No. No use. Impossible. The will but not the way. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Try again. No. The booze, it must be. See Macbeth. One last try. No, no use. Not this evening, I’m afraid.
--George Orwell, Keep The Aspidistra Flying
From the time of Shakespeare, wits have noted the paradoxical effects of imbibing strong drink and the resultant effects on sexual performance. As the Porter notes of drink in Macbeth, “It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance,” and therein lies the rub for those who’d put a bottle of wine or tumbler of whiskey up as an aphrodisiac: by the way it impacts the body, booze may make you want to get it on, but it may keep your freak flag flying at half-mast.
The Brain is the Sexiest Organ
In moderation, alcohol can enhance sexuality and sexual performance. A couple of drinks can do wonders; at a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .05 (about two standard drinks in an hour for a 160lb man or a 140lb woman), alcohol starts to do a little jig with the brain. In particular, the frontal lobe, the portion of the brain tasked with decision making and impulse control, gets disrupted. Sometimes, this leads to bad choices; sometimes it leads to a lowering of inhibitions and a night of consensual racy fun. But as you drink more and your BAC rises, you reach a state called Alcohol Myopia, which leads to a search for immediate gratification of impulses and desires, consequences be damned.
Moreover, the Amygdala, the portion of the brain charged with warning you about danger, starts to slow down at about .05 BAC. Coupled with the disruption of the frontal lobe, more than a few drinks in an hour can create a perfect storm, leading to immediate desire, action on that desire and post-coital regret. Toss in the Cerebellum’s job -- primarily tasked with preserving memory and, perhaps more important for our purposes, controlling movement and coordination, and your suave moves start to fall apart around a BAC of .08, making you more clumsy than sexy.
But it is small amounts of booze that lead to alcohol’s questionable aphrodisiac reputation. A couple of drinks, consumed convivially, and with water on the side, can indeed be a useful and helpful social lubricant, lowering inhibitions and lending a sense of adventure to the proceedings, while leading to sense of relaxation in both partners and a lack of self-consciousness. But it can also make you stupid, especially as you drink more, and studies have shown that even moderate drinking leads to a rise in risky sexual behavior, including having unsafe sex and going home with someone you’d normally pass on.
Even worse, studies have consistently shown that there’s a sort of placebo effect working here -- subjects who’ve been told they’re consuming booze when they have not actually believe themselves to be drunk, and demonstrate decreased inhibitions. Anthropologists call this phenomenon the “think-drink” effect, and it shows our ideas about how alcohol affects our sexuality and guides our behavior more than actually being intoxicated; it could be the belief that alcohol makes you more relaxed and experimental rather than the actual effect of drinking that gets you there.
But assume for the moment that you’re in a stable relationship, either happily coupled or with a consistent friend with benefits. Surely a few drinks in that scenario can only make for better sex? A few, yes. More than a few, not hardly.
Warnings for Men
First, some good news. Because alcohol depresses the central nervous system, moderate consumption can have one terrific, tangible benefit for guys (and their partners). Alcohol slows down pretty much all of the body’s systems, and one impact is that, in moderation, it can delay men’s orgasms, leading to longer performance. But, like all things with alcohol and sex, moderating the intake is key here, because there is a line, and when that line is crossed, orgasm is not delayed by alcohol, but by a total failure to achieve or maintain erection, a lack of sensation or arousal, and lower pleasurability and intensity of orgasm if he can get there.
Booze is a vasodilator, meaning that it expands blood vessels. That sounds great for sex, but it reality, not so much. The expanded blood vessels are a two-way street, meaning that any blood that runs into fill them up can also slide right back out. So while the spirit may indeed be willing after a mess of cocktails, the body frequently can’t keep up with the spirit’s demands.
Even worse, chronic and acute alcohol consumption have both been shown to decrease testosterone production. This is primarily an issue for problem drinkers, but it can work in smaller ways on any given night when a drinker has crossed the line from giddy to hammered.
Moreover, alcohol is well documented as a cause of dehydration, and you need water in your system to get wood.
Warnings for Women
First, some good news. For many women, moderate consumption of alcohol has been shown to truly increase desire. The theory is that, unlike in men, alcohol stimulates production of two hormones, testosterone and estradiol, that have been linked to women feeling randy. But, again, there is a line and it is easily crossed. As BAC rises, dehydration and vasodilation can lay down a double whammy on the ladies, leading first to vaginal dryness and decreased blood flow to the genitals, and then to delayed or decreased orgasms.
On the flipside, some women report that with increased BAC, they feel more interested in sex, but physiological studies that measure arousal do not show this effect, so it may be a case of alcohol’s brain impacts coupled with the “think-drink” effect that creates this notion.
The Crux of the Matter
Booze can make things better in the bedroom for everyone. A little bit of booze. Too many drinks can lead to less fun, bad choices and a wrecked night behind closed doors. So, consume in moderation, down some water with your whiskey and get your freak on.
A Classic Cocktail to Set the Mood
This drink is credited to Ada Coleman, head bartender at The Savoy in 1925. It’s a complex, elegant sipper and one should be enough to stimulate some conversation and get you in the mood.
1.5 oz. London Dry Gin
1.5 oz. Sweet Vermouth
2 dashes Fernet Branca
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice. Stir until ice cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist, expressing the oils over the glass.
This was originally published in the February issue of Birth.Movies.Death.