Adults should talk with teenagers about drinking. And we should talk with teenagers about sex. But in addition to taking up each of these topics separately, we should also address the fact that adolescents are more likely than adults to combine the two.
Common sense suggests, and research confirms, that intoxicated sex can be a bad idea. Of course, underage drinking is illegal; state laws vary on the legality of having sex with an intoxicated person. Legal questions aside, results from a new survey of more than 7,000 undergraduates at Indiana University show that consensual sex is both less enjoyable and less strongly wanted when one or both of the participants has been drinking. Other research links alcohol use to higher rates of unprotected intercourse.
Inebriation, not surprisingly, also increases the likelihood of becoming a perpetrator or victim of sexual assault. “We don’t talk nearly enough about the impact of drinking on boys,” says Peggy Orenstein, a writer whose recent work centers on sexual development among young women and men. “They become less able to read social cues, less likely to respect ‘no’ and more likely to use alcohol as an excuse to engage in misconduct.”
Further, the Indiana University survey found that victims of sexual assault (both male and female) reported far more often that they were too drunk to consent to sex rather than that they were threatened, physically forced or deliberately drugged.
Given that drunken sexual activity, whether straight or same-sex, can involve higher risks and lower rewards than sober encounters, one might be tempted to dismiss young people as reckless or senseless for engaging in it. But my work as a psychologist has taught me that adolescents always have reasons for making choices that seem to be against their own self-interest. Taking these reasons seriously opens up conversations that may help our adolescents look after themselves and their partners down the line.
So why do young people mix sex and alcohol?
Teens Drink Because They’re Nervous About Intimacy
Teenagers may view all anxiety as problematic and drink to blunt the jitters that are a natural part of a budding romantic life. Unfortunately, anxiety, like stress, has gotten a bad rap. Nerves can get out of control, but feeling occasionally anxious is a normal and healthy part of life. And what could be more normal than feeling awkward about physical intimacy, especially when it is new and unfamiliar?
We do right by young people when we acknowledge that apprehension is to be expected in the early days of physical romance or when being intimate with a new person. As the psychologist Richard Weissbourd, the faculty director of Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project, explains, the first forays into sexual activity are bound to be anxiety-provoking because that they are often “overloaded with expectations as well as worries about performance.”
It helps to remind teenagers that their nerves are not only normal, but designed to keep them safe. “When it comes to your love life,” we might say, “having butterflies can be part of the fun. But if you find yourself in a situation that makes you really nervous, pay attention to that warning signal. The last thing you should do is start drinking to relax.”
They Think Everybody Else Is Having Drunken Hookups
The popular media has done its part to suggest that drunken one-night stands have replaced courtship and romance among young people. According to Ms. Orenstein, “This is the script that gets handed down: You’re supposed to get super wasted and have sex with somebody.” When teenagers believe they should be making out with virtual strangers, “the only way to do that,” notes Ms. Orenstein, is to drink “to numb their anxiety and embarrassment about it.”
Interestingly, the perceptions of hookup culture don’t match the reality. In truth, today’s adolescents are less likely to have had sex than those of previous generations. And among sexually active 18- and 19-year-olds, only a quarter had more than one sexual partner in the last year.
Adults can helpfully subvert the hookup culture narrative by encouraging teenagers to disbelieve the hype. For example, we can let them in on the results of a Making Caring Common survey that asked 18- to 25-year-olds to describe their ideal Friday night. Eighty-four percent of the respondents said they’d prefer to have sex in the context of a serious relationship, or do something else altogether, over having a casual hookup.
As Debby Herbenick, director of the Center for Sexual Health at Indiana University and the lead author of the recent survey conducted there explains, we can reassure adolescents that studies tell us that most young people “want to be in love and want to date.” From there, we can guide them to consider the kind of romantic life they themselves would like to seek.
Young Women May Drink For Reputational Cover
The heterosexual double standard is alive and well, research confirms. And so long as sexually active guys are called studs and girls are called tramps, some young women who choose to have sex may drink in order to minimize social consequences by denying their agency and blaming alcohol.
From her conversations with high school students, Dr. Herbenick has learned that the girls are well aware that if they “hook up with someone when totally sober they are more likely to be slut-shamed or to have people be terrible to them about their sexuality.”
Adults can look for opportunities to rectify this sexist and dangerous imbalance. For example, if we hear teenagers talking about girls who have drunken sex, or peers who use terms such as whore or slut, we should ask, “Why is it O.K. only for guys to hook up?” and “Why do girls alone have to worry they’ll get bad press if they have sober sex?”
When talking with our daughters and sons about physical romance, we should ditch the pervasive boys-on-offense-girls-on-defense framework. Instead, let’s acknowledge that girls, like boys, come equipped with desire. To that we can add that having sex while sober helps young women, and their partners, tune into just what those desires are.
Conversations about sex and drinking — much less the combination of the two — aren’t easy. Nor do they lead to simple or obvious solutions. But most young people want to chart a healthy path through the anxieties, social pressures and double standards that surround the early days of physical intimacy. And we should want that for them, too.
Lisa Damour (@LDamour) is a psychologist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and the author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood” and the forthcoming “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”