In Summary
  • Teenagers may view all anxiety as problematic and drink to blunt the jitters that are a natural part of a budding romantic life.
  • The popular media has done its part to suggest that drunken one-night stands have replaced courtship and romance among young people.

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 centres 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?

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