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A 19-year-old woman offers this analysis of her experience having sex on alcohol compared to marijuana: "I feel like when you’re drunk you can’t remember what happened the next day. But when I’m high, I remember everything."
Or this, from a 33-year-old man: "I want to cook the person something to eat [after sex] when I’m high. When I’m drunk, it’s like, ‘I’m out of here.' Or, 'Get away from me.'"
Both quotations come from a research study exploring the ways that sex feels different when you're stoned compared to when you're drunk. Yes, it's a real — though small — study, recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Why, you may ask, does this matter?
Marijuana use and acceptance is on the rise. The majority of U.S. adults support its legalization and four states and the District of Columbia have already legalized recreational use of pot. At least 25 states have legalized medical marijuana or decriminalized it for recreational use. In a November ballot question, Massachusetts residents will decide whether to legalize pot in this state.
"Since the landscape is changing, and marijuana continues to increase in popularity," writes Joseph Palamar of NYU's Langone Medical Center, "research is needed to continue to examine if and how marijuana use may influence risk for unsafe sexual behavior. A novel method is to compare the psychosocial and physical sexual experiences of marijuana to the experiences related to the most prevalent intoxicating substance — alcohol."
In a preliminary study of 24 heterosexual men and women, ages 18-35, recruited through Craigslist, Palamar came up with some interesting — though by no means definitive — findings. Of course, interviews with people recalling sex under the influence are awfully subjective. Still, what emerges are some distinct patterns. Taken together, they suggest that alcohol may fuel more unsafe sex, but that's only if this very early data is borne out.
Sex on pot seemed, in general, less likely to leave a trail of regret compared to alcohol. Indeed, the researchers write: "The most commonly reported feeling after sex on alcohol was regret."
Marijuana, however, triggered more wariness, which may lead to a more discerning approach to choosing a sexual partner. There are physical differences too. Alcohol tends to make you feel more numb; marijuana can make you feel dry, users report.
One of the most interesting findings, Palamar said in an interview, is that the very illegality of marijuana might help facilitate positive sexual encounters. Several study participants put it this way, Palamar said: "Because it's illegal, it's kind of a risky, fun situation. It makes it kind of bad, but in ... a good way."
Wary On Pot
Additionally, he says, an element of paranoia or self-consciousness may seep in with pot that slows sex down, or even hits "a stopping point," before things get too far, as one participant put it. "If there's a guy hitting on you, a stranger, you might be more wary," Palamar said. "With alcohol, you let your guard down."
Both men and women in the study describe going for atypical sexual partners on alcohol — more instances of sex with strangers, for example. On marijuana, you tend to know the person you're getting intimate with, Palamar says: "You might not want to make your escape in the morning, like you might on alcohol."
That's why, Palamar says, "dating-wise, alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs." The perils of drinking and sexual assault, particularly on college campuses, are becoming more widely known. A 2015 report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that "about 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape."
Dr. Mark Green, an addiction psychiatrist based in Belmont, Mass., said there's very little research on the neurobiology of marijuana and sexual behavior. Still, he said, the study seemed to reflect certain general characteristics of the two drugs.
With alcohol, Green said, people become disinhibited. "It makes people impulsive. But it also allows people to get over their performance anxiety and explore sex. A lot of people might not have sex without alcohol," he says. (One male study participant called alcohol "liquid courage.")
But, Green notes, the more you drink and get impaired, the more you tend to misinterpret people's cues. "People think they are being suave, sophisticated and sexual and their partner is into it as well. But they ignore the fact that they're impaired, and their partner may be highly ambivalent, and not giving fully informed consent. On alcohol, you can really misread the signs. Even worse, alcohol increases violence and forced sex can occur.”
Compare that to marijuana: "Think of paranoia," Green says. "What paranoia means is that you over-read the negative signs. In those cases when there's not fully informed consent, the paranoia-enhancing aspect of pot makes people pick this out — this is not cool, the person is not comfortable. In this way alcohol and pot work on opposite ends of the continuum."
A More Sensual Experience
I asked Lexington, Mass.-based sex therapist Aline Zoldbrod about all this. She said in general, "most people have a more sensual experience on marijuana, I think. Music can be more powerful, touch can be more powerful. But pre-existing anxieties about issues like body image could be exacerbated by marijuana. Alcohol tends to loosen all the inhibitions in a more wide-ranging way."
As far as the study, Zoldbrod emphasized it's very small, and mostly included young people, not in long-term relationships. Still, she offered her general thoughts, here edited and condensed:
•[On alcohol] People had sex with others they would not have chosen when sober. They reported blackouts and not being able to remember what happened during sex. Not so with the marijuana users.
• The sex people had on marijuana was more compassionate, more sensual. The high people got from alcohol was more of a sense of being numb.
•Alcohol is a better social lubricant, as the authors put it. Marijuana does not seem to have this effect. People get more into their own minds, less likely to approach people they did not know. You get lost in your own thoughts, your own associations.
•People felt more attractive on both drugs, but especially with alcohol.
• There were various sexual dysfunction side effects with both, but the little vignettes where people were describing their sexual experiences, the marijuana was more of a sexual enhancement...less of a [one-night stand] experience.
Overall, says Palamar, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU, more data is needed so that adults can gain a better understanding of what's in store for them when they use various drugs in sexual settings. Also, he said, the study did not look at other key issues, such as condom use or date rape.
Also, he stresses, the research shouldn't be interpreted as advocating one drug over another. "I don't want anyone to read this and say we're promoting marijuana — we're not. We just want people to know about the sexual effects."
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