Does Drinking Improve the Quality of Sexual Experience?: Sex-Specific Alcohol Expectancies and Subjective Experience on Drinking Versus Sober Sexual Occasions


The present study compared the self-reported quality of emotional experiences on sexual occasions that differed in levels of alcohol consumption to determine whether widely held beliefs about alcohol’s positive effects on sex are borne out in people’s everyday sexual experience. Multilevel models were estimated using data from 7442 discrete sexual events collected over a 10+ year period from a community sample of 1946 Black and White young adults. Tests of between-person differences revealed that beliefs that drinking both enhances and disinhibits sexual experience are widely endorsed, and that those who hold strong expectancies for enhancement drink significantly more on sexual occasions than those who do not. Nevertheless, tests of within-person differences revealed that people’s sexual experiences were generally less positive on drinking than sober occasions, even after controlling for a host of individual difference and event-level characteristics. Moreover, cross-level expectancy × alcohol interaction tests showed that even those who strongly endorsed alcohol’s positive effects failed to report more positive sexual experiences on drinking versus sober occasions, with a single exception: Those with strong expectancies for sexual enhancement reported greater arousal at high consumption levels, whereas those with weak enhancement expectancies reported lower arousal. In short, drinking on sexual occasions failed to deliver any benefit for the majority of individuals across the majority of outcomes. Why positive beliefs are maintained in the face of largely contradictory experience, and how this information can be used to inform intervention and prevention is explored.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Supplemental analyses were conducted to determine if similar results were obtained using W1 data vs. W2 and W3 data, given that feelings of love were measured differently at W1. Results showed that alcohol was negatively related to feelings of love in both subsets of data (bs = −.122 and −.142 for W1 and for W2 + W3, respectively). However, only the latter effect was significant at p < .001, owing at least in part to the larger number of events at W2 + W3 (4910 vs. 1796).

  2. 2.

    Supplemental analyses were also conducted to determine if similar results were obtained for emotional valence using W1 vs. W2 + W3 data. Despite use of different measurement approaches, results showed that alcohol was unrelated to emotional valence in both subsets (bs = −.028 and −.006, respectively, ns).


  1. 1.

    Dermen KH, Cooper ML. Sex-related alcohol expectancies among adolescents: I. Scale development. Psychol Addict Behav. 1994;8:152–60.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Leigh BC. The relationship of sex-related alcohol expectancies to alcohol consumption and sexual behavior. Br J Addict. 1990;85:919–28.

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    George WH, Stoner SA. Understanding acute alcohol effects on sexual behavior. Annu Rev Sex Res. 2000;11:92–124.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Dermen KH, Cooper ML. Sex-related alcohol expectancies among adolescents: II. Prediction of drinking in social and sexual situations. Psychol Addict Behav. 1994;8:161–8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Hendershot CS, Stoner SA, George WH, Norris J. Alcohol use, expectancies, and sexual sensation seeking as correlates of HIV risk behavior in heterosexual young adults. Psychol Addict Behav. 2007;21(3):365–72.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Kalichman SC, Cain D, Zweben A, Swain G. Sensation seeking, alcohol use and sexual risk behaviors among men receiving services at a clinic for sexually transmitted infections. Q J Stud Alcohol. 2003;64(4):564–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Kalichman SC, Simbayi LC, Jooste S, Cain D, Cherry C. Sensation seeking, alcohol use, and sexual behaviors among sexually transmitted infection clinic patients in Cape Town, South Africa. Psychol Addict Behav. 2006;20(3):298–304.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Kalichman SC, Tannenbaum L, Nachimson D. Personality and cognitive factors influencing substance use and sexual risk for HIV infection among gay and bisexual men. Psychol Addict Behav. 1998;12(4):262–71.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Kalichman SC, Cain D. The relationship between indicators of sexual compulsivity and high risk sexual practices among men and women receiving services from a sexually transmitted infection clinic. J Sex Res. 2004;41(3):235–41.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    White HR, Fleming CB, Catalano RF, Bailey JA. Prospective associations among alcohol use-related sexual enhancement expectancies, sex after alcohol use, and casual sex. Psychol Addict Behav. 2009;23(4):702–7.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Monk RL, Heim D. A critical systematic review of alcohol-related outcome expectancies. Subst Use Misuse. 2013;48:539–57.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Cooper ML. Alcohol use and risky sexual behavior among college students and youth: evaluating the evidence. J Stud Alcohol Suppl. 2002;14:101–17.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Cooper ML. Does drinking promote risky sexual behavior? A complex answer to a simple question. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2006;15:19–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Crowe LC, George WH. Alcohol and human sexuality: review and integration. Psychol Bull. 1989;105(3):374–86.

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    George WH, Norris J, Nguyen HV, Masters T, Davis KC. Sexuality and Health. In: Tolman DL, Diamond LM, editors. APA handbook of sexuality and psychology. Washinton: APA Books; 2014.

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    George WH, Gilmore AK. Alcohol’s effects on sexual arousal and sexual functioning. In: Miller P, editor. Principles of addiction. London: Elsevier Academic Press; 2013.

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Weinhardt L, Carey M. Does alcohol lead to sexual risk behavior? Findings from event-level research. Annu Rev Sex Res. 2000;11:125–57.

    PubMed  CAS  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Leigh BC, Stall R. Substance use and risky sexual behavior for exposure to HIV. Issues in methodology, interpretation, and prevention. Am Psychol. 1993;48(10):1035–45.

    PubMed  CAS  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Harvey SM, Beckman SJ. Alcohol consumption, female sexual behavior and contraceptive use. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 1986;47(4):327–32.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Patrick ME, Maggs JL. Does drinking lead to sex? Daily alcohol-sex behaviors and expectancies among college students. Psychol Addict Behav. 2009;23(3):472–81.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Pashler H, Harris CR. Is the replicability crisis overblown? Three arguments examined. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2012;7(6):531–6.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Lindman RE, Koskelainen BM, Eriksson CJ. Drinking, menstrual cycle and female sexuality: a diary. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 1999;23:169–73.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Gilmore AK, George WH, Nguyen HV, Heiman JR, Davis KC, Norris J. Influences of situational factors and alcohol expectancies on sexual desire and arousal among heavy-episodic drinking women: acute alcohol intoxication and condom availability. Arch Sex Behav. 2013;42:949–59.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Cooper ML, Krull JL, Agocha VB, Flanagan M, Grabe SA, Orcutt HK, Jackson M, Dermen KH. Motivational pathways to alcohol use and abuse among black and white adolescents. J Abnorm Psychol. 2008;117:485–501.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Cooper ML. Toward a person X situation model of sexual risk-taking behaviors: illuminating the conditional effects of traits across sexual situations and relationship contexts. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010;98:319–41.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Cooper ML, Orcutt HK. Drinking and sexual experience on first dates among adolescents. J Abnorm Psychol. 1997;106:191–202.

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Raudenbush SW, Bryk AS, Cheong YF, Congdon R, du Toit M. HLM 7: hierarchical linear and nonlinear modeling. Lincolnwood: Scientific Software International; 2013.

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Tabachnick BG, Fidell LS. Using Multivariate statistics. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson; 2000.

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Nezlek J. Multilevel random coefficient analyses of event- and interval-contingent data in social and personality psychology research. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2001;27:771–85.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Enders CK, Tofighi D. Centering predictor variables in cross-sectional multilevel models: a new look at an old issue. Psychol Methods. 2007;12(2):121–38.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Aiken LS, West SG. Multiple regression: testing and interpreting interactions. Newbury Park: Sage; 1991.

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Raudenbush SW, Bryk AS. Hierarchical linear models archived abstract of former PSC researcher. Thousand Oaks: Sage; 2002.

    Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Fischer P, Greitemeyer T, Kastenmüller A, Vogrincic C, Sauer A. The effects of risk-glorifying media exposure on risk-positive cognitions, emotions, and behaviors: a meta-analytic review. Psychol Bull. 2011;137:367–90.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Wills TA, Sargent JD, Gibbons FX, Gerrard M, Stoolmiller M. Movie exposure to alcohol cues and adolescent alcohol problems: a longitudinal analysis in a national sample. Psychol Addict Behav. 2009;23:23–35.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Collins RL, Elliott MN, Berry SH, Kanouse DE, Kunkel D, Hunter SB, Miu A. Watching sex on television predicts adolescent initiation of sexual behavior. Pediatrics. 2004;114:280–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Durant RH, Rome ES, Rich M, Allred E, Emans SJ, Woods ER. Tobacco and alcohol use behaviors portrayed in music videos: a content analysis. Am J Public Health. 1997;87:1131–5.

    PubMed  CAS  PubMed Central  Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Jensen RE, Jensen JD. Entertainment media and sexual health: a content analysis of sexual talk, behavior, and risks in a popular television series. Sex Roles. 2007;56:275–84.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Connors GJ, Maisto SA, Dermen KM. Alcohol-related expectancies and their applications to treatment. In: Watson II, editor. Alcohol abuse treatment. Totowa: Humana Press; 1992.

    Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Darkes J, Goldman MS. Expectancy challenge and drinking reduction: experimental evidence for a mediational process. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1993;61:344–53.

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Darkes J, Goldman MS. Expectancy challenge and drinking reduction: process and structure in the alcohol expectancy network. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 1998;6:64–76.

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Lau-Barraco C, Dunn ME. Evaluation of a single-session expectancy challenge intervention to reduce alcohol use among college students. Psychol Addict Behav. 2008;22:169–75.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Wiers RW, van de Luitgaarden J, van den Wildenberg E, Smulders FT. Challenging implicit and explicit alcohol-related cognitions in young heavy drinkers. Addiction. 2005;100:806–19.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Larimer ME, Cronce JM. Identification, prevention, and treatment revisited: individual-focused college drinking prevention strategies 1999–2006. Addict Behav. 2007;32:2439–68.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Borsari B, Carey KB. Effects of a brief motivational intervention with college student drinkers. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2000;68:728–33.

    PubMed  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Schwarz N. Self-reports: how the questions shape the answers. Am Psychol. 1999;54(2):93–105.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Schaeffer N. Asking questions about threatening topics: a selective overview. In: Stone AA, Turkkan JS, Bachrach C, editors. The science of self-report: implications for research and practice. Mahwah: Erlbaum; 2000.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. Lynne Cooper.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Cooper, M.L., O’Hara, R.E. & Martins, J. Does Drinking Improve the Quality of Sexual Experience?: Sex-Specific Alcohol Expectancies and Subjective Experience on Drinking Versus Sober Sexual Occasions. AIDS Behav 20, 40–51 (2016).

Download citation


  • Alcohol-related sex expectancies
  • Alcohol use
  • Sexual experience
  • Event-level analyses
  • Within-person analyses