Alcohol can lead to disappointing sexual encounters iStock

Both alcohol and marijuana can have a negative impact on sexual encounters, although in different ways. Scientists have now compared how sexual experiences are influenced by the use of these two drugs and whether they lead to unsafe practices.

Many studies have in the past hinted that alcohol-use was a risk factor in unsafe sex. As marijuana becomes legal in a greater number of US states, and alcohol remains one of the most widely available psychoactive substances, researchers from New York University wanted to assess psychosocial and physical sexual experiences and sexual risk behaviour associated with these drugs.

The study, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviors, suggests that both drugs lead to people losing inhibition and increase the likelihood of unsafe sexual encounters, but they come with different sets of physical and psychosocial problems.

Facilitating sex and regret

The scientists studied 24 adult participants who had recently engaged in sex after using marijuana. They surveyed them on a range of psychosocial issues, asking them about the context before the sexual encounter, the interactions with the partner, the perceived attractiveness of self and others, whether they were disinhibited or felt regret afterwards.

The main effect of both drugs was to produce a lack of inhibition in people, making them feel more confident and attractive. However, alcohol was more strongly associated with being outgoing than cannabis, which facilitated connections with potential sexual partners.

In contrast, some marijuana users said that what facilitated sex was the fact the drug was illegal, because people ended up smoking in intimate, private spaces - places where sex was more likely to occur.

cannabis smokers
Cannabis has negative effects on sex, but not the same as alcohol Getty Images

More problematic for alcohol perhaps, is the fact that many participants reported feeling regret after sex. They were on average more dissatisfied than marijuana smokers. This may be explained by the fact they were less 'selective' than those who used cannabis to choose a partner, often having sex with someone they would not have chosen when sober, or with someone they did not know.

"It wasn't surprising that alcohol use reportedly led to less post-sex satisfaction than marijuana," says NYU professor Dr. Palamar. "Participants reported feelings of regret more frequently after sex on alcohol, but compared to alcohol they generally didn't report poor judgement after using marijuana."

Physical problems and increased health risk

The participants were also asked questions about their physical experience of sex under the influence of alcohol or marijuana. Topics discussed with the researchers included sexual dysfunction, sensations, duration and intensity of sex, and orgasm.

With both drugs, participants experienced problems although not of the same kind. Women who had used cannabis were more likely to experience vaginal dryness while men often reported erectile dysfunction after drinking.

And when it came to negative health consequences, both drugs increased the likelihood of people engaging in risky sexual behaviour, such as having unprotected sex. This trend was more significant for those who consumed alcohol, but it was also largely present among cannabis smokers.

"More research is needed to continue to study sexual effects of recreational drugs to inform prevention to ensure that users and potential users of these drugs are aware of sexual effects associated with use," concludes Palamar.