June 1, 2012

Hooking Up With Alcohol: Initiative Or Excuse

KC Guest Blogger Aliza Saraco-Polner discusses the complex ways that alcohol can inform sexual decision-making.

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Hooking Up with Alcohol

Hooking Up with Alcohol

Hooking-up with Alcohol: Initiative or Excuse?

By the time students complete their freshman year of college, most are (hopefully) aware of how alcohol can impair one’s judgment- including the lucky ones who had to pass university-mandated AlcoholEdu. Personal health courses like this attempt to approach this subject with facts; they emotionally, physically, and scientifically illustrate the consequences of drinking. On the other hand, films and televisions shows like The Hangover and Superbad love to portray the hilarious repercussions of binge drinking. And as singers Jamie Foxx and T Pain once put it so perfectly, “Blame it on the alcohol.”

References like these are too common in today’s culture and are especially ubiquitous on college campuses where social drinking tends to occur more frequently. More importantly, there is a growing interest in understanding the importance of alcohol during a hook-up as well as the reasons behind one’s inclination to merge the two behaviors. In a study that evaluated various positive and negative effects of hooking-up, almost 61% of undergraduate students indicated the inclusion of alcohol in their most recent hook-up (Lewis et al.). Similarly, another study on the prevalence of regret after a hook-up found that 35% of the respondents claimed to be “very intoxicated” during their most recent hook-up, which involved oral, vaginal, and/or anal sex (Fisher et. al). These statistics suggest that many people do rely on alcohol to initiate and fulfill casual or non-committed sexual encounters. Furthermore, they bring our attention to the various reasons why alcohol plays such an important role in the hook-up process. What’s behind this inclination to “blame it?” Does alcohol give someone the initiative to act a certain way? Or, it is used as an excuse for one’s actions?

Alcohol as the Initiator

If alcohol initiates hook-ups, then the purpose of drinking is to embolden people to make decisions they would not be comfortable making when sober. This can be problematic. Using alcohol as the initiator in sexual situations can provide people with feelings of false confidence. Drinking can encourage sensations of invincibility by allowing one to act irresponsibly without clear consequences or boundaries. In the case of hooking-up, this could include participating in risky behaviors like unprotected sex and ignoring the severity of possibly unsafe situations. Therefore, these behaviors could later cause feelings of regret and insecurity, in addition to increasing the risk of an STI or unwanted pregnancy.

Alcohol as the Excuser

Alcohol can also be used to justify one’s actions and choice of partner. In this case, the purpose of the drinking when hooking up is to excuse embarrassing behavior, rationalize feelings of regret, and forgive potential sexual problems that may arise. It’s no coincidence that the phrase “whiskey dick” is commonly used to describe a bad sexual encounter.

Ironically, although alcohol is used to dissuade any feelings of guilt or shame, studies have shown that sexual encounters involving alcohol often lead to increased regret for both men and women. This past spring, Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of Yes Means Yes and author of What You Really Really Want, spoke at Indiana University to promote healthy sexual communication. During her talk, she mentioned that many people use alcohol to decrease inhibitions about trying things sexually that they wouldn’t be willing to try sober. In her opinion, this is problematic because it endorses sexual activity that she refers to as “it just happened” sex. When discussing hook-ups with both men and women, we could argue that “it just happened sex” is referred to as often as “whiskey dick” to excuse any form of behavior that had occurred. Yet, this form of sex is usually less pleasurable and typically disables healthy sexual communication (Friedman) between partners (especially the ability to tell your partner what you are or are not comfortable with). “It just happened” sex can be a result from alcohol initiating the people involved and is even more commonly associated with validating decisions made while someone was intoxicated.

Sober Sex Solutions

The many problems that can occur from mixing alcohol with hooking up can place sober sex on a pedestal for many people who participate in this culture. We must assess our own intentions for a hook-up to understand why sober sex is considered so much more meaningful. My discussions with friends and informal observations over the past four years at Indiana University have helped me realize that sober hook-ups are highly valued because they promote the possibility of a relationship developing from this allegedly casual, no-strings-attached hook-up. (Researchers have found that a common reason for hooking up is actually to initiate a relationship. This idea is discussed in my previous blog post on the reality of “Friends with Benefits”). Similarly, sober sex can justify someone’s personal decision for participating in this casual encounter. Therefore, some people may feel that sober sex helps to prevent any feelings of regret or guilt because we are not clouded by substances that could impair our judgment.

Yet, whether alcohol is involved in the hook-up process or excluded from it, the most important aspect of hooking up is evaluating our personal intentions and levels of comfort in order to maximize the experience and enable healthy communication with our partner. This way, alcohol can be used independently of its typical role of influencing or manipulating a hook-up.

Aliza Saraco-Polner recently graduated from Indiana University with a major in Mathematics and minors in Gender Studies and Studio Art.  She is also the undergraduate liaison for The Kinsey Institute and a volunteer at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion