Booze and sex – just a media tease

It “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance”, said Shakespeare, but was he right? It is common belief that alcohol helps us lose inhibitions and can also (sometimes) be an aphrodisiac. But it’s not often thought of as a performance enhancer in the bedroom.

I refer to “brewer’s 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 truth behind the notion that a few pints can make you a better lover or is this just another “sexy” science story?

There is a significant body of research suggesting alcohol is associated with heightened sexual response and loosening of sexual inhibitions. Historically, alcohol has a long association with romance and sex in advertising.

On the other hand, it is linked with an increase in risky sexual behaviour, which can result in unwanted pregnancy and sexually 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 Independent story reported on claims made by the book: The Married Sex Solution, in which sex expert Kat van Kirk says drinking beer can improve men’s sexual experience in four ways:

  • Delayed ejaculation;
  • Enhanced libido and more intense erections;
  • Increased sexual stamina; and
  • The assertion that beer can help “your overall health” and thus make you less “sluggish in sex”.

Interestingly, the only point of reference a peer-reviewed research article makes 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, which may mean a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in those who drink 55g of beer a day or less.

But this study did not measure sexual stamina; 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 about seven units, or more than 1½ litres, of fairly weak beer a day, which seems a lot.

The Telegraph reported on a 2009 study by Western Australia’s Keogh Institute for Medical Research, which examined the effect of alcohol on erectile dysfunction.

The Telegraph article did not provide a link to a peer-reviewed resource, but I found a study on this published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. It collected information from 1?580 men about erectile function, alcohol and tobacco use.

The Telegraph said the men who drank a moderate amount of alcohol reported 30% fewer erectile problems than nondrinkers. The article interprets this finding as a “favourable association” between moderate drinkers and erectile function.

The research paper’s authors indicate none of the reported associations between drinking status and erectile function were “statistically significant” until cardiovascular disease and smoking status were controlled in analysis.

But the study used self-reporting measures of alcohol consumption and erectile dysfunction, therefore any associations observed are dependent on participants’ willingness to report their alcohol use and erectile problems accurately.

A third study reported in the Independent this year looked at whether alcohol can boost women’s sex drives. It showed that, following moderate alcohol consumption, levels of testosterone increased in women, but in not men.

This might be evidence of alcohol increasing women’s libido through a temporary surge in the male sex hormone. Despite being reported in the Independent this year, the research seems to come from a study in Nature by Alko, a large Finnish alcohol retailer, in 1994.

The research reports on an experimental study in which men and women were given an alcoholic beverage or a nonalcoholic placebo, and hormone levels were measured (it is not clear how this was done). When controlling for contraceptive use and menstrual cycles, alcohol-increased testosterone compared with the placebo in women, but not in men.

A number of methodological questions cannot be answered from the information in this short report. Did the participants know whether they were receiving an alcoholic or placebo beverage? Under what conditions were participants tested?

For me the biggest question is why the media would report on a study conducted more than 20 years ago, a considerable length of time in fast-moving 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 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 made me think about studying sex and alcohol and reporting and interpreting research findings.

There are many complex differences in the psychological and physiological factors influencing the response to sex and alcohol. The association between sex and alcohol depends on 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.

Alcohol expectancy can also affect sexual behaviour during intoxication. 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 effect of both the direct pharmacological effects and expectation.

Finally, how alcohol use is measured can affect the association with sexual behaviour. The administration of alcohol in an experimental study versus self-reporting on alcohol use by drinkers is likely to yield different study findings.

Furthermore, it is difficult to measure sexual behaviour directly. Most studies have to rely on self-reporting 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, but clear and honest reporting of research findings and a link to the original published study allow the reader to make up their own mind.

In this case, alcohol’s ability to increase prowess in the bedroom does not seem as straightforward as presented in the media.

The link between sex and alcohol is complex and best interpreted when a clear, balanced picture is available, rather than a “sexed-up” story. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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Sally Adams
Sally Adams works from University of Bath . Assistant Professor researching the cognitive effects of alcohol and tobacco. Views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of the University of Bath Sally Adams has over 1054 followers on Twitter.

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