Why Do You Get Horny When You're Hungover?

An important question that needs answering.

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Apr 13 2018, 4:15pm

Photo via Guy Moberly/Alamy Stock Photo

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

A recent study by the Kinsey Institute found that people in my 30- to 39-year-old age range have sex an average of 1.6 times a week. I'm in the first third of that bracket and generally have sex twice a week, which—if we presume there's some sort of sliding scale at play—I guess makes me average. I think my girlfriend could have sex a bit more often, but not hugely so, and as with many other avenues of our shared existence, she tolerates my insufficiencies.

But we've found that, on days after a lot of partying, we both become sex-crazed. Friends have reported the same thing, and there are articles online about people getting the hangover horn, so it's clearly a thing. But no one can explain why it happens (mostly because there’s basically no research in the area), so I called Nicole Prause to find out.

Prause is a neuroscientist who specializes in human sexual behavior and addiction and founded the Liberos Institute, which seeks to understand the science of desire. If anyone could help me understand why I want to have sex while I also feel like throwing up, it was her.


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VICE: Why do people get horny when they’re drunk?
Nicole Prause: There could be a few things, but the explanation I like is this thing called alcohol myopia. Most people enjoy sex and find it pleasurable, and drinking alcohol increases your baseline tendencies. So when you’re drunk and on the ascending limb [crudely: getting drunk but not too wasted] your myopia focuses more on the stuff you already liked before you started drinking. So sex will become a focal point, which will perhaps lead you to disregard issues around sex that you would normally wouldn't—like condoms, for instance.

So would you think it’s logical to then get aroused the next day when you’ve stopped ascending?
Most of our studies talk about ascending limb, and there's a pretty good story about coming up and its effect on heightened arousal. But there’s not a good story for coming down—you’re supposed to be asleep and irritable.

So how might adding drugs to the mix effect that?
Well, there was a really weird study where people were given meth. They didn’t show them anything, and they didn’t do anything to them, yet they reported feeling more sexually aroused. Just sitting there, high, which is kind of weird.

What about ecstasy and MDMA? It’s an empathogen and makes you want to hug everyone. So maybe your heightened arousal the next day is a knock-on of feeling generally closer to someone?
It’s an interesting idea, and I wonder if there's some bonding story there. Molly makes you want to touch people and be near them—so maybe you feel like that on the descending limb [when you’re coming down from alcohol/drugs]. You’re not repelled by people, and you want to be around them. It doesn’t sound like a ridiculous concept.

Could it be a vulnerability thing? You feel vulnerable and want someone/thing to soothe this?
Speculatively, sure. When we’re aroused, it activates a lot of the reward pathways that alcohol and other drugs do. We do not think of it, itself, as an addiction, but there’s the same reward pathway that’s active when you sniff cocaine or eat a piece of cake that you didn’t need but wanted and then enjoyed. It’s just rewarding and reactivating the same area. Maybe it’s trying to smooth the comedown a little bit. Either in terms of mood and emotion or in terms of reward activity.

It definitely helps alleviate anxiety, which is a huge part of hangovers and comedowns.
Everyone has strategies they use in their minds to keep their emotions—their anxieties—in check. It could be going for a run, or going to the movies, or gardening. Whatever. A lot of people think it’s wrong to do this with sex—that viewing sex in this way is somehow maladjusted. That’s crazy. The whole point of sex—presuming we’re not approaching it from a procreational angle—is to make you feel good. So it stands to reason that, if you’re suffering from a lower mood as the result of a big night, you’ll want something that alleviates this.

What about the orgasm as a way of getting yourself to sleep? Lots of people report needing to orgasm after being hungover to help them sleep. Maybe we’re just trying to knock ourselves out to catch up on some lost shut-eye?
We are literally starting to think about that—how orgasms help you sleep. It’s never been proved in humans, even though everybody does it. So the complication of having some drug milieu on that—who knows how it complicates things? It could be anything from simple muscle relaxation to getting your brain into a state that resembles stage one sleep or stage two sleep. You’re kind of priming yourself. It totally makes sense that masturbation might help you fall asleep.

Maybe it’s a British thing: We binge a lot, culturally. Are we still waking up drunk with that alcohol myopia in tow?
It's possible. I mean, it’s hard to say for sure because when we get people in the lab, we can’t get them as hammered as you guys get.

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Check out the Liberos Institute here.

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