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Having sex on drugs
illustration Callum Abbott

Exploring the changing relationship between sex and drugs

Augmenting sexual experiences with drugs like MDMA, GHB, and cocaine is hardly a fringe activity, but the reasonings are broadening with a new generation of users

Annie Sprinkle, the sex worker and pornstar turned sex educator and artist, once described a beautiful summer day with a lover, when both found that their “psychedelic door flew open” without having taken any drugs. “Our senses became heightened, time warped, colours were brighter,” she said. “I wondered if people who have never done any psychedelics could ever feel the same way, or if our psychedelic experiences enabled us to enhance and intensify the magical feelings of love.” 

For some, sex is so interconnected with drugs, that it becomes akin to an altered state. But today, when we hear about the combination of sex and drugs, it’s usually in the context of headline-grabbing horror stories about the casualties of days-long mephedrone and crystal meth-fuelled binges at Chemsex orgies. This is far from being the main story about sex and drugs. After all, few of us can say we’ve never been under the influence while under the sheets. Whether it’s alcohol, viagra, MDMA, or cocaine, chemicals are a mainstay of British sex lives.

So much so that 20 per cent of the 22,000 British people surveyed in this year’s Global Drugs Survey said they’d combined MDMA with sex, either with or without forethought, (just 15 per cent of Europeans and North Americans say the same). Granted, participants are a self-selecting crowd, but it does show that combining sex with drugs is hardly a fringe activity. While not one of the most commonly used, GHB/GBL was rated most favourably for sex by men and women, mostly because its boosts sexual desire.

“I like the ritual around it. I like the care that you have to take with your partner. I find all that quite erotic” – Sam* on GHB

The ease of fatally overdosing on G is well documented; less than one millimetre can be the difference between feeling happy and/or horny and falling unconscious. As well as this, it is perhaps best known by its suitability for spiking and rape. In high doses or mixed with alcohol it can blank events immediately following from memory. “The key factor (in spiking) is being able to manipulate social trust,” explains criminologist Pamela Donovan in Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History. But G is also increasingly used as a club drug, enjoyed among friends and lovers on and after a night out.

Sam, 32, tells me about how GHB has become her and her long term partner’s favourite drug with which to augment their sexual experiences. “I like the ritual around it,” she says, referring to the way in which consensual partakers of G prevent overdose by measuring out a new dose on the hour, using a syringe to squirt it into a soft drink. “I like the care that you have to take with your partner. I find all that quite erotic.”

Sam first encountered sex on drugs through alcohol, then through cannabis. “I discovered that cannabis seemed to ease my anxiety around sex... particularly anal, which I’d experienced violently as a teenager,” she said.

Sam’s use of drugs with sex seems to revolve around nurturing and intimacy, control and self-respect. Until recently there has been little in-depth research into the pleasurable and experimental dimensions of sex on drugs beyond communities of men who have sex with men. But a Wellcome Trust-funded project led by Dr Alex Dymock at Royal Holloway, University of London, entitled Pharmacosexuality, aims in part to explore exactly this through 30 in-depth interviews.

“It’s a curation of self, a curation of sex, and a curation of drugs,” Dymock tells me at academic psychedelics conference Breaking Convention in London, referring to the ways in which some people consider the way they engage in sex on drugs. Specifically, using them with the aim of self-exploration and of staying closer with the sexual experience, rather than using them to lose control.

One participant in their study, a woman with ADHD, finds that speed, paradoxically, slows her down and creates a sense of calm that makes sex an easier situation for her.

Gen Z, who are known to be less wild with drugs, tend further towards using them “in a way that’s in tune with the individual drugs and what happens to your body,” Tatiana, 22, tells me. They are “more likely to just stay home and take some drugs for the entertainment that evening, which is less expensive than going out,“ she says. “I think that’s where the relationship between sex and drugs comes in more.”

Referring to the evolution of drug culture as though each new generation builds on the maturity of its predecessor, she says, “It’s almost like we’ve passed the excitable teenage phase and into the more reflective, adult phase.” Drugs aren’t considered so rebellious, perhaps because, to this well-informed crowd, their parents’ generation were the ravers of the 80s and 90s.

Others I spoke to anonymously found that sex could help calm them down when a drug experience, particularly an acid or ketamine trip, became intimidatingly expansive. As Dymock says: “for some participants, ketamine and acid initiated what they described as a frightening experience of ego dissolution. In a couple of instances, participants discussed the way in which sex allowed them to ground themselves and feel embodied.”

For Quinn, 28, psychedelics give intimacy an extra twist: the sensation that her and her partner’s “boundaries between our senses of self have been blurred”. So much so, that there have been occasions when “every touch feels like I’d thought of it and asked for it in the exact moment that it magically happened”. In an account of the intense acid trip taken by two lovers on the forum Blue Light, one lover describes, “when I looked at my partner’s face I saw little bits of my face in him... It was like looking at a picture of both of us morphed into one… our limbs and faces being split and mirrored into quarters of each other like a chess board of body parts.” In Quinn’s experience, the intimate encounter deepens her understanding of the other person, amounting to “10 years’ worth of only seeing someone for coffee with their clothes on”.

While psychedelics sharpen Quinn’s intuitions about another person, this can have the effect of clarifying in her mind that she is not in tune with her partner. “Tripping on psilocybin with a sexual partner propelled me to a place where I eventually realised that I didn’t like having sex with them... they were bringing me an off-key set of energies.”

The dissociative effects of ketamine paradoxically help her to feel more involved. “It makes me less focussed on us cumming, which means I can totally immerse in the sex. I wouldn’t really 69 for hours with no return to penetrative sex in sight unless I was on ketamine,” she says, adding, “I like how, while your minds disassociate on sometimes hilariously disparate tracks, your bodies are still doing intimate things.”

“It’s a curation of self, a curation of sex, and a curation of drugs” – Dr Alex Dymock, Royal Holloway, University of London

A key factor in all of this is consent: negotiating sexual consent while high and consent about which drugs and how much will be taken. Dymock says that several of their interview participants report taking drugs in an intentional effort to loosen their own control over the situation. According to the law, being highly intoxicated, can in some cases remove the capacity to consent.

For Sam, the disinhibiting effects of drugs are welcome. “There’s definitely things I’ve done on drugs that I probably wouldn’t have done sober,” she says, but also stresses that she doesn’t have any regrets around them. “It made me feel some things were more permissible or made me realise things I wanted.”

Collectively, those who have spoken to me about their experiences demonstrate that taking substances intentionally with a preexisting understanding of their effects is a prerequisite to finding pleasure and fulfillment in combining sex with drugs. “Sex is this extremely intimate act that you are doing with another person, while also having the intimacy of exploring your psyches together,” Quinn says. “Sex acts as a cradling activity” to the exploration of the mind, while drugs “peel away the layers we put on”. For her, they both require trust and coalesce to invoke a deeper understanding of the other.

Liz Elliot described just this in an account of her loving-on-drugs with the psychedelic icon Timothy Leary: “We could play with each other’s brains, stroke mental erogenous zones. Flash electric current between us.”

*Some names have been changed.