Are Drugs About Sex?

When the Penn researchers questioned almost 1,000 people in two subject populations, one undergraduate and one Internet-based, [they found that] … differences in reproductive strategies are driving individuals’ different views on recreational drugs.  While many items predict to some extent whether people are opposed to recreational drugs, the most closely related predictors are people’s views on sexual promiscuity. While people who are more religious and those who are more politically conservative do tend to oppose recreational drugs, in both study samples the predictive power of these religious and ideological items was reduced nearly to zero by controlling for items tracking attitudes toward sexual promiscuity. …

According to the researchers’ evolutionary model, people develop complex differences in their sexual and reproductive strategies. One key difference that creates strategic conflict arises in people’s orientations towards casual sexual activity. The relationships of people following a more committed, monogamous reproductive strategy are put at greater risk when casual sex is prevalent. On the other hand, people pursuing a less committed lifestyle seek to avoid having their choices moralized, forbidden and punished. The researchers cite prior work showing that recreational drug usage is often associated with promiscuity. The results of the study imply that attitudes against recreational drugs are part of a larger attempt to advance the cause of committed, monogamous reproductive strategies. (more; source; HT David Pearce)

OK, it is plausible that the main thing folks fear from drugs is that drugs lead to promiscuous sex.  But if so, then why does the US pay a terrible cost to (poorly) discourage drug use, and yet allow great promiscuity with only weak punishments.  We even prevent blackmail that would naturally tax illicit promiscuity.  Perhaps we don’t like to admit that sex is our concern?

Added 4:30p: OK, maybe there are three main types: 1) abstainers – those who don’t want promiscuity, 2) stoners – those who do want promiscuity, are willing to admit it, and use drugs to help get it, and 3) cheaters – those who want promiscuity, but aren’t willing to admit it, don’t use drugs to get it, and compete with stoners for partners.  Groups 1&3 together support anti-drug laws, while groups 2&3 together keep punishments of promiscuity weak.  I’m suggesting the survey used in this study measured willingness to admit to liking promiscuity, not willingness to actually be promiscuous.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • Steve Dodson

    Why link directly to sex? Evolutionary biology isn’t about sex anyhow, it’s about children.

    If you look at the drug war rhetoric, it tends to involve children either directly (keep kids off drugs) or indirectly through the behavior of adult addicts. Rather than being about sex itself, it might represent a difference in broader reproductive strategies regarding investment in children.

    Bet: standard hippie stereotypes apply and the promiscuous drug users also have a more laissez faire approach to child-rearing while monogamists are pushed more toward the helicopter parent model.

  • Weak punishments for promiscuity? Are you high? (Hey, guess there is a relationshiop…) What do you call the requirement to pay child support when mommy decides to have the baby but won’t marry the daddy?

  • Did this study include alcohol under the category of drugs? If not, why not? If it didn’t include it, I find it really hard to buy the association between drugs and attitudes towards monogamy. If link only shows up with illegal drugs, you would think that the link is between monogamy and legality, which I’d find much more convincing, because when you start a family, enter a serious relationship, you may become more concerned with sabotaging that domesticity, whereas you may not feel those responsibilities as deeply while single. The conclusion that it means something about recreational drug use and casual sex is bogus.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, I gotta do more drugs.

  • The direction of causality is borne out in time-series data on wild behavior among teenagers:

    Violence, promiscuity, and ignoring safety conventions (like wearing a seatbelt or bike helmet) began falling at least since 1992, or between the first and second surveys. It may have started a few years earlier, based on the teen pregnancy rate data. Homicide rate starts to fall in 1992.

    However, use of illegal drugs and cigarettes, and habitual (not lifetime) alcohol use only started falling in the late 1990s.

    That suggests that violence, promiscuity, and a reckless attitude toward safety laws are more fundamental to this “permissiveness factor” the authors have found. It’s only 5 to 10 years after a sweeping change has been made here that it extends out to the less central drug use behaviors and causes them to fall as well.

  • noematic

    Attempts to address drug usage are a better way to show concern for third parties than attempts to address promiscuity, as drug usage is often more referable to demonstrable harm than promiscuity.

  • Lumping promiscuity together with violence and ignoring safety conventions strikes me as odd.

  • If she smokes, she pokes.


    I respect your [Hanson’s] analysis on this, it’s open speculation not definitive statements. But I worry this study will become just another misunderstood data point warping voter- and policy priors.

  • Psychohistorian

    The most likely explanation is that some modestly complex third factor causes both promiscuity. I’m fairly sure that if A causes both B and C, which are also highly correlated, then controlling for B will make A relatively useless as a predictor – this would mean that religiosity or something like it could indeed be the cause.

    From personal experience, something related to future discounting or “middle class values” or even simply “hedonism,” may be the primary controlling factor. Drug use and promiscuity have a lot in common, in that they’re generally socially disapproved of behaviours with a heavy hedonic payload that carry high risk if done stupidly and low risk if done responsibly. It’s thus wholly unsurprising that those willing to do one would be willing to do the other.

  • The simplest explanation comes from Jonathan Haidt’s research on the relationship between morality and purity. The higher people score on the purity factor for morality the more they avoid promiscuous sex and the more they avoid putting strange chemicals into their body. Both sex, outside of marriage at least, and drugs desecrate the body.

  • Doug S.

    Count me as the outlier. I support promiscuity and oppose drug use.

  • I flashed back to the Onion: Drug Use Down Among Uncool Kids.

    I’ve been feeling even more puritanical after reading Paul Ewald’s “Plague Time”, but support legalizing both drugs & prostitution. I presume it would cause less disease above-ground.

  • Mitchell Porter

    Coming up:

    Is War About Sex? Study shows that attitudes towards war in Iraq and Afghanistan are more strongly correlated with disapproval of the burqa than with political orientation.

    Is Sex About Drugs? Study shows that attitudes towards promiscuity are more strongly correlated with disapproval of recreational drug use than with religiosity.

    Are Drugs About War? Study shows that attitudes towards recreational drug use are more strongly correlated with disapproval of US foreign policy than with political orientation.

    ad infinitum.

  • O58er

    I do not want to use drugs and i am also against prohibitional laws. I would choose so legalize regulated softdrug & harddrugs use.

  • I’m with those who are skeptical about the supposed causal link between (illegal) drugs and sex. Those who do drugs, do them to get into whatever mental state is characteristic of the drug of the moment. This may or may not be conducive to (promiscuous) sexual activity. But where we have drugs and recreational sex, there’s some third factor driving both of them; it’s not just drugs being the route to sex.

    “Perhaps we don’t like to admit that sex is our concern?”

    Sounds like sex was the researcher’s concern and they rigged their research & interpretation to prove find that concern validated.

  • While probably a very small minority, I think there should be #4 included. #3 (‘cheaters’) are people who say they abstain but really don’t. #4 are people who say they don’t want to abstain but really do abstain.

    These are the people who support the idea of promiscuity but are themselves loyal and in a monogamous relationship. I’m having trouble finding a single word for them because the term ‘abstainers’ is already used – perhaps rename #1 to ‘monogamists’ and use ‘abstainers’ for #4.

  • This is odd, since there are very few illegal drugs that will actually increase your libido.

    Ecstasy, despite being called the “love drug,” is much more likely to provoke feelings of friendliness and platonic love than it is to arouse horniness, urban legends about sex on E making regular sex pale in comparison notwithstanding. And since it’s a stimulant, it’s subject to the same erection-dulling properties as cocaine.

    Cocaine, while it may increase your sex drive, will give you what’s known colloquially as “coke dick” – i.e., a failure for males to achieve erections.

    The libido-killing effects of heroin and opioid painkillers are so well known that they’re hardly worth mentioning. William Burroughs’ two-part series on heroin addiction and its aftermath illustrates this perfectly – in Junky, Burroughs is a keen-eyed dope-addled ethnographer who rarely mentions sex, whereas in Queer, when he’s off the junk and roaming Latin America in withdrawal, he can’t seem to do anything but think of sex.

    …as for your remark that the US “poorly” restricts drug use, I don’t think this is true at all. Alcohol and tobacco use in the general population is extremely high, whereas marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy use – all drugs that are, when stripped of political context (i.e., prohibition-induced heroin overdoses), far more fun and less dangerous than alcohol/cigarettes – have relatively low rates of use. Yeah, we’ve all heard that 40% of living Americans have TRIED marijuana at least once in their entire lifetime, but that’s probably equal to the percentage of Americans who have had an alcoholic beverage or cigarette in the last month. If one were to legalize all drugs, it’s hard to believe that daily heroin use would remain at 0.1% for very long (and this is coming from someone who believes all drugs should be legalized).

  • Andr

    I think this tends to oversimplify, (which I think is your only real weakness in general, Robin) and you missed the fourth main type– those of us who are in favour of recreation drug use and not in favour of promiscuity. Speaking from first hand experience and socail exposure to many drug users, there are scores of monogamous people who enjoy intoxication.
    I’m not sure where it fits in, but there are also people who don’t practice anonymous promiscuous sex but accept that it may be a effective strategy for others.

  • Seth

    I think you are mistaking causation with correlation. This study does not show or claim to show that people who are against drugs are against drugs because they think they cause promiscuity. It shows people who are against recreational drug use also tend to be against casual sex. It could be that one causes the other or it could be both are the result of a deeper bias, and this causation could be conscious or unconscious, but your interpretation that “OK, it is plausible that the main thing folks fear from drugs is that drugs lead to promiscuous sex,” is a complete misunderstanding of the study.

  • Jo Denny

    Back in the day when I was into drugs it sure was, it was always about sex.

  • bivouac

    I’m with Andr, I oppose promiscuity but support recreational drug use. The whole debate seems a bit silly, if you ask me. r. Certainly there is a correlation, but I think it’s a bit more complicated than this article. There is an underlying philosophical permissiveness that is not necessarily all inclusive. It would be erroneous to lump all people as either “uptight” or “with it” (haha, I sound like a 60’s cop…), values systems are far more complicated than that.

    In my opinion, society’s opposition toward drug use is more about productivity than sex. If drug users didn’t have the stigma of deadbeats, it would be more acceptable. Would drugs be more accepted if the stereotypical boss were using and still getting things done instead of screwing his secretary and still getting things done? Certainly at the moment those situations are not interchangeable, so where’s the correlation?

  • James Bain

    “What is it? I’ll take it. Who is she? I’ll rape it…..”
    Quadrophenia, by The Who
    This may reflect the “total abuse, all the way on the first date” approach adopted by most serious mutants.
    Life imitates art? Or vice versa?

  • I don’t think drugs and sex are directly related or a cause of one another, but both result from “novelty seeking”.

    It has been shown that persons with a high score for the trait of novelty seeking have more sexual partners over their lifetime than similar people with lower scores.

    And people with lower scores for novelty seeking are more likely to be monogamous and not use drugs because they don’t crave those new experiences.

  • Dr. T

    Is there a link between “recreational” drug use and promiscuity? Such a link is unlikely for users of opiates, barbiturates, or tranquilizers. It also is unlikely for users of hallucinogens such as LSD or peyote. There may be a link between promiscuity and use of amphetamines, cocaine, ecstasy, etc., but it probably is less strong than the link between promiscuity and use of ethanol.

    The survey, as usual, seems to be badly designed. It interviewed only college-aged young adults and a paid, self-selected group of internet users. Political orientation was based on a self-assessment question, a method that always minimizes the extremes. (For example, people who would objectively be classified as far left-liberal often call themselves slightly left of center.) The sexuality scale was partly based on the number of “non-intercourse” partners in the past three years. I cannot see how that is an indicator of acceptance of promiscuity.

    This study did not ask about ethanol use. It asked specifically about marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy use, but it lumped all recreational drugs together in later survey items. The exclusion of ethanol and most categories of recreational drugs weakens the study.

    My reading of the paper is that the authors first established their models and drew their conclusions, and then designed the study. Not surprisingly, their belief that attitudes about recreational drugs would correlate with reproductive strategies was supported by this study.