How might recreational drugs benefit our sex lives and long term health?
While dating a man who seemed happy making a meal of a single carrot pulled straight from the ground, I scoured his kitchen one night for something resembling chocolate. After finding a Ziplock baggie of brownies in his freezer, I asked if I could have one to sate my less virtuous appetites.
“Sure,” he said. “But they’re full of hash.”
Hashish is up to three times more potent than conventionally grown marijuana. I’d last tried it thirty years earlier while trekking in Nepal and spent half the night watching the room spin. I ate half a brownie. A few hours later I wasn’t so much having sex with this man as catapulting into the star studded universe on a magic carpet. I had an orgasm so powerful you might have thought, from the sound of it, I was being stabbed with an ice pick. I don’t miss the man but I sure miss his brownies.
Since then I’ve been experimenting regularly with THC and its effects on my sexual response. The drug is legal in my home state and I’ve tried various delivery methods, from tinctures to e-cigarettes and gummy bites that taste like Haribo dipped in skunk pee. Whatever the form one thing I’ve discovered is, though I become rather brainless on THC, I feel highly sexually aroused. I know people who get energized by THC and tackle yard work. Or people who can have coherent conversations while stoned. But not me. Pot’s effects, I’ve gathered, are about as unique to each body as a fingerprint.
Photo by Dimitri Bong on Unsplash
Then the New York Times ran the article “Cannabis for Better Sex? Here’s What the Science Says”, confirming what I’d discovered by accident; THC is reported by a majority of women, and men as well, to enhance their sexual experience. Most research into the relationship between THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot, and sexual pleasure has been carried out by survey alone. But the findings are significant. One 2019 study published in Sexual Medicine found that women who used cannabis prior to sex had twice the odds of a satisfactory orgasm as those who didn’t imbibe. Women who used cannabis on a regular basis also reported twice the rate of satisfying orgasms compared to those with infrequent use, suggesting a possible benefit over time.
The effect of THC on sexual response is dependent upon delivery method and dosage. Anything having to pass through the digestive tract will slow results, meaning you might need to watch a few episodes of House of the Dragon before you get it on. Edibles also take a long time to stop working. Ingest too much of an edible and you might have a really bad night, not only intensely uncomfortable but unable to even have sex. And you can’t sober up quicker by going for a brisk walk. Inhaled THC has the most rapid onset making it easier to go low and slow. It’s a fine line between an elevated experience and oblivion. If I get too high I suffer from a form of body dysmorphia, where I feel like the Pillsbury Doughboy and just want to curl into a ball and hide under the covers.
The type of THC strain may also have an effect on one’s arousal. Indica is generally recognized to be more relaxing and Sativa more stimulating. There are any number of combinations of the two and their specific terpenes, the compounds responsible for the aroma and flavor of a strain, can also affect the quality of the high. Fortunately, pot shops tend to employ cannabis brainiacs who seem to understand the varieties of recreational marijuana as well as PhD botanists understand their chosen species. I tip them well.
Do I need pot to have good sex? One commenter to the NYT piece accused pot users of being unable to appropriately manage their stress, choosing instead to hide behind the psychoactive effects of drugs to enjoy themselves. She writes: “I hope one day we shift our paradigm and instead of advocating for mood altering substances…we choose to recognize, heal and resolve that which is at the source of our anxiety, depression, and low sex drive.”
My immediate reaction was to roll my eyes. I’m not going to “heal and resolve” the threat of nuclear annihilation alongside sea level rise, not to mention MAGA Republicans, before I end up turning to compost. There are many ways to foster relaxation and joy amidst our precarious lives, but I don’t feel particularly guilty wanting to fast track a little mindless bliss on occasion, as long as we’re not doing long term damage to ourselves or our partners. Which is more than I can say for the planet. So I don’t need pot to have good sex. But I like it.
What I think the commenter is also missing is that cannabis can foster emotional intimacy that might otherwise be difficult to access. A man I dated who could never have a coherent conversation with me about his feelings became loving and connected under the influence of THC. It was as though the drug allowed his body to become the mouthpiece of his affection. This carried over into the morning, creating a sense of calm and contentment between us that quelled my own anxieties about him. At least temporarily. It certainly didn’t create true intimacy and lasting love. But having sex while stoned made us into something beautiful and transcendent with each other, if only for a while.
Let’s not forget that many of us have sex on a regular basis under the influence of the legal intoxicant alcohol. The irony of sex and alcohol is that it lowers the inhibitions that might get in the way of seduction, but it’s effects often mute our sexual response. As Shakespeare hath said, “It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.”
Alcohol can lower circulating levels of testosterone, inhibiting nitric oxide levels, the key element in erections. It also messes with the central nervous system, slowing down signals between the brain and genitals. Having sex with a man who has had too much to drink is almost always a disappointment for us both. If I have one drink too many, getting to the point of orgasm can feel like running up a high speed escalator going the opposite direction.
I also have a big problem with the role alcohol plays in our sexual transactions, a social lubricant which can too easily affect the ability of those drinking to consent with their full faculties. Research has tried to find an association between THC and sexual assault, but it is so often combined with alcohol, there’s no clear evidence that THC alone has any role in sexual aggression.
What about other drugs? “Psychedelic Psychology” became the overlap of LSD and psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms), and to a lesser extent MDMA (the active molecule in Ecstasy), with the scientific inquiry into how these “trips” affect our state of mind over time. Michael Pollan in his excellent book, How to Change Your Mind, traces the history and effects of psychedelics and their undeserved demonization. Medical experiments with hallucinogens were severely curtailed during the mid 20th Century when these drugs became a political, not a health, issue. The people using them and extoling their virtues were posing a real threat to the American capitalist war machine.
But before the ban, and now recently, people discovered emotional and sexual healing through psychedelics. One woman in the 1950’s recorded the dissolution of her “frigidity” through supervised treatments with LSD. Even without a sexual block, LSD is reported to stimulate “ego dissolution” which, if that results in letting go of performance, body and relationship anxieties, might just be what the future of sex needs in order to sustain us.
Pollan also describes the theories behind why these drugs affect our long term emotional outlook. It appears that psychedelics can smooth out the neural grooves of doom we dig into our brains over time which are theorized to be the source of a perseverating mind. These improvements can be permanent. A similar thing occurs with antidepressants taken on a daily basis. However, prescription antidepressants have side many effects, which include difficulty achieving orgasm.
I’ve used MDMA half a dozen times, and each time my baseline happiness has improved. I also took Prozac for several years with a significant improvement in mood, at the detriment of my orgasm. Having experienced a greater sense of joy and wellbeing under the influence of both drugs, I can’t say which is more responsible for the fact I don’t take antidepressants any longer and feel quite fine without them. But I do still use MDMA when I have the opportunity. The warmth and love I feel for the people around me and the world in general are feelings I can more easily access now.
Mushrooms tend to accentuate the current state of the user and some have told me they get a bit moody and contemplative if things are not going well in their lives. The last time I drank mushroom tea, my mother had just died so I spent a good part of the night sobbing. The one time I took LSD I laughed so hard I thought my tonsils would fall out (and I can attest to the benefit of Kegel exercises), then spent a few hours with images of my boyfriend prancing through history as a knight, a castle lord, and a character from Shaft wearing a turtleneck and bellbottoms. On LSD the orgasm wasn’t easy to achieve but getting there was intensely and profoundly pleasurable. Whenever you’re combining sex and drugs, be sure you feel safe with your partner if you need to turn into a hedgehog. Or accidentally wet your pants.
As for the highly addictive drugs like cocaine, heroine and methamphetamine, after working for years in emergency rooms, I’ve seen the results of their destruction and trust me, facial scabs, broken teeth and skin abscesses are decidedly not sexy.
I’m glad these recreational drugs are losing their stigma and science is tapping into their potential to heal our battered brains and heighten our sexual experience. Never have I ever become an insufferable bitch on THC or the others, unlike the way I’ve acted and the things I’ve said after too much wine. Besides, a good orgasm is a gateway to better productivity and, boy, does it make me nicer to everyone in my orbit. That has got to be good for the planet.