sex and alcohol are a dime a dozen. Some anecdotes suggest that casual drinkers get a boost in sexual interest, arousal, or orgasm, while others detail problems with all of those.
"It doesn't appear that people actually enjoy sex more [while drunk or buzzed]," Johnson tells me. "It's probably just the disinhibiting effect. Their social anxiety that usually comes along approaching a [potential] partner is taken down. Or suggesting a sexual practice that you wouldn't usually suggest, particularly with a novel partner, [is] made easier as well."
Much of what we experience while drunk is a manifestation of expectations. If we expect to get turned on and fuck, we will likely fulfill that prophecy for ourselves.
A buzz can make it easier to talk about desires freely and openly, or help someone feeling pain due to stress and tension to loosen up and find pleasure. For most people, that's the effect of a few drinks over the course of an evening. Consume more than that, and you can start running into trouble.
Alcohol, especially when consumed in large quantifies, dampens not just your inhibitions, but also your long-term decision-making processes, drastically increasing your chance of having unprotected sex. Its impacts on your brain, nervous system, and body can cause erectile dysfunction in men and dulled sensations and delayed, difficult orgasms for men and women. (Some couples actually like this, since it helps them deal with premature busting or similar issues.) The dehydration caused by booze can also make it difficult for a woman to get wet as well, which can turn the other way and make sex more painful.
At the most benign level, beer goggles are a very real phenomenon. At the most malignant, alcohol
plays a huge part in sexual assaults, coercions, and rapes, by inhibiting self-awareness and consent.
You've probably heard a ton of stories about coke-fueled sex parties over the years, perhaps involving disgraced politicians. That's because amphetamines are among the few hard narcotics with truly aphrodisiac qualities. And according to Steven Shoptaw, a UCLA professor and psychologist of substance abuse, some amphetamines are used across demographic lines as well, which is unusual for most drugs. He tells of bikers, sure, but also housewives, eager to keep up their sexual appetites despite their chores and childcare duties, who turn to crystal.
Many accounts of amphetamine sex throw around words like animalistic or invincible. This can be seen in The Casual Sex Project (CSP), a series of testimonials NYU researcher Zhana Vrangalova is collecting to study experiences of sex outside of mainstream, monogamous relationships. One subject, "Aslan," a 34-year-old married woman in Panama writing about a recent one-night stand, described having sex on cocaine as follows:
"[It was] raw gritty sex w/ a beautiful stranger. It felt surreal almost. Then [later] the reality of the effects on my reputation, possibility of pregnancy and stds [sic] started to hit me a bit."
Yet some people talk about amphetamines as mere tools that help them stay awake and focused. While others see them as turn offs or attribute their erectile dysfunction to them. It's a dizzying diversity of opinions, but the raw science of stimulants suggests that the vast majority of people popping, snorting, or injecting amphetamines will experience sex heightening highs.
According to Soptaw and Larissa Mooney, also a professor of substance abuse issues at UCLA, amphetamines blast our brains with dopamine, the pleasure chemical, and norepinephrine, a stamina booster, making us feel incredibly positive, energized, and focused. But they also alter the way we make decisions and can lead to an over-emphasis on personal desires and short-term outcomes. The drugs increase our heart rates and blood pleasure, which can enhance physical sensation, yet they also often delay orgasm.
There are slight differences between amphetamines. Coke's effects generally fade within an hour, while meth's can last as long as 11 or 12 hours. But they generally make you feel like a sex god—everything seems amazing and you can have sex longer than usual.
"People will have these experiences where they'll just fuck and fuck and fuck, but they won't come," Shoptaw told VICE of amphetamine sex marathons.
These drugs come with common sexual and non-sexual risks as well. By encouraging rough or marathon sex, they can lead people to push their bodies unto bleeding and chafing. Coupled with a lack of sleep and a decreased assessment of risk, the amphetamine drive to get any sex as quick as possible makes coke-, meth- or pill-sex a great way to contract a disease.
In the long-term, amphetamine usage can lead to "coke" or "crystal dick," which is to say a limp cock. But more troublesome is the potential of powerful amphetamines to ravage your pleasure receptors, killing your sober sex life—not to mention your overall capacity to experience joy without a hit of crystal, a problem sadly not unusual among habitual meth smokers.
Next to alcohol, pot is probably the second-most-sexually-used narcotic. And just like with booze, stories of blitzed banging are both common and diverse. Some people describe weed as an aphrodisiac, making them harder, wetter, and more sensitive, or a relaxant, loosening things up . Others call it a downer that depresses their interest in sex. Despite varied tales, studies on cannabis and copulation suggest that the majority of users experience positive effects when pounding on pot.
"Generally, two-thirds of most experienced users report some sort of sexual enhancement," Mitch Earleywine, a psychologist studying cannabis at SUNY Albany, wrote to VICE. "[Old surveys suggest] that men thought they were more attentive lovers after using the plant, and most folks thought that it enhanced orgasm and increased general arousal and responsiveness."
There're a lot of theories thrown around about the neurochemical adjustments weed makes in our brain to achieve that. But at its core, weed increases sensations, which can augment or dampen sex drives, depending on our mental states and environments when blazing.
As Earleywine explains,"Cannabinoids modulate amygdala reactivity to stimuli in general, and the amygdala has a lot to do with any strong feelings, especially sexual ones. In a sense, cannabis can make the amygdala interpret average stimuli as more fun and sexual than they might seem otherwise."
As anyone who's had a bad high can attest, weed can also magnify fear and depression, and cause paranoia. This might wind up putting you off of sex, or distracting you from a sexual impulse. It's also worth noting that some studies correlate chronic usage with decreased fertility and erectile dysfunction, which can make for a shitty time for everyone.
Desperate anti-pot activists have recently tried to label marijuana as a new date rape drug. Although weed does alter the mind, it doesn't seem to increase risky sexual behaviors like alcohol or amphetamines. And considering pot across the country is getting more formal regulation, for many lovers out there, it probably offers the best balance of safety and reliability on this list.
Going off of the dozen or so stories of MDMA-fueled casual sex in the in the CSP database, you might think molly, a unique drug that shares qualities with amphetamines and hallucinogens, was just another raw, gritty, sense-enhancing stimulant aphrodisiac. Consider the tale of "DJ," a 30-year-old man in Connecticut who used three points of the stuff to enhance sex with a booty-call he met on an adult friend finder-type website:
"There was one point in the night when I felt like we were in another place and time and nothing mattered except the pleasure of the moment. It truly felt amazing. The night started around 7 PM and we didn't stop making love until about 7 AM."
That sounds like an amphetamine marathon. More tender than meth sex, maybe, but still a marathon. And in some studies, half of the users researchers talked to said they'd experienced an increased sex drive, reinforcing the drug's stimulant connections. But that doesn't actually make much sense given the pharmacological properties of MDMA.
"Pure MDMA produces euphoria and feelings of empathy in most people," Karen McElrath, a professor at Fayetteville State University and an MDMA researcher, told VICE. "A number of individuals who use pure MDMA will experience feelings of emotional closeness (even with strangers), which can include sensuality, although without the desire for penetrative sex."
Both McElrath and Zvi Zemishlany, a professor at Tel Aviv University and the author of one of the studies linking MDMA to stimulant-esque experiences, suggest that people's hot-and-heavy E escapades are often the result of impure pills or powders—or mixing it with other drugs.
Some people still try to use pure MDMA's empathetic qualities to enhance sex. But more often than not, the drug's sexual impairments, from drive decrease to erectile dysfunction, win out. As long as it doesn't cause anxiety (as it does for some), MDMA is better suited to spooning than plowing.
It's worth nothing that it's not clear if this emotive-sensitive property extends to MDMA variants—e.g. synthetic cathinones like MDPV (a.k.a. bath salts), which are often sold as MDMA on the street.
As McElrath explains,"Synthetic cathinones have been linked to sexual arousal, although this relationship is seriously under-researched. Clearly, the synthetic cathinones contain amphetamine-like properties and much like other stimulants, they might enhance sexual desire and extend sexual activity" and carry similar risks, too.
Psychedelics and dissociatives (a wide class covering everything from DMT to LSD to ketamine to PCP) are among the most subjective and unreliable drugs on the market. Just look at accounts of LSD sex: "Matthew," a 33-year-old guy from Austin, Texas, recounts the tale of a particularly horny trip at age 16 in the CSP database that makes it sound like a straight aphrodisiac:
"I hit on every female b/c I could smell the lust if I was only able to catch their eye... [I] grabbed [a girl's] hips and pulled her closer to my lips then stop then I would start again as a teasing flirtationship was playing out in front of both of our groups [of friends]. Im sure they were saying something but we were in our own world [sic]."
But to other users, LSD is too distracting, the trips too weird, to get into a sexual vibe.
The same is true of psilocybin, a.k.a. shrooms. Some describe them as creating a primal, almost amphetamine-like lust. Others describe them as being more like pure, cuddle-inducing molly. That was the case for " Anna," a 35-year-old woman in the South recounting a trip when she was 18 in the CSP database, when mushrooms made her feel closer than ever to a boy she'd never had feelings for before, they didn't impact her physical drive or ability.
According to Johnson and Michael Kometer, a neuropsychologist of altered states studying psychedelics and consciousness at the University of Zurich, much of this has to do with the massive effect these drugs have on the human brain. Each one hits slightly different receptors. LSD hits wide, making it especially unpredictable. DMT hits hard, so you'll most likely be too immobilized and far out to have sex. And PCP and ketamine hit our deep brain, making them uniquely destructive and risky—they can stop your breathing, for instance. But for all their little variations, they all touch a few of the same spots to loosen up our thought patterns.
"We have more to learn and verify about this, but it seems that they kind of pull the self-identity out," Johnson says. "You could think to it as a more unconstrained form of consciousness... That can result in panic and anxiety at the loss of ego boundaries and confusion. [Or] it can lead to ecstatic states of intense feelings of unity with the universe and everything."
Depending on who you are, where you are, and what state of mind you're in, you're going to have utterly different hallucinogenic sex experiences. It's all entirely idiosyncratic and impossibly under-studied. But based on what he's seen in psilocybin studies, Johnson suspects that ego-loss can lead to a type of empathy that's especially useful for rekindling romance and finding new sparks and connections in long-term couples. That suggests you're probably more likely to have good psychedelic sex with someone you're comfortable with, not someone you just go into a trip desperately trying to bone.
You're more likely to have a positive hallucinogenic hump if you become a psychonaut first, learning what substances, dosages, and settings work for you over time. For those who want to mix shrooms or ketamine with sex right off the bat, remember that small doses are key , you're more likely to be sexual towards the tail end of a trip (based on anecdotal evidence collected by Kometer), and you're more likely to enjoy yourself in a setting of comfort and safety.
Commonly known as poppers, nitrites are probably the drug with the most direct link to sex on this list. Despite some back-and-forth with regulators, it's totally legal to buy poppers so long as sellers give them a euphemistic name, so it's no wonder there are so many vivid stories of sex on nitrites floating in the filthy ether.
Poppers can relax your body, and are said to often give you a brief but intense rush , making you feel extremely horny. An unnamed 19-year-old non-binary individual in New York speaks to this relaxing property on the CSP in a tale of sex with a 41-year-old man the teen met on Grindr:
"[He] offered me poppers... which I could feel relax my body, making [sex] more tolerable."
Meanwhile "Peter," a 33-year-old white man in the United Kingdom, mostly straight but engaging in a sexual experience with another man and using poppers for the first time, focused on the intense flush and rush to the head he experienced in his tale in the CSP database:
"The feeling was so intense, I thought my head would explode and it was as if we were both possessed by something. We went at each other and I felt like I wanted him so badly I would die if I didn't [have him]. It was really intense and overpowering... I can't really remember much more after this for the next few minutes as I just came over so hot and felt enormously horny."
Although that sounds extreme, poppers are physiologically very simple. Most often amyl nitrites, but sometimes solutions of isobutyl, cyclohexyl, isopentyl, or isoamyl nitrites, poppers are vasodilators—substances that relax your blood vessels. More important for sex, they relax not just blood vessels, but all soft tissues, including the anus and sphincter—a combo that has historically made it great for anyone interested in butt sex.
Poppers can be especially unsafe if they're not properly stored. They can also burn if they splash on your skin and they're flammable as hell. They also pose risks for people with certain medical conditions. And although their stackable, strategic pleasure effect mixes well with many drugs, it's very risky to mix them with erectile dysfunction treatments because the added blood pressure drop can cause anything from a temporary fainting spell to death depending on your health. Not to mention, more relaxed anal can also mean rougher anal, leading to tears and bleeding, making it easier to catch a disease.
Shoptaw also cautions users that not all poppers on the market today are even nitrites—which is to say, be careful about what you put in your body, people.
Opiates, a class containing heroin and a number of painkillers and sedatives, are perhaps the least sexy category in this primer. That makes some sense, considering opioids are fueling the nationwide increase in overdose deaths. The only account in the CSP database to seemingly include any type of opiate came from a 32-year-old woman from Seattle who hooked up with a surfer on a vacation to Oahu after suffering a mild injury—then promptly fell asleep on him after accidentally mixing painkillers and alcohol. Anonymous accounts from wider drug websites likewise talk about opiates as things that take away your sex drive, make it impossible to achieve orgasm if you do have sex, and more often than not just lay you out in a total stupor.
Opiates are among the least-studied narcotics when it comes to sex because, according to Johnson, their use in intercourse is so rare as to be a negligible population-wide phenomenon.
"They're in a different class than the classic sedatives like barbiturates," he says. "But at the gross level, they're sedating. Someone's more likely to get drowsy and nod off [on them than anything else], and you've got to be awake to have [consensual and remembered] sex."
Adds McElrath, "A large proportion of people who are dependent on heroin tend to experience low sex drive even among short- and long-term sexual partners."
This seems to be linked to the pharmacology of opiates, which apparently bind to bits of your brain in such a way as to inhibit the production of neurochemicals associated with sexy feelings. That goes for anything from codeine to heroin—some opiates are perhaps more addictive than others, and some are better controlled in medicinal doses, but none of them differ enough from the rest pharmacologically to have massively different sexual effects.
That said, you can find a tiny minority of people who claim to enjoy sex on opiates, either because a mild dose can give them an altered sense of time, elongating sexual experiences (especially for people dealing with premature ejaculation), or because it can increase relaxation and comfort, or just because it can make you feel a little bit loopy, but still awake.
But for most people, opiates just aren't very good sex drugs.
Taking drugs can be pretty dangerous and is often a crapshoot when it comes to having enjoyable sex, especially when you're getting your drugs off the black market. Even if you've tried a particular drug before, adding sex into the equation is a new layer of experiential factors to account for, so be careful. Or you could just have sober sex, which is risky enough in it's own right in this day and age, considering all the STDS and clingy partners out there.
There's a real lack of scientific research being done on the way drugs impact sex, which is what makes getting high and having sex even more risky. One thing we can say for sure is that everyone's sex-drug experience is unique. So, don't take anyone else's word or anecdote as gospel when it comes to what you put in your own body, and never forget that your partner(s) might not feel the same way you do on a particular drug. If you have serious questions about drugs, sex, and your body, you should go talk to a medical professional.
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