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High Culture:

  Marijuana in the Lives of Americans

    by William Novak

      5. Sex and Intimacy

Marijuana is one of the smartest plants in the world. It escapes captivity, adapts quickly to its environment, hides from police and has a lot of sex.

—Laurence Cherniak,
The Great Books of Hashish [1]

First things first: strictly speaking, marijuana is not an aphrodisiac. Although the idea is a very old one, there is no chemical evidence that marijuana produces an increase in sexual desire. For most smokers, marijuana can and does increase sexual pleasure, and for some users, it leads to an increase in desire, as well.
    Still, the popular image persists that cannabis and sex are somehow linked in a cause-and-effect relationship, and the notion that marijuana is a true aphrodisiac is revived periodically. In the nineteenth century, the idea surfaced in Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, published in 1845. Dumas describes the effects of hashish on the Baron d'Epinay:
... there followed a dream of passion like that promised by the Prophet to the elect. Lips of stone turned to flame, breasts of ice became like heated lava, so that to Franz, yielding for the first time to the sway of the drug, love was a sorrow and voluptuousness a torture, as burning mouths were pressed to his thirsty lips, and he was held in serpent-like embraces. The more he strove against this unhallowed passion, the more his senses yielded to the thrall, and at length, weary of the struggle that taxed his very soul, he gave way and sank back, breathless and exhausted beneath the enchantment of his marvelous dream.[2]

    The same theme can be traced back centuries earlier, to the Arabian Nights, where the reader will learn that hashish has at least two sexual uses. After smoking it, husbands would fall asleep peacefully, unwittingly leaving their wives free to enjoy other lovers. But hashish was also considered an aphrodisiac—which is made clear in the tale of a lover who was about to consummate the sexual act, only to awaken and discover it was all a hashish-induced dream. (And to add insult to injury, the poor fellow found himself surrounded by a laughing crowd, "for his prickle was at a point, and the napkin bad slipped from his middle.")[3]
    In our own time, the myth of marijuana as an aphrodisiac became prevalent in the l960s, having enjoyed a brief appearance earlier in the century as part of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics' concerted propaganda campaign against the drug. During the sixties the idea of a connection between cannabis and sex became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, since the most conspicuous users of marijuana were young men and women enjoying a variety of new freedoms. Marijuana appeared simultaneously with the sexual revolution, and to many it seemed that the two were inherently linked. Indeed, several users surveyed for this book told of their first sexual experience in the context of discussing their initial use of marijuana, and several others spoke of their first marijuana experience as parallel to losing their virginity.
    At the same time, the explicit use of marijuana solely or primarily for sexual purposes appears to be far more common among relatively older users, although cocaine has taken over among those who can afford it. Smokers under forty who use marijuana to enhance sexual experience tend to smoke it at other times as well. It should also be noted that smokers who combine marijuana with sexual activity do not generally consider the drug to be a necessary or even frequent part of their sex lives.
    In the mid-1970s, the women's magazine Redbook published the results of a survey of its mostly middle-class, well-educated readers. Nearly half of the unmarried women who responded said that they had used marijuana in conjunction with sex. A few years earlier, Charles Tart's survey of marijuana users indicated that smokers tend to regard themselves as better lovers when they are high.[4] Among other reasons, they mention more pleasurable orgasms, a closer contact with their partners, and especially a more sensitive and sensual response to touching and being touched. In another survey, Erich Goode found similar results and revealed that smoking marijuana before sex was more popular among women than men—at least in his sample—and that marijuana was found to be useful in breaking down sexual inhibitions. An Atlanta woman confirms this last point:
The most terrific experiences I've had while stoned have been sexual encounters. I finally learned how sensual my body really is, and I can say without a doubt that marijuana contributed to this discovery. I often get high before making love. My body responds in a more fluid, warm manner, with visual imagery intensified, and every touch sending notes of ecstasy to my brain.
    No, I have not become a "loose woman" because I smoke pot. But I'm a lot looser than I was ten years ago. I'm not sure how much of this is due to grass, and how much is because of my personal growth; for me, the two go together and can't always be separated. But I do know that my sexual expression has been greatly enhanced since I started getting high.[5]

    The fact of a connection seems clear enough, but, as usual, the reasons for it are less obvious. One of the most common perceptions of smokers is that marijuana prolongs the sexual act, and it appears that for many men, at least, this is not only a psychological effect—marijuana is known to slow down the awareness of passing time—but a physiological response as well. Another explanation often given is that along with the heightened intensity of sex under marijuana, there is an increase in relaxation, producing the paradox of "relaxed concentration," a combination that has also been noted by people who drive when they are stoned. Mark experiences this paradox in these terms:
People say that grass is an aphrodisiac, but I don't think that's exactly true. It doesn't make you more sexually powerful or anything like that, but it does make everything more vivid and intense. I think a lot of it is that you end up getting utterly lost in what's going on. The rest of the world just stops being there. The thing about concentration is that if the activity generates its own energy, as sex does, you've got it made. Even though you're relaxed, you're not likely to fall asleep in the middle of making love!

    Several correspondents mentioned that marijuana helps them to concentrate better during sex. One man suggested that most people who have sexual problems have trouble because "their mind is scattered, and they're thinking about a thousand different things at once. Getting stoned raises your power of concentration." A New York man elaborates:
In making love when you're stoned, you tend to focus on smaller areas of sensation and thus magnify the importance of each one. I've explored a lover, literally square inch by square inch, and have found it unbelievably sensual. Making love while stoned is a new experience each time, with a different quality on each occasion. Also, being stoned facilitates the removal of headtripping during sex, getting you down to pure experience with a minimum of intellectualization .

    A Chicago woman in her mid-forties describes a particularly pleasant example of how marijuana helps her to concentrate during sex:
The thirty- to sixty-minute period of lovemaking seems timeless, more like three or four hours. My capacity to focus was greatly heightened. I remember having no body parts except those directly connected to arousal. That is, when kissing, I was aware only of my mouth; when he fondled my breasts, I was only breasts, and later—only genitals. The foci shifted frequently and I was able to concentrate on one sensation at a time, leaving out all others, including hearing, smelling, even touching and tasting in the service of the intensity of being touched.

    It should not be surprising, then, that marijuana enhances sexual activity, since it has been known to lower inhibitions, slow down the appearance of passing time, induce relaxation, make people more aware of their senses, and help them to focus on the present moment. As a Chicago lawyer put it, "Sex, ah yes. This is what pot was made for."
    Being high allows many users to understand what some sex researchers have been insisting upon for years: that the sexual act should be regarded as something more than a mere stepladder to orgasmic release. Not surprisingly, many smokers report that the prime effect of marijuana on sex is to de-emphasize the orgasm as the central event, allowing them to enjoy more general experiences of physical pleasure and emotional intimacy. This relaxation frequently serves both to delay and to heighten the orgasm, precisely because it has been removed as the focal point of the encounter.
    At the same time, the new standards regarding premarital sex during the sixties and seventies have allowed marijuana to fit in very conveniently with the image of socially sanctioned seduction scenes found in the popular men's magazines. "If you went out with a girl who would smoke with you," recalls a man who is now married with children, "you could be pretty sure she'd sleep with you too. In fact, you could pretty much count on it, and if it didn't happen, you could consider yourself taken advantage of."
    Predictably, the association between marijuana and seduction has led to concern on the part of some women, who find themselves suspicious of men who show a strong interest in marijuana and other recreational drugs during the early stages of courtship. As one woman put it, "I like to smoke as much as the next person, but many men use dope as one more tool against a girl to get her pants off."
    Marijuana is especially useful to people who show a reluctance to let go, since it serves to sanction their right to behave with more abandon. Indeed, both marijuana and sex depend to a large extent on the individual's ability and willingness to enter into a different form of reality without fear. Each person makes certain compromises around the issue of control, letting go to a personally tolerable level of comfort and security. An interesting example is Carol, the psychiatric nurse, who finds that marijuana heightens her sense of abandon—but also increases her insecurities:
Sometimes when I'm very turned on to the person I'm with, I've had the sense of riding a magic carpet. I've told the guy, but he really doesn't understand what it is I'm saying. I really feel like I'm on a plane ride, a very controlled whisking away. It's an abandonment, but one which I feel good about. Actually, it's not so much like a plane ride, because I don't feel anything under me; the visual image is that of a soaring magic carpet. When I'm stoned, I can really get into that. It's happened to me several times. It's strictly a stoned experience. I don't ride on carpets that way unless I'm stoned.

    But for Carol, there is another, less pleasant side to having sex while she is high, about which she is articulate and frank. Marijuana may enhance the physical pleasures of sex, but in her case, it also enhances certain emotional realities to the point where there is a stiff price to pay:
Sexually, there's an expansion when I'm stoned, a slowing down, especially of the things I wouldn't want rushed. Just the holding onto someone—that's slowed down for me. I guess I have a real fear of these experiences slipping away from me too quickly. I have a hard time with separations of any sort, even if they're only momentary.
    For example, when I'm stoned, and the guy I'm with gets up to go to the bathroom, and I'm sitting on the bed, all of a sudden I'll get the idea and say to myself, "Hey, you've just hallucinated the fact that he's here. But he's not here. He's not in the bathroom. He's gone. This is the reality, aloneness is the reality, being totally alone in the world."
    I've had that experience several times. And then I'll hear the toilet flush, and I'll think someone must be here, and then he'll come back in, and I have to ground myself to the idea that he's here, and I'll say, "I'm glad I'm not hallucinating, you're really here, aren't you?" And then he'll look at me—I don't fill in the gaps for him—and I don't tell him I've hallucinated while he was gone.
    It's a weird thing, and it happens a lot. If I'm the one who gets up, I'll have the sense that when I return, there will be nobody there.

    Sometimes marijuana can depersonalize a sexual experience. This may be what the user wants: for a physical therapist from New Jersey, "There's a special kick in watching yourself, mentally, making love to somebody else." She adds that while grass makes her more interested in sex, it can also make her not want to be touched at all, a paradox mentioned by several other users.
    Other smokers find this depersonalizing effect not at all to their liking. A Michigan man who has been smoking for several years says he is now having second thoughts:
I'm no longer sure that sex is enhanced by marijuana. Fucking maybe, but lovemaking is done away with. Stoned tingles are especially intense tingles, and certainly pleasurable, but they just float off into the void while I try to remember who it is I'm tingling with. And where's the drama in that? I have always found sex to extract a psychic commitment, a sense of possibilities and dangers. But with marijuana, it's often roughly equivalent to masturbating with a copy of Penthouse.

    Lenny has come to a similar conclusion. For him, fascination is increased, but not meaning. "It's very sexy," he says, "but it doesn't really add up to much."
    Other users find that while sex and marijuana are usually a good combination, there are definite limits to their alliance. For example, a teenaged girl from St. Louis finds that marijuana stimulates her mind to the point where she can't fully concentrate on the moment at hand:
Kissing isn't that good with a buzz on, because my mouth is too aware. I also don't like it because my mind is always working so I can't concentrate on enjoying it. Did you ever kiss and wonder about life's mysteries at the same time? They just don't go together. When I'm stoned, all I do is think, think, think.

    Some smokers experience more serious problems. Sex and marijuana both represent altered states of consciousness. This explains, in part, their special appeal, but it also leads to difficulties, as this Wisconsin man discovered:
Sex provides a peculiar tension that makes being stoned a hundred times better than it is. Notice I said that sex makes dope better, rather than the other way around. Being high does change the complexion of the sex act, though: it can be anything from a five-minute quickie to a long bacchanalian dance, and pot creates a different kind of desire than anything else I know.
    But I would not like to be stoned every time I had sex, because eventually the feelings associated with being straight could easily become confused with the feelings of being stoned.

    A similar trouble was reported by a woman from Hawaii, who finds that it is not always easy to know where one high ends and the other begins:
While I like to have sex after smoking dope, I sometimes wonder about my boyfriend. I know I'm high on him, but I'm not always sure whether he is enjoying me or the drug. Do you know that scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen complains to Diane Keaton that she won't have sex without smoking a joint? He gets his way, but then we see an image of her body walking over to a chair to wait for the sex to end. I can't get that scene out of my mind.

    A writer in New York complains that marijuana works so well that it could ruin sex by overpowering it:
What disturbs me is that dope threatens to offer a physical pleasure greater than sex. When people masturbate, they usually fantasize another person, so the need for that other person—for love—is still present in the fantasy. But with dope, the fantasy—for me, at least—is usually colors, sounds of music, and various nonpersonal sensations. I feel it displaces the marvelous mammal connection between sex, love, and happiness.
    All this is my way of saying that dope messes up my own fucking. I can't connect in orgasm when I'm stoned, either with my wife or with my own body. The foreplay is often better and more interesting, and the first few minutes of intercourse are great, but when it comes to coming with my whole body in a rhythm, dope messes me up. My head bobs all offbeat with my pelvis; my feet don't jive right. It starts well and ends badly.

    But for most smokers, sex and marijuana go well together, and many users offered glowing testimonies to the effect of marijuana on their sex lives. For example, a professor from Phoenix writes:
There's nothing more exciting than sex while you're high, assuming you've got a well-developed imagination and a partner to love. When I'm stoned, I just have to look at my wife. Her body becomes irresistible, and mine becomes electric. I undress her slowly, and love her body as though there were nothing else important in my life. My penis is oversensitized, and sometimes is so huge that it hurts. Actual intercourse is such a trip! She always feels hotter and tighter than usual. Frankly, I don't have the words to describe the experience. I only hope I grow old and gray before I lose my desire to love her this way.

    For many smokers, marijuana makes more explicit and actually seems to strengthen the link between emotional and sexual love. One man reported that marijuana gave added meaning to the "sweet nothings" that he sometimes exchanges with his wife, like "you make me complete" or "we're so lucky to have found each other." For David, sex on marijuana is not just physically arousing:
What really moves me are the emotional effects of pot on our sex life. It makes me realize whom I'm with, that I have the privilege of being married to and making love to the woman I love most in the world, who makes my life happy and gives it meaning.
    Dope helps me to see that some corny expressions carry real meaning when you take them out of their usual packaging. Of course I love her when we're not stoned too, which is most of the time. But smoking often makes that love more concrete, so that it manifests itself with great spontaneity and power.

    Mark and Sarah are quite sure that their son was conceived during a stoned session of lovemaking. Mark recalls:
It was a transcendent experience. We knew exactly what we were doing, and were utterly blown away. It wasn't something we had decided to do in advance; all of a sudden, it just happened. That evening, we were both over at Danny's, and Sarah told Danny she was pregnant. We were both sure; there was just no question about it.


Intimacy: Marijuana as Truth Serum

For some couples, the heightening of emotional closeness in sex as a result of smoking is carried over into other aspects of their lives. Murray and Judy, recently married, are both mental-health professionals in their early thirties. They are moderate users, smoking about twice a week, invariably on weekend evenings. Each time they smoke together, whether or not there are other people present, they find themselves experiencing a profound sense of closeness—an intimacy, they say, that led directly to their decision to get married. Since marijuana played a role in that decision, I asked them, separately, to describe how it happened.
    Murray began:
When we smoked together, we would really get intimate. It was like our boundaries would fuse. At first it was a little frightening, but we were able to get beyond it.

    Judy recalls:
All of these things that go on when we're stoned had never happened to me before I met Murray. I was never as close to anybody as I allowed myself to be with him. We smoked in the beginning of our relationship, but neither of us could tolerate the closeness that soon. And so we didn't allow things to get really intimate until after a few months. And then, vroom, it began to take over in the way we were with each other even when we weren't stoned.

    Murray had told me that he had felt threatened at times during the early months of the relationship. He and Judy would argue frequently, and he would respond by trying to change the subject. But Judy would persist, bringing the disagreement to some kind of resolution. On some occasions, they would be smoking while this was going on, although it didn't seem to interfere with their ability to get to the root of the problem. Knowing that most smokers prefer not to light up a joint during moments of stress, anger or tension, I asked Murray if he had any conflicts over doing so:
Sure, it was hard, but we worked on faith that things would get better. I guess what happens is that by working out one of these arguments, rather than just forgetting it and pushing it aside, as I used to do, you really draw closer to the other person. Of course, we could go through life without ever doing that, but I'm glad we did. I was terrified of the closeness, but now I can enjoy it.
    Judy remembers these things a lot more than I do. That's interesting, that she usually remembers them. I think it's more repression than forgetting on my part. She'll remember all kinds of things. We'll have intense conversations, and sometimes they'll become sexual too, and I'll be feeling great, very close to her. The next day I will still feel the closeness, but I'll have forgotten the substance of what we had talked about, and I'll just remember the feeling. I'll ask Judy about it, and almost invariably she'll remember exactly what happened.

    For Judy, the process of finding greater intimacy when high together first occurred one summer evening, where for three hours she felt a concentrated closeness that she had never felt before. "I felt totally understood by Murray," she recalls. "I felt like we were on exactly the same wavelength and that I could say anything to him, all the things I was too defended against to say at other times, and that he had not been able to hear." At first, Judy attributed the intensity of these effects to the particular batch of marijuana they had been smoking. She labeled it "truth serum":
I had the feeling on this dope that I was talking right to his core, rather than the part of him that in his normal waking life is insecure. I was talking to him directly. It reminded me of the difference between recording a radio program with your tape recorder using a microphone, or directly, with the cables connected to the source. That's what it was like.
    I would say, for example, "You know how ridiculously you were acting today in that store?" And he would say "Yeah," and then I would mimic how he had been acting. But if I had said that while it was actually going on, he wouldn't have heard it at all. That night, I felt that we had no neurotic defenses, and I remember feeling, "This is what it must be like to be successfully and completely psychoanalyzed."
    I felt very safe and comfortable that night, but also incredibly anxious, because it was such a concentrated closeness, and it didn't go away, but lasted for three hours. Every once in a while one of us would have to get up and go into another room, just to get a break from all that intensity.
    These days, the same thing happens, no matter what dope we smoke. I say, "It's not going to happen this time," and it's like a standing joke. But we have different reactions to it. The first time it happened, when we were dating, he got angry when I brought it up the next day. "You always have to analyze everything, don't you?" he told me. It was clear to me that we had reached a new level in closeness, and I was very upset because he didn't want to talk about it or even acknowledge it.
    It may also be because during that first stoned encounter I was able to make interpretations to him about his mother, which I could never say to him in our normal life without getting belted. But stoned, I felt free to say these things, and, equally important, he was able to hear them.



1. Laurence Cherniak: The Great Books of Hashish. (back)

2. Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo, chapter 31. (back)

3. "The Arabian Nights story," comments Michael Aldrich, "reminds me that In medieval Persia and throughout the Middle East hashish was often accused of promoting pederasty and homosexuality. The association between marijuana and homosexuality has been an undercurrent of antipot literature for centuries." (back)

4. Tart: On Being Stoned, pp. 141-46. (back)

5. Goode: The Marijuana Smokers, p. 164. See also Barbara Lewis, The Sexual Power of Marijuana (New York, 1970), especially chapter 3. (back)

Chapter 6

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