This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 16 table of contents.

Drug Effects on Sexual Arousal

The role of alcohol in reducing sexual inhibition is notorious. Alcohol is primarily a depressant. It affects the cerebral cortex before the deep forebrain structures, and the function of the cerebral cortex is mostly inhibitory. Depressing it with alcohol "dis-inhibits" animal-like behaviors controlled by the limbic system, notably sex and aggression.

Alcohol also leads to a distinctive mental state—researcher Claude Steele called it alcohol myopia—that makes future events fade into insignificance while present stimuli dominate attention. This is perhaps why alcohol is notorious for producing irresponsible sexual behavior. One AIDS counselor described alcohol as "the single most important risk factor in AIDS" because people who normally would protect themselves sometimes engage in unprotected sex when drunk.

How does alcohol affect sexual response?

Sexual inhibitions may be loosened by alcohol, but male sexual responsiveness is not improved. Farkas and Rosen (1976) used a penile plethysmograph, a pressure-sensitive ring, to measure the erectile response of young men who watched erotic films after consuming mixtures of orange juice and tasteless alcohol. As alcohol levels went up, response to the films first increased slightly (perhaps showing the anxiety-reducing effects of alcohol at low dosages) then went down. At very high levels of intoxication none of the men could sustain an erection. As Shakespeare put it, alcohol "provokes the desire, but takes away the performance." (Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 1)

How does marijuana affect testosterone levels in mice?

Marijuana also releases sexual inhibitions (Koff, 1974) but does so through a chemical effect different from alcohol. Experiments with mice show that a dose of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, produces a six-fold rise in testosterone within a few minutes (Greenberg, 1981) then a fall in testosterone after 20 minutes. Kolodny, Masters, and Johnson (1979) wrote:

What did Kolodny, Masters, and Johnson report?

In our own research with more than 1,000 men and women aged eighteen to thirty-five who had used this drug as an accompaniment to sex, 83 percent of the men and 81 percent of the women said that marihuana improved their sexual experience. (p.412)

Why was research on marijuana and sex halted?

Normally, this kind of finding would be subjected to closer scrutiny through controlled research, but not in this case. A government-funded proposal for controlled experimentation on marijuana and sexual response was halted when legislators heard about details of the research. Part of the research involved showing arousing filmstrips to male volunteers, who had smoked marijuana or a placebo, while penile response was measured with a pressure-sensitive ring. Headlines ridiculed government sponsorship of "pot and sex research." Under pressure from Congress, the federal grant was withdrawn (Holden, 1976). According to Masters, Johnson, and Kolodny (1982), this was the first time in United States history when a scientific project, already approved and funded, was stopped due to public ridicule.


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