Societal and cultural norms don’t mix well with female sexuality.  Little value is placed on the natural form and instead directed at the unrealistic compulsive perfecting of feminine bodies. Mainstream media reinforces these notions with gendered and sexist advertisements, dooming sexually confident women from self-expression, unless perhaps aided by the use of drugs or alcohol.

Of course, the substance use by women carries a double edge sword.  On the one hand, there is a permission-giving message of lowered inhibitions and sexual openness. On the other, if anything in a sexual situation goes awry, the woman is blamed as if her being under the influence caused the events to take place.

Since many women’s initiation into substance use begins with a desire for belonging, it is not infrequent for them to be introduced to drugs or alcohol by close friends and partners, creating a connection between relationships and using. This intermingling carries through into womanhood and many women struggling with addiction maintain sexual relationships with using partners. This not only results in an overwhelming majority of sexual experiences while drunk or high, it also dysregulates healthy sexual functioning, leaving addicted women with problems in maintaining connected, trusting, and intimate sexual experiences.   

Sexual functioning is further restricted by excessive substance use. Contrary to popular belief that alcohol and other drugs enhance sexual performance, after the initial excitement wear off, alcohol and heroin serve their intended depressive function and inhibit performance, lowering sensitivity to bodily touch and pleasure. The same is true for marijuana. In women, this can translate into problems with arousal and desire, problems with lubrication and painful intercourse.

For many women dependent on substances, their addiction serves as a source of comfort and pleasure, while sex represents unmet non-sexual needs. The false sense of security created by drug use may be an attempt at tolerating apprehension, isolation and loneliness, relief from distress or a longing for genuine emotional investment. Sexuality and addiction becomes intertwined, yet the two are mutually exclusive because addiction does not result in safe and healthy sexual experiences.

If recovery is to be effective then it should first and foremost address the reclaiming of personal ownership of women’s sexual selves from their partners and their substance of choice. This means recognizing the impact of female socialization on sexuality, reconnecting with their oftentimes-neglected physical body, and learning to appreciate oneself as sexual and worthy of pleasure without any additional stipulations.  

This process isn’t simple and obviously scary. Drugs become addictive because they work well as numbing agents, so the idea of sex without a fantastical additive to allow for relaxation and sexual pleasure is anxiety provoking and aversive. Taking into account the already vague concept of sexual satisfaction coupled with needed awareness of one’s body and intended safe surrender to another, it is only natural for these women to consider sex off drugs a completely foreign concept.

Avoiding discussions of sexuality and addiction, however, only perpetuates the problem. If alcohol and drug recovery emphasizes authentic and meaningful experiences without mind-altering substances, this must inherently be translated into sexual interactions to feel grounded, reliable and safe.  

Source: Covington, S. (1997). Women, Addiction, and Sexuality. In Straussner, L. & Zelvin, E. Gender and Addiction: Men and Women in Treatment (pp.71-96). New Jersey: Jason Aronson.