Alcohol “…provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance” said Shakespeare, but was he right? It is common belief that alcohol helps us lose our inhibitions and can also act as an aphrodisiac (sometimes!). But it’s not often thought of as a performance enhancer in the bedroom. I refer you to “brewers droop”, the age-old nickname for temporary erectile dysfunction induced by alcohol.
The notion of too much alcohol as a passion killer is backed up by anecdotal and scientific evidence, but this doesn’t seem to dampen the media fascination with it as a libido enhancer. Is there any truth behind the notion that a couple of pints can really make you a better lover or is this just another “sexy” science story?
There is a significant body of research that suggests alcohol is associated with heightened sexual response (increased arousal and enhanced orgasm) and loosening of sexual inhibitions. Historically, alcohol also has a long association with romance and sex in terms of advertising. On the other hand, alcohol is linked with an increase in risky sexual behaviours, which can result in unwanted pregnancy and sexual transmitted diseases. Given these opposing effects, why do media articles tend to focus on the positive association between alcohol and sex, and what do the research studies behind the media stories tell us?
A recent story in the Independent reported on the claims made by a new book called the “The Married Sex Solution”. Sex expert Dr Kat Van Kirk believes that drinking beer can lead to four distinct improvements in the sexual experience for males: (1) delayed ejaculation, (2) enhanced libido and more intense erections, (3) increased sexual stamina and (4) that beer can help “your overall health” and thus make you less “sluggish in sex”. Interestingly, the only point to reference a peer reviewed research article is the third – that “alcohol improves sexual stamina”.
A study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology reports on a meta-analysis of 13 studies looking at cardiovascular risk and beer consumption. The findings suggest a J-shaped curve, suggesting a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in those who drink 55g of beer a day or less. It is important to note that this study did not actually measure sexual stamina, instead reduced cardiovascular risk was taken as a proxy. Also, it is not fully clear what “grams of alcohol” means here. If the measure reflects pure ethanol, 55g of beer is equivalent to approximately 7 units or 3 and a half pints of fairly weak beer per day. This seems like a lot of alcohol to be consumed each day!
An article in The Telegraph reported on a 2009 study conducted by the Western Australia’s Keogh Institute for Medical Research. This study examined the impact of alcohol use on male erectile dysfunction. The Telegraph article did not provide a link to a peer reviewed article, but I found a study on this published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. It collected information from 1,580 men on erectile function, alcohol, and tobacco use. The Telegraph reported that the men who drank a moderate amount of alcohol reported 30% fewer erectile problems than non-drinkers. The article interprets this finding as a “favourable association” between moderate drinkers and erectile function.
The authors of the research paper indicate that none of the reported associations between drinking status and erectile function were “statistically significant” until cardiovascular disease and smoking status were controlled for in analyses. It is also important to remember that the study used self-report measures of alcohol consumption and erectile dysfunction, meaning any associations observed are dependent on the ability and willingness of participants to accurately report their alcohol use and erectile problems
A third study reported in The Independent this year looked at whether alcohol can boost women’s sex drives. The study showed that following moderate alcohol consumption, levels of testosterone increased in women, but not men. This might be evidence of alcohol increasing the libido of women via a temporary surge in the male sex hormone. Despite being reported in The Independent this year, the research in question appears to come from a study published in Nature by Alko (a large Finnish alcohol retailer) in 1994.
The research itself is a one-page report on an experimental study where men and women were given either an alcoholic beverage or a non-alcoholic juice, and hormone levels were measured (although it is not clear how). When controlling for contraceptive use and menstrual cycle (which affects hormone levels) alcohol increased testosterone compared with the placebo in women, but not men.
There are a number of methodological questions that cannot be answered from the information in this short report – did the participants know if they were receiving an alcoholic or placebo beverage? In what conditions were participants tested? However, for me the biggest question is why would the media report on a study conducted over 20 years ago, which is a considerable amount of time in the fast moving world of scientific research?
Interestingly, the publication of the article in The Independent coincided with a press release for a new vodka by a company called Alko-plus. (It is not clear whether this company is affiliated with Alko). In the press release, the vodka is specifically aimed at women, with claims made regarding the capability of alcohol to increase female libido: “Hey Gals: Put New Meaning Into Your July 4th Fireworks; Alko-Plus Creates ‘Lust Vodka’ that it says Increases Female Sexual Desire”.
Reviewing these articles and the corresponding research studies has made me think about the issues involved in studying sex and alcohol and in reporting and interpreting research findings. There are many complex individual differences in the psychological and physiological factors that influence the response to both sex and alcohol. The association between sex and alcohol is dependent upon alcohol dosage, alcohol expectancy, and measurement of alcohol and sexual behaviour.
In terms of dose, there may be an optimal amount of alcohol to induce these positive effects on sexual arousal or performance. Once past that threshold the effects may be more negative. This notion is supported by the biphasic nature of alcohol, with stimulant effects as blood alcohol concentration increases, but depressant effects as it decreases again.
Alcohol expectancy can also impact sexual behaviour during intoxication. Simply believing that drinking alcohol increases sexual arousal may lead to actual arousal during intoxication. Expectancies about alcohol consumption are a key element of research examining the effects of alcohol on any behaviour. It is important that research determines the impact of both the direct pharmacological effects and expectation.
Finally, the way alcohol use is measured can impact on the association with sexual behaviour. The administration of alcohol in an experimental study versus self-report of alcohol use by drinkers is likely to yield different study findings. Furthermore, it is very difficult to directly measure sexual behaviour. Most studies have to rely on self-report of sexual arousal and performance or use proxy measures such as cardiovascular and physiological function.
Accurate representation of research evidence on alcohol and sex may not yield a “sexy” headline. However, clear and honest reporting of research findings and at least a link to the original published study should allow the reader to make up their own mind when faced with the scientific evidence.
In this case alcohol’s ability to increase prowess in the bedroom does not appear to be as straightforward as presented in the media. The link between sex and alcohol is a complex one and best interpreted when a clear and balanced picture is available, rather than a “sexed-up” story.
Dr Sally Adams is a lecturer in health psychology at the University of Bath. Her research examines the cognitive and behavioural mechanisms underlying alcohol and tobacco use. Find her on Twitter @SallyScientist
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