Alcohol use can lead to impaired decision making and risky behavior, but emerging adults generally perceive the short-term outcomes of alcohol use positively. Similarly, although sexual behavior can lead to unwanted outcomes such as pregnancy and STIs, emerging adults view sex as predominantly positive. Thus, emerging adulthood is a period of exploration and heightened risk-taking, when alcohol use and sexual behavior are normative, but present potential negative consequences. Residential colleges in particular provide an environment that encourages heavy drinking and sexual exploration. However, this contrast between potential negative consequences and emerging adults’ positive perceptions of alcohol use and sexual behavior presents a challenge to creating relevant and effective prevention programming to reduce alcohol-related sexual experiences, or to minimize their harm.
In this paper, we considered college students’ perceptions of how their own alcohol use is linked to their sexual experiences. We used open-ended questions to understand whether college students perceived these sex-related risks of alcohol use, and, more broadly, their most salient perceptions of the links between alcohol use and sexual experiences.
In their opened-ended responses, the most common theme was that alcohol was associated with sexual arousal, pleasure, and/or performance. The second most common theme was to explicitly state that their alcohol use and sexual feelings were not associated. Discussing alcohol’s influence on sexual behavior in particular was the next most common theme, but rarely considered aspects of risky behavior. Sexual assertiveness and/or sexual decision making were mentioned by less than 10% of participants. Only two participants’ responses were coded as indicating that alcohol use was associated with sexual aggression, and neither response clearly indicated that the participant had been the perpetrator or victim of a sexual assault. Finally, no participants mentioned condoms, contraception, or STDs.
In terms of gender differences, more women than men described alcohol as relating to sexual arousal, pleasure, or performance. There were also differences by recent heavy drinking. In particular, recent heavy drinkers were less likely to state that alcohol and sex were not related, more likely to see alcohol use as related to sexual arousal, pleasure, or performance, and more likely to see alcohol use as related to sexual behavior, than students who did not recently drink heavily.
Even though we know empirically that alcohol use increases sexual risk outcomes, students in this study did not spontaneously report such outcomes, suggesting that unprotected sex and sexual aggression are not a salient part of their conceptualization of alcohol use’s influence on sex at this developmental stage. In addition, our participants clearly viewed alcohol as a social lubricant that increases disinhibition. Alcohol myopia theory posits that after consuming alcohol, individuals will focus only on proximal cues and ignore more distal ones. If alcohol-induced myopia is caused by decreased cognitive capacity to consider all pertinent information, particularly more distal and abstract goals such as health maintenance or general well-being, then myopia should be primarily present while drinking. Myopia should not be present the following day when students are sitting at a computer while presumably sober describing their experiences. However, students also evidenced myopia in their responses, describing increased arousal, increased disinhibition, and increased experiences with sexual behavior, with little mention of negative outcomes. Thus, alcohol myopia may not only be a result of decreased cognitive capacity, but may be due to students’ own orientations or personal framing around how they prefer to consider alcohol’s influence on sexual experiences.
This study demonstrates one of the difficulties of developing successful interventions for alcohol use and sexual behavior among college students: students either do not perceive a link between these behaviors, or perceive the link as positive. People who design prevention and sexuality education efforts must consider emerging adults’ positive attitudes toward experimentation and risk-taking, including alcohol use and sexual behavior. Finally, our results suggest that young women may use alcohol’s known role as a social lubricant to enhance or provide permission for their sexual desire and/or arousal. Comprehensive sexuality education, preferably before college, should consider teaching women that having sexual feelings and desires is natural. Such education may make women less likely to rely on heavy drinking to validate or excuse their sexual desires, and thus aid them to be better equipped to make decisions about sexual behaviors that are consistent with both their short-term and long-term goals.
“College Students Mostly Perceive Alcohol’s Influence on Sex as Positive first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on June 26, 2018.”