Sex on drugs – let’s talk about consent

I think it’s fair to say most of us have erased our awkward ‘sex ed’ lessons from our minds. Though some uncomfortable memories persist – rolling a condom down a blue, silicone dildo under the watchful eye of a teacher, for one – I, like many of us, have no recollection of being taught the intricacies of consent. 

The extent of most young Brits’ consent education was being shown a cartoon that explains why you wouldn’t give an unconscious person a cup of tea – with the “tea” being a metaphor for sex, of course. 

But people drink. People do drugs. People also have sex. Why aren’t the complexities of consent under the influence being taught? Sex on drugs is not as black and white as “yes” or “no”. Context is crucial, so let’s talk about it. 

Why do people have sex on drugs?

From “Spanish fly”, a stimulating chemical derived from blister beetles to bufotenine, a psychoactive ingredient from the skin of the Bufo toad, humans have been using mind-altering substances to enhance sexual pleasure for millennia.

Sex and drugs have been intertwined throughout history, but how are drugs shaping sex in modern society? In 2019, a study was published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine that analysed Global Drug Survey data to assess the use of licit and illicit substances in combination with sex. The researchers found the three most commonly used drugs alongside sex were alcohol, cannabis, and MDMA, respectively.  

Many people drink alcohol as a way to relax, lower inhibitions, and facilitate sex. Cannabis and sex also go hand in hand. As a useful calming agent, cannabis may alleviate performance anxiety in some people and may help others to have longer, stronger orgasms.

MDMA, often termed the ‘love drug’, is said to increase empathy and warmth towards a partner, as well as help to promote trust and bonding. MDMA is also being studied for its ability to heal trauma, which may help survivors of sexual abuse to fully enjoy sex. 

People even like to bring psychedelics into the bedroom. As substances that dissolve the ego, psychedelics may allow partners to surrender to the present moment and experience heightened sensations of pleasure. Even the late Timothy Leary once said that  “LSD is the most powerful aphrodisiac ever discovered by man.”

Much of our understanding of sex and drugs comes from anecdotal reports. There is very little scientific research into this topic that doesn’t take a risk-focussed approach – and with reason, too. There is robust evidence to show that drug use is associated with “impaired” sexual function and “risky” sexual behaviour.

However, one recent study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in 2020, has taken a deep dive into the diverse motivations behind combining drugs with sex. Participants across a range of gender and sexual identities reported that combining sex and drugs: 

  • Improves emotional connection
  • Heightens desire
  • Increases bodily sensations
  • Enhances both the experience of the drug and the sexual experience

In short, the study highlights that people don’t just combine sex and drugs because it feels nice physically. Sexual enhancement can also come from improving the emotional side of sex.

People don’t just combine sex and drugs because it feels nice physically. Sexual enhancement can also come from improving the emotional side of sex.

Sexuality also provides an important role in shaping motivations for sex-related drug use. Amongst the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community, the term “chemsex” is often used to describe the intentional use of drugs during sex, typically by men who have sex with other men. Common drugs include methamphetamine, mephedrone or GHB, which are often said to enhance or prolong sexual experiences.

Drug use is inextricably linked to queerness. LGBTQ adults are more than twice as likely to use illicit drugs than their heterosexual counterparts. Whilst there are many suspected reasons for this, some research has shown that LGBTQ people use drugs to help transform and enhance their experiences of gender, which often feeds into sexual behaviours and desires.

The sex-enhancing effects of drugs can be hugely beneficial to some people and their relationships. But, from a harm reduction standpoint, there is one crucial element to consider when combining these two practices. That being, how mind-altering substances might impact – or impede – our ability to consent to sex. There’s no denying that people like to have sex on drugs, but is it safe?

Negotiating sexual consent when under the influence is complicated. If two or more people are engaging in sexual activity and at least one of them is heavily intoxicated, there is a fine line between consensual sex and assault.

Even UK law surrounding intoxicated consent is a bit of a grey area and exclusively references intoxication by alcohol. As the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) states, a person “does not consent if they are incapacitated through drink…and does not need to be unconscious through drink to lose their capacity to consent.” 

In 2013, the Global Drug Survey began to collect data about sex, drugs, and consent. It was reported that out of 22,000 people, 20% had been taken advantage of while intoxicated and 14% believed that they had been given drugs or alcohol by someone who intended to take advantage of them. 

Whilst drugs may enhance a sexual experience, they can also incapacitate. This, in turn, could facilitate a perpetrator of sexual assault. To reduce harm to drug users, there is an obvious and urgent need to establish how drugs and sex can be consensually and safely combined.

Often, sex education programmes teach students the importance of consent from a very simplified angle – that being, you either say yes or no.

In her recent book, Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century, author and journalist Sophia Smith Galer recalls being told by a friend about a sex education lesson in which girls were told the dangers of intoxicated sex through the use of vision-distorting “drunk glasses”. 

“The point was to try to tell young women that they were incapable of making decisions if they were inebriated,” Galer writes, but “it emphasised to all those girls that it was their job to try to protect themselves, as opposed to it being a conversation about two people.”

This is just one of many examples of how the sex education system has failed us. Whilst this simplified image of sex can be useful when teaching the fundamental importance of consent, it overlooks the fact that sex – in real life – can be far more complicated and, thus, the consent conversation should be nuanced. 

We should be helping young people to understand that context matters, and having sex whilst under the influence isn’t inherently ‘wrong’. 

Here are just a handful of examples of how the context behind a sexual situation can influence a person’s ability to consent to sex on drugs: 

  • The nature of the relationship – familiarity and trust are key to safely having sex on drugs. Whether with a long-term partner or a one-night stand can affect intoxicated consent 
  • Where the sexual activity takes place – a person’s ability to consent to intoxicated sex might be different when at a party or festival, versus in the comfort of their own home
  • How they became intoxicated – if a person becomes intoxicated unwillingly, they are in no position to consent to sex
  • The type of drug consumed, and how much – different drugs incapacitate us in different ways, which can influence the context of consent. 

Going further, there are other, more systemic forces at play when it comes to consenting to sexual activities whilst on drugs. In particular, it is important to address the power dynamics when it comes to heterosexual sex. 

Much of the work of Catharine MacKinnon, an influential feminist scholar, draws upon the idea that men hold power in society. As MacKinnon puts it, “women/men is a distinction not just of difference, but of power and powerlessness.” Therefore, it is important to consider how women might be conditioned to this dichotomy of power, particularly when it comes to sex. 

As detailed in the aforementioned 2020 study, “drugs could enable a temporary release from the self-consciousness more likely to affect women.” The researchers then found that “participants who identified as women…often reflected retrospectively on whether drug-enhanced sex had led them to push their limits beyond what they felt comfortable with sober.” 

Both gender and sexuality can have a profound effect on a person’s motivation for using drugs during sex. All intoxicated sexual behaviours cannot be painted with the same brush; what is safe and consensual in one sexual dynamic may not be in another.

Despite the legal and ethical issues that arise when combining sex and drugs, sex-negative messaging only allows harmful behaviour to go unnoticed. So let’s talk about how it is possible to successfully negotiate consent under the influence.

One crucial element of consent is communication. Prior to taking any drugs, it is important to discuss boundaries and expectations for the experience. On the topic of sex on psychedelics, Cannaclusive co-founder Mary Pryor told High Times that “partners should get enthusiastic consent from partners before and during intimate engagements, noting that desires can change.” Consent can be withdrawn at any point; if this isn’t honoured, the act becomes sexual assault. 

Though, if the opportunity presents itself whilst already under the influence, partners may not be able to have sober, pre-coital discussions. The Global Drug Survey offers advice to people in this scenario, detailing three things to consider before engaging in sex under the influence. 

  1. Think about you – check in with yourself and ask yourself how drugs might be making you think differently about sex. Are you doing what you want to do? 
  2. Think about others. What drugs have they taken – and are they in a position to offer capacitated consent?
  3. Negotiating and asking. Ask if your partner is having a good time. Consider your own actions – to what extent are you placing value on the experiences of others?

This year, the Global Drug Survey aims to delve deeper into the world of sex on drugs – particularly the use of psychedelic drugs in sexual liberation. The survey asked participants how psychedelic drugs affect various aspects of the sexual experience, including things like pleasure, intensity, duration and orgasm – as well as how drugs might affect people’s capacity to communicate with their partner or partners during sex. Data will be used to help researchers better understand how to safely combine sex and drugs.

Bethan Finighan

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