Sex & Drugs: The Full Story Ep 1 – Getting High While Getting Down
Hosted by Lauren Brande & Written by Lauren Villa | Published 2/12/18
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Welcome back, everyone! For this Valentine’s Day we wanted to talk about something that’s on most people’s minds for arguably too much of every day: sex.
By now you know that drug use isn’t limited to the stereotypical “addict”. College students taking Adderall to stay awake and young concert-goers popping ecstasy to loosen their inhibitions are common occurrences. In fact, greater numbers of college-educated young adults are using ecstasy than ever before. But what few people are talking about is that drugs aren’t always used just to get high… … they’re also used to uh… get down.
This Valentine’s Day you might be planning to, well, get lucky. Some of you may even be thinking of stoking your fire with mood-altering substances. But before you start sprinkling those rose petals and popping some pills, we want to share some information that might give you pause.
In this episode, we are going to go over some of the most commonly abused substances that people seek out to increase their sexual pleasure. We’ll cover some misconceptions about these drugs and how to ensure that if you are using drugs, you’re doing it with as little risk as possible, though you’re never completely without risk if you’re using drugs.
There are a lot of ways to spice up your sex life that don’t involve using drugs or alcohol. Joining us for the show today to share some information is Amy, Amy Baldwin. She co-owns a sex-positive sex shop with her mom in Santa Cruz, CA, is the co-host of the podcast Shameless Sex, and is a certified ‘sexpert.'”
Let’s begin by taking a step back and reminding our listeners that this episode focuses on the use of drugs during consensual sex. Now there seem to be some misconceptions around what consent is (as evidenced by the ever-growing #metoo conversation). So let’s define it before we go any further.
Consent is: The agreement between two people to engage in a sexual act. Consent is a freely given agreement given by a conscious person and can be done in a number of ways. A person who is sleeping, unconscious, or otherwise incompetent cannot provide consent.1
Amy Baldwin: So you’d really have to know that person well to understand what they were consenting to. But I think in regard to all the issues we’re having with consent these days, anything that we can do to both encourage active verbal consent, as well as to give it, will really help to make sure people are making the right choices for themselves and respecting other folks and, on top of that there’s also something called enthusiastic consent and so that’s when we get a big HELL YES for what we’re doing. So if someone, in regards to sexuality, oftentimes there’s an offer (“are you into this?” “would you like this?” “would you like to do this?”), and there’s a “maybe” or “sure” or “why not?”, “I guess,” “I don’t know,” “let’s just try it”. But when you actually respect the big enthusiastic YES, or even the big enthusiastic NO, I feel like that comes from a deeper place of internal wisdom.
What Are Poppers and Why Do People Use Them?
Ok, now that we’ve gone over consent, let’s just get right into it. Why don’t we start with inhalants, poppers specifically. “Poppers” is a slang term for nitrites (amyl and alkyl). Poppers are short-acting potent vasodilators that produce an intense rush to the brain. This rush is usually accompanied by feeling dizzy and warm.2 You might see them in small glass bottles under brand names like Rush and Jungle Juice.
Although amyl nitrite has been restricted to medical use only since the 1980s, some sex shops and online retailers still sell them under the guise of “video head cleaners,” leather cleaner,” “liquid aroma,” and “room odorizers.”3
So why do people use them during sex?
Poppers produce a unique kind of high – making you feel giddy, warm, and tingly. Poppers are used in the gay community because they are great for relaxing your muscles and decreasing inhibitions. And that means ALL of your muscles. Without going into the graphic details, the relaxation of these muscles can make all kinds of sex acts easier.
Amy Baldwin: People also like to use poppers, also known as “video head cleaner” [laughs] if you go and buy it in the store, because I believe it’s actually illegal to sell it (even though it’s a legalized product); it’s illegal to be sold and consumed for pleasure or for sex. So it’s sold in something that’s called “video head cleaner.” But when people are taking it can actually open up the muscles in a way that makes it so the muscles can receive something faster. And I think this is more commonly used for anal sex and working with those muscles.
And in my opinion, that could actually be really dangerous because you’re forcing the muscles, by consuming something, to do something that they’re potentially not ready for. It also can get people high in that they leave their bodies temporarily when they put that in their body. So again, when you do that you lose the ability to understand what your body’s really wanting, or even feeling.
Apart from the most common side effects of headaches,3 poppers carry some intense medical risks. The potent vasodilator in poppers has the potential to cause damage to your eyes and vision.4 Other effects may include delirium and memory loss.3
If you are using poppers to have anal sex, you might have sex for longer periods of time which can lead to bleeding and increased risk of STI transmission.5
The dangers of poppers grow even more if you try to use them with other drugs. For example, combining them with Viagra can be extremely risky. Both Viagra and poppers cause a person’s blood pressure to drop. Mixing the two can cause serious cardiovascular (heart and circulation) problems and even death. 3
Insisting on using poppers to spice up your sex life? There is no completely safe way to do it, but there are some ways to reduce the chances of serious harm.5
- First off, never use poppers in the presence of a flame. Candles are romantic but poppers are extremely flammable.
- Also, if you must use them, do it right. Don’t ingest them, and don’t try to force an inhalation if your nose is stuffy from a cold. This could do damage to your sinuses.
- Always use a condom. Poppers, like most other drugs, impair your judgment and could make you more prone to have risky sex. Avoid taking poppers in new environments or with people you don’t know well or don’t trust.
- And please, don’t use poppers if you are pregnant, have blood pressure issues or are taking medications to lower your blood pressure, are anemic, or have a suppressed immune system.
- Finally, once again, NEVER take poppers with Viagra.
The ‘Love Drug’
Ok, let’s move on to ecstasy (MDMA) – also known as “E,” “X,” “the love drug” or “the hug drug.” After taking ecstasy, users typically report feeling very sensual in addition to heightened feelings of euphoria, compassion, and sexual arousal.6 With all this increased energy and feelings of closeness, you might think this sounds like the perfect drug to use while getting it on. Well, think again.
Sure, E makes you feel all lovey-dovey and aroused but there’s a problem. Ecstasy is sometimes called a “hallucinogenic stimulant” (though it rarely causes hallucinations). However, MDMA causes a sharp rise of serotonin in the brain, which can sometimes have an inhibiting effect on a person’s ability to perform… in the bedroom. This is the same phenomenon that people taking antidepressants like Prozac face. According to a 2014 study of gay and bisexual men in the club scene in New York City, male MDMA users found that ecstasy can actually lead to one pretty major shortcoming when it comes to sex: impotence.6 This effect of taking MDMA can impair a person’s ability to get it up, and both men and women can have a harder time achieving an orgasm. And that’s not all: MDMA is a stimulant that affects your body’s blood supply, making it hard to sustain an erection, ejaculate, or for a woman to self-lubricate.7,8
So, while people may become more sexually aroused on the drug, that doesn’t translate to a better experience in bed; in fact, you might just be making sex worse (or even impossible). In essence, MDMA is more sensual than sexual. In a room of party-goers who have taken E, you will likely see a lot more hugging and caressing of strangers than you will see people hitting on one another or trying to take each other home.7
Using MDMA might even make you more prone to being intimate with someone you wouldn’t normally choose to engage with in that way because of its ability to provide an artificial feeling of connection and sensuality.
Amy Baldwin: MDMA is a tricky one; it makes people feel like they’re more in their bodies, more connected, like they can feel more empathy, more love, sometimes more sensuality. And I think that it also can confuse people; it can trick their mind into thinking they’re feeling that love, that connection, that sensuality for another when they don’t really feel it.
I even have personal experience with this. I have tried MDMA before in a way where I thought I was really connected to someone, you know, someone that was a close friend, who I never saw in a sexual way, and all of the sudden with this in my system, I saw them in a different light. ‘Oh, maybe I have feelings for this person. Maybe I do want to be intimate with that person.’ And I think all we shared was some making out, lip-locking, and they were very excited about that because they had been interested in me for a while and the next day when I woke up I was very clear that in my normal state of mind, that’s not what I would have chosen.
Ecstasy use isn’t all feel-good fun and games. It can cause you to feel restless or anxious, can induce feelings of fear and paranoia, and make you feel confused6-side effects that are decidedly not sexy.
Cocaine: The New Whiskey Dick
Another drug some people are using to get it on is cocaine.6 People who use cocaine may feel some aphrodisiac effects from the drug. Positive sexual outcomes such as spontaneous erections, prolonged arousal and orgasms, and multiple orgasms have all been reported after cocaine use.
But… this isn’t always the case. Cocaine is known to have negative impacts on sexual arousal and function. Long-term cocaine use decreases sexual desire, and for men, the long-term effects of cocaine abuse are not sexy. It can impair a male’s ability to maintain an erection, ejaculate, or reach orgasm.6
And it may come as no surprise that people who use cocaine regularly are more prone to participate in risky sex while high. A study out of Johns Hopkins University found that regular cocaine users are more likely to have HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The longer a person who is high on cocaine has to wait to use a condom, the more willing they are to have sex without one.9
Amy Baldwin: When we’re on substances and the inhibitions go down, we might be more open to taking risks that we wouldn’t normally take if we were in our natural state without these things in our bodies. So, that kind of goes hand in hand. You can think of inhibitions as walls. And the walls are there to protect us. And when they go down, we can make choices where, ‘oh I don’t need this condom right now; I would normally use this, but I don’t need this right now because I’m feeling really good, I’m feeling really connected to this person’ or whatever it is…just feeling a little more open in that moment.
Or, then there’s, on a deeper level, being so intoxicated that you don’t even have the ability to remember to use that thing that you would normally use, whether it’s condoms or whatever safer sex practices you’re doing. So it can completely be thrown out the window because all the sudden you’re so not present that you don’t even have a recollection of the normal practice that you would be using.
So yeah, and then, our motor skills go down with a lot of these things, especially with alcohol. And condoms…the number one reason why condoms are breaking is just because people are putting them on incorrectly. And so a lot of times, they’ll get a hole in them, and people will think ‘oh it must be the latex’ or ‘it was a bad condom’, when really they’re not putting them on correctly. The correct way is you need to pinch the tip of the condom and then roll the latex down on the phallus, whatever kind of phallus you’re using. And, um, if you’re not present enough or moving slow enough, or are conscientious enough to put it on correctly then that could be an issue too. So… there’s a number of ways that it could really affect one’s ability to be safe in whatever degree they would normally be safe in a normal state of mind. I hate the word “normal,” but their non-high state of mind. You know…you know what I mean.
I’m a sex educator and I have a podcast also about sexuality called “Shameless Sex” and I also work with clients one-on-one and the number one thing that’s coming up-whether it’s related to orgasm or desire or connection-is ‘are you in your body?’ And quite often, people aren’t in their bodies in a way that isn’t even related to the substances they’re taking. It’s related to being in their heads and just disconnected from their own bodies or from sharing their bodies with someone else.
But it’s really, really huge. And if we’re going to be intimate with someone, um, isn’t the point to be able to feel what we’re sharing as opposed to numb it out or turn it off or to escape from it? You know, if we don’t want to be there-because if we’re numbing out, clearly there’s some sort of thing there that’s like, I don’t really want to fully feel this-so why would we even be sexual in that? Why…what’s…I think that’s something to look at. Why are we even being sexual if we’re feeling like we need to take something to be sexual, to numb down to be safe or feel safer.
Consider other ways of exploring sexually with your partner. Amy suggests trying out breath work with your partner, or pretending you’re on a blind date:
Amy Baldwin: There’s a lot of ways to spice things up without having to consume something to alter your state. Um, the first one I would just say that can be related to sex and also not related to sex is breath work. Um, our breath in our body, our breath is so powerful. And, um, the way we breathe is actually-of course we have to breathe to stay alive-but there’s ways that we breathe that can actually affect arousal and blood flow, um, and so there’s different ways that you can play with breath. In fact, breath itself can alter your state.
A lot of the highs that people are getting from consuming certain substances, um, have…those same people, when they have actually experimented with breath work, they’ve realized that they can get a very similar state where it feels, um, altered or really blissy or sparkly, or deeply connected, through playing with the breath
And it’s a fun way to play with a partner too. If you are actually playing with someone else and you breathe-so you take really slow, deep breaths, maybe even while making eye contact together, wrapped around each other, in through the nose and out through the mouth-it can really create this, like, juicy vibrancy between the two people and this deeper connection. And that’s actually what they’re doing often in tantric practices, which a lot of people know of as something that really enhances sexual connection.
And some other ways would be, you could play with something that’s edgy, something that you just haven’t done before because when we consume substances it’s because a lot of us are looking for a high. A high is a raised state of consciousness, or whatever, of a physical feeling or consciousness, or whatever…it depends on what you’re taking. So…edginess can do that for us too, and edginess can mean trying something that feels a little-not…you don’t want scary…you know, if it’s super scary or like you’re getting a big no, then honor your no-but if it’s something where you’re getting like whoa this feels a little wild and out there but I’m intrigued or interested but I do have a little bit of discomfort but I’m really, I’m kind of excited about it.
So maybe some light kink; maybe you experiment with some light bondage or some spanking. Or you know, whatever it is, something that just feels different from what you normally do that can really heighten the senses and create that…a similar kind of high that you normally wouldn’t receive from your normal state. And then role play. You know, again, we’re taking substances; we’re trying to leave our normal self, usually, you know, whatever our normal state is, we’re trying to move away from that to something else.
Roleplay, in regards to sexuality, is a similar thing. We can play and take on other roles that we don’t normally take on when we’re being intimate with another, and it can create that same sense of otherness and just yeah, kind of just like that high that you would get. So, and role play can look like so many different things. I mean, I could talk about that forever, but there are so many different ways that you can take on role play. Whether it’s a power and dominance and submission kind of role play or, uh, people always hear of, like, the naughty nurse and patient or whatever it is.
One thing I really like that I think is really fun is if, especially if you’re partnered with someone that you’ve been with for a long time, to actually take on the roles of being strangers and going out and actually….so your date, you know, it’s Valentine’s Day; your date is to go out and eat at a restaurant. Normally you go there together and go to the restaurant together and sit down together…you know, this is my partner, I know them really well. But what you could do is say, you know, we’re both going to meet there separately, and we’re going to pretend like we’re on a blind date.
It’s a fun way to also learn things about your partner that you might not know. You know, what would you ask a stranger if you were on a blind date with them. Ask your partner these questions. Really try to get to know them in this new way. And it can just feel kind of fun, and again, it’s roleplay, so you’re still kind of altering your state, but you’re doing it in a way that is playful and really safe.
And then there’s sex toys, of course. I also own-I do a lot of things in the sex industry-but I also own a sex shop called Pure Pleasure in Santa Cruz, CA. And you know, sex toys are a wonderful way to spice things up, and let me just tell you that orgasm, in my opinion, is probably like the highest of highs anyone can get. In fact, I think when a lot of people are consuming substances, they’re trying to kind of obtain that high, like that ultimate high of bliss and pleasure and sex toys can really provide that to you, because they’re an easy way to orgasm, especially when it comes to vibrators because they’re so powerful. And they’re just a fun thing to spice things up with yourself or with another person.
Remember, you don’t have to get high to get down.
Amy Baldwin: Chances are, if you’re fully present for sharing touch with someone else, when you’re the giver, you’re going to give a lot better touch. You know, you want to learn how to be a really talented, skilled, confident lover? You learn to be present for your partners, for your lover, and for your own receiving when you’re being touched, as well. It’s really, I think, uh, one of the biggest keys to enhancing pleasure and connection, is how can we be more present? And unfortunately, substances, for the most part, go against that. It can really take away from our ability to be here and to be connected.
* * *
On this Valentine’s day (and every other day of the year), remember, there are ways to be smart, be safe, and have fun… without the drugs.
In our next episode we’ll take a look at the complicated aspect of consent when it comes to substances and sex. What does consent look like when someone is drunk or high? Or even, can someone consent to sex when they’re intoxicated? As the #MeToo movement sweeps across the nation, these kinds of questions have to be discussed. Be sure to subscribe so that you don’t miss out! You can also check out our Instagram, letstalkdrugspodcast, for sneak peeks and behind-the-scenes action. See you next time!
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- Cornell Law. (n.d.). Consent.
- Romanelli, F., Smith, K. M., Thornton, A. C., & Pomeroy, C. (2004). Poppers: epidemiology and clinical management of inhaled nitrite abuse. Pharmacotherapy: The Journal of Human Pharmacology and Drug Therapy, 24(1), 69-78.
- Hall, T. M., Shoptaw, S., & Reback, C. J. (2014). Sometimes Poppers Are Not Poppers: Huffing as an Emergent Health Concern among MSM Substance Users. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 19(1), 118-121. http://doi.org/10.1080/19359705.2014.973180
- Audo, I., El Sanharawi, M., Vignal-Clermont, C., Villa, A., Morin, A., Conrath, J., … & Paques, M. (2011). Foveal damage in habitual poppers users. Archives of Ophthalmology, 129(6), 703-708.
- Columbia University. (n.d.). Go Ask Alice! Viagra and poppers dangers.
- Palamar, J. J., Kiang, M. V., Storholm, E. D., & Halkitis, P. N. (2014). A qualitative descriptive study of perceived sexual effects of club drug use in gay and bisexual men. Psychology & Sexuality, 5(2), 143-160.
- Jansen, K. L., & Theron, L. (2006). Ecstasy (MDMA), methamphetamine, and date rape (drug-facilitated sexual assault): a consideration of the issues. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 38(1), 1-12.
- Zemishlany, Z., Aizenberg, D., & Weizman, A. (2001). Subjective effects of MDMA (‘Ecstasy’) on human sexual function. European Psychiatry, 16(2), 127-130.
- Johns Hopkins University. (2017). Study Affirms That Cocaine Makes Users More Likely To Risk Unsafe Sex.
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