Alcohol and marijuana are two widely consumed substances known for their ability to alter consciousness and lower users’ emotional and behavioral inhibitions. One potential consequence of these emotional and behavioral changes is participation in unsafe sex. In a study published in the Journal of Sex Research, researchers from three U.S. institutions examined the specific ways in which alcohol and marijuana use can change the willingness of college-age women to use condoms when engaged in sex with familiar and unfamiliar partners.
Although they achieve their effects in different ways, both alcohol and marijuana alter the user’s normal consciousness and ability to control his or her body. Common effects associated with the recreational use of alcohol include a form of intense pleasure called euphoria, a reduced tendency to follow established guidelines for socially appropriate behavior, a reduced ability to think rationally or make logical decisions and a reduced ability to control one’s muscles or coordinate activity between the mind and the body. Recreational marijuana use also produces euphoria, a diminished tendency to follow social norms for behavior, a reduced capacity for decision-making and a reduced ability to coordinate muscle activity. Additional effects associated with the drug include unusual distortion of the senses, a reduced capacity for taking in new information and a diminished ability to remember previously gathered information.
Well-established examples of safe-sex precautions include using a condom during all forms of sexual intercourse, familiarizing yourself with the sexual histories of all potential intimate partners, limiting your sexual contact to one main partner, having sex only with individuals who don’t have a sexually transmitted disease, having sex only while in a clear state of mind and avoiding situations that pressure you to engage in sex. The U.S. National Library of Medicine lists a number of dangerous or deadly illnesses that can result from involvement in unsafe sexual practices. These illnesses include HIV/AIDS, chlamydia, hepatitis, genital herpes, gonorrhea, genital warts and syphilis.
In the study published in the Journal of Sex Research, researchers from The Miriam Hospital, Brown University and Syracuse University sought to uncover any connection between alcohol consumption, marijuana use and the willingness of college women to use condoms while engaged in sex. They focused their efforts on 297 young women enrolled in their first year of college; all told, these women reported their participation in 1,856 sexual situations involving intercourse. Specific details gathered by the researchers included the amount of alcohol consumed prior to intercourse, the nature of the women’s relationships to their sexual partners (casual vs. steady or committed) and the length of time the women had been involved in relationships with their established sexual partners.
The researchers concluded that alcohol intake prior to intercourse does indeed reduce the likelihood that young women will make condom use a prerequisite for having sex. In addition, they concluded that the likelihood of condom use steadily drops as the number of drinks consumed by any given young woman goes up. When assessing the impact of marijuana use, the researchers drew a more complex set of conclusions. In situations involving potential casual sexual partners, marijuana intake apparently does not increase the chances that a young woman will consent to intercourse without a condom. However, in situations involving established partners with whom they’ve been in relationships for at least three months, young women under the influence of marijuana may sometimes relax their requirements for condom use.
The authors of the study published in the Journal of Sex Research believe that they are the first researchers to make such a detailed analysis of the factors that influence condom use in college-age women under the influence of alcohol or marijuana. They also believe that public health officials can use their findings to improve the focus and specificity of programs designed to deter unsafe sex participation in the target group. Particular benefit might come from an improved understanding of how the odds for involvement in unsafe sex rise steadily with the consumption of each alcoholic drink.