St. Louis, Mo., gynecologist Becky Kaufman Lynn faced a problem: her patients wanted her to explain how cannabis affected how they experienced sex, but she wasn’t sure how to answer.
“Women would come in and say, ‘My sexual problems are so much better when I smoke marijuana,’ or, ‘My pain is better when I smoke marijuana.'”
Lynn, who also teaches at the Saint Louis University medical school, tried to read up on it, but quickly ran into another issue: there has been almost no research into how marijuana affects sex, for better or worse.
So she started a study at the clinic.
Of the patients who said they had used marijuana prior to sex (about three in 10) two-thirds said it made the experience more pleasurable. Of that group, almost three-quarters said it always made sex more pleasurable. Only one individual said it made sex less pleasurable.
“There are a variety of ideas as to why. One is that it lowers your anxiety and stress, it gives you a little bit more confidence in your sexual ability. Or it may slow down your perception of time and heighten sensation.”
California-based sex educator Ashley Manta finds that cannabis helps get distractions out of the way.
“I have had it be really effective for days when my stress level is off the charts and I can’t turn off my brain and I want to just make those spinning gears stop so that I can be present with my partner. Cannabis really helps me get out of my head and actually get present in my body.”
Some effects of cannabis — relaxation, euphoria, sensitivity to touch — can be helpful.
“I’ve also found it to enhance sensory perception. Tactile sensations feel different when I’m high than they do when I’m not.”
Too much is too much
However, all the experts Global News talked to warned that too much cannabis can derail the experience of sex. Too much causes sedation (or “couch lock”), paranoia and an inward focus that takes attention away from a partner. It can also mean inhibited orgasm and in men, erectile dysfunction.
“At really high doses of cannabis, people can withdraw enough into their own head that they essentially forget what they are doing, and it’s no longer a mutual experience, and often just ceases to happen,” warns Boston-based doctor Jordan Tishler.
“Sexuality occurs most between the ears. It’s a mental and emotional thing. People get very fixated on genitalia, but that’s only the end result. A lot of things have to go right for it to work.”
Manta answered a letter from a straight couple who took massive doses of 120 mg of edibles each. Even the next day, sex was a disaster.
The man not only had erectile dysfunction, but in his partner’s words, “couldn’t really feel his nether regions,” while she found it impossible to reach orgasm.
“They stayed high into the next day, which is not unheard of for consuming that quantity of THC,” Mantra says.
“I was so horrified when I read that, and not in any kind of shaming way for them, because they didn’t know any better. It’s not their fault. Someone didn’t give them the information that they needed.”
But how much is too much?
How much is too much for you? It can be hard to tell for a new user. Manta and Tishler both say it’s a good idea to experiment on yourself a bit first, instead of inflicting a trial-and-error process on a partner.
“Then you can make an educated decision about how best to use that response to enhance your sexual experience,” Manta says.
“If it’s something that makes you really sleepy, or you just want to binge-watch Netflix for six hours, it will spoil date night, and that’s no fun.”
Manta also suggests “microdosing,” or taking such small amounts that no high is felt. With edibles, this could happen at 2.5 mg or lower. Doses as low as 1 mg aren’t unheard of.
“A lot of times, when people push back on combining sex and cannabis, they say, ‘I don’t want to feel high.’ Or ‘I have kids running around – I can’t be high for two hours after smoking.’”
“Typically, what that looks like is that you don’t perceive a high, but do notice, perhaps, relief of tension or pain. You’re looking for the absence of something — the absence of anxiety, the absence of whatever it is.”
Smoking, vaping or edibles?
People who dislike smoking often turn to edibles. (While food-form edibles aren’t available yet, oils and gel caps are sold from legal sources across the country.)
However, Manta and Tishler both point to disadvantages.
For one thing, effects can take hours to kick in; for another, as Manta says, the high when it arrives can be “much more sedate and much more body-heavy.”
“An oral product is a bad way to get into this,” Tishler says. “I think it’s a bad way to do it in general. The oral products are very easy to quantify, but their onset is very unpredictable, even for the same person on a different day with the same product.”
Also, he points out, a couple who take an edible at the same time may have it kick in at different times.
Smoking has the advantage that the user can quickly judge the effects. But it comes with smell and mess, and paired with sex, means that your partner has to be comfortable with intimate contact with someone who’s just been smoking.
“Vaping does take a lot of that out,” Manta says. “Vaping is not as odorous as smoking.”
For non-smokers, Manta suggests a sublingual approach, or holding oil under the tongue.
“That could be an option for somebody who doesn’t want to smoke, but wants to feel effects faster and be able to dose them accurately.”
Marijuana users have more sex, but it’s not clear why
The U.S. National Survey of Family Growth, which studied more than 50,000 people, shows that cannabis users have sex more often than non-users. The results were consistent for both men and women and across all age groups, religions, races and ethnicities, and educational and income levels. They were also repeated across multiple years.
It’s not well-understood why, however. The researchers who pointed out the relationship raised the possibility that cannabis users might just be more free-spirited.
“Individuals who engage in marijuana use, or would be open about use, might be more psychologically disinhibited in general than those who are not. This also might be reflected in their sex life.”
(The scientists had originally set out to find out whether cannabis users had less sex than non-users, which they at first suspected was the case, and called their findings “reassuring.”)
Manta also cautions that any noticeable amount of cannabis can complicate consent.
“Consent gets left out of the conversation all the time,” Manta says. “As a sexual assault survivor who got my start as a prevention educator, that’s troubling.”
“You don’t want to be smoking and all of a sudden be like, ‘Oh, let’s have sex, new person, we’re both stoned!’ And try to negotiate safer sex. No, do that sober.”
“Any time you’re combining a psychoactive substance with sexuality, there is the potential for harm.”
More research is needed, but it can’t happen in the U.S.
As Lynn found, the subject needs more attention from scientists. But as in other areas, prohibition made cannabis hard to study for decades.
Manta would like to compare how orgasms with or without cannabis differ, using an fMRI brain scanner.
“The main thing is to do a random, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial — which might be hard because if you didn’t get high, you would know you got the placebo,” Lynn says.
But all of the American researchers that Global News talked to lamented that research into sex and cannabis (or anything else and cannabis) is nearly impossible to do in the United States. Because cannabis is still federally illegal, research is barred from federal funding. In most of the country, state laws also get in the way.
“It’s frustrating, not being able to study it,” says Richard Balon of Wayne State University in Detroit.
“We need to study it, but that’s not going to happen in this country. In Canada, you could do it – it’s more permissive.”