By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
When people talk about sex it is fascinating how many times alcohol comes into the conversation. Now you could say there is nothing surprising in that. After all, alcohol has been spurring sexual desire for as long as records began. The Greeks found it particularly useful.
Plato’s philosophical dialogue ‘The Symposium’, written after 385 BC, takes the form of a group of speeches, some light, some heavy, given by a group of men including Socrates at a ‘symposium’ or a wine drinking gathering (the Greek verb ‘sympotein’ means "to drink together") at a house in Athens.
The theme of the drinking party was to talk about the nature of human love and it was so well done that historians centuries afterwards used the text to learn about sexual behaviour in ancient Greece. And in the middle of it all, the wine was flowing freely.
You could say we have been following their lead ever since. Sex and alcohol go together like, well, bread and butter. In the normal course of events there is nothing wrong with that.
Take two consenting adults who have a few drinks, engage in sex, fulfil each other’s bodily needs in a mutually respectful way and you have something that is both a good and positive thing. But while alcohol will fuel desire even in the most inauspicious of situations, not all sexual encounters are mutually fulfilling.
What about a person who gets drunk regularly and has sex with a different stranger each time? Now that might seem like the height of liberal living. But what if the person in question always feels dirty and guilty afterwards?
Now we are into the area of repetitive behaviour, low self esteem and the potential for depressive symptoms. The only way the person can have sex is when they are blind drunk, a state in which they are an emotional cocktail: equal parts vulnerability, insulation from the physical experience, and little discrimination as to who they are having sex with.
And what about the person who, already in a relationship, becomes a sex nuisance after a few drinks, who demands of their partner that they satisfy their sexual need right here, right now, in a dizzingly varied selection of positions and role plays? It might sound like a fantasist’s dream but the demands are such that the person in question does not see that the relationship is crumbling before their eyes.
Or what about the person who is out for an evening and attracts a dream partner but who cannot perform sexually because they over-do it on alcohol? Or, alternatively, the person in an established relationship who needs a few drinks in order to have sex because they find the experience daunting? Or the person who finds sex, regardless of their gender, a submissive experience in which their desires are not met?
Sex, as defined by our culture, is one of the peaks of human experience; the one act that offers complete satisfaction; the one that supposedly never disappoints, no matter how bad it is; the one human way of relating to another that by-passes all the words necessary to communicate feelings.
And yet, the therapy room tells another story. Yes, for some sex can be fun, or exciting, or completely satisfying, or all of these things. But for others it can be so intimidating that they need a stiff drink before even contemplating it. Or it can involve such a degree of exposure, in the emotional as well as the physical sense, that it can be overwhelming. Or, if circumstances are not right, it can bring feelings of insecurity, violation or exploitation, potentially causing emotional wounds that take a long time to heal. Or it can confront some with their own sense of disempowerment or personal inadequacy. Some even find that no matter how often or in whatever variety of ways they do it they are still left with a sense of not being satisfied.
This is because sex is a conundrum in the sense of an intricate and complicated puzzle. It not only has the potential to satisfy but the potential to confuse. It not only has the potential to confirm our identity but to undermine it also. And it can not only make us feel confident in terms of our sexual gender but at times doubt it too.
Sex is a human act that, despite what TV or magazines will say, is an amazing experience for some but not for everyone. It is one that brings us to a very fundamental place in human experience in which we can find either greatness or guilt or very little feeling at all.
Unless we are pretty confident about whom we are and who the person is we are engaging bodily with, we tend to get around these uncertainties with a drink or two. Yes, alcohol undoubtedly fans the flames of our desire. But it quietens our fears also.