How Sex on MDMA Stacks Up Against Weed and Alcohol

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Whether you call it MDMA, molly, or ecstasy, the club drug with the less-sexy chemical name of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine is huge right now. According to one national sample, 11.4 percent of young adults aged 19 to 28 have used the drug. Depending on how much it’s cut with bath salts or amphetamine (it happens!), the drug is a strong euphoric. According to various users quoted in a 25-year review of the research, the high leads to feeling like you’re “floating, flying, highly sensual”; that “everyone [is] your friend”; and, in the words of one recreational user, “Imagine the best feeling you have ever felt, times it by ten, and you’re still not close to how amazing you feel.”

Given all that sensuality, it’s good to know — from a research angle, and a news-you-can-use perspective — how MDMA affects sexual encounters, especially in light of the recent research around how alcohol leads to riskier sex than marijuana does. (That’s largely because of alcohol’s notoriously disinhibitory effects and the fact that booze is often consumed in public among strangers, whereas weed tends to be, thanks to a whole range of factors, a more private affair.) New York University public-health researcher Joseph J. Palamar, who has investigated these drugs and more, says that MDMA stands out because it’s “more sensual than sexual.” Affection comes pouring out; you’ll be more open to going up to a stranger and hugging them.

“You’re more likely to want to hold someone, or a stranger, or give or receive a massage,” Palamar tells Science of Us, which could leave you vulnerable if you get into an unsafe situation — so make sure to be with friends who will look out for you.

For a 2014 study, Palamar and colleagues interviewed 198 gay or bisexual men about club-drug use, and 84.8 percent of respondents said that MDMA gave some sort of sexual enhancement. Touch sensations were increased, and there was lots of falling in love with whoever happened to be around. “I feel like I am making love,” one 42-year-old, non-frequent user said of being on MDMA. “I hold the person even more; the kisses are more conducive; the warmth is there. It doesn’t have to be penetration necessarily or any type of copulation.” Another strike against MDMA sex was that users reported having impotence at the peak of their high; intercourse might have to be left for the comedown. Similar to what people say about alcohol, users also reported that they had lower sexual standards while on MDMA, hooking up with people who they’d steer clear of sexually if sober. “There are times when I’m just so fucked up, where I’m just like, ‘Okay, whatever,’” reported a 19-year-old user. Palamar’s qualitative analysis matches with larger-scale research: A 2006 study of 268 young adults in Atlanta found that heavy ecstasy users took more sexual risks than lighter users, and a 2005 study of 534 hard-drug users in New York City also found links between ecstasy use and riskier sex.

While there hasn’t been a ton of research directly comparing alcohol and MDMA, one strong example is from Swansea University psychologist Andrew Parrott, who has authored or co-authored dozens of studies on MDMA. In a 2015 study of 40 mostly university students, Parrott and his colleague found that MDMA — both male and female — had higher rates of casual, as well as unprotected, sex than people who just drank alcohol. “MDMA certainly makes people more risky,” Parrott says, although it could easily be mutually reinforcing: Perhaps people who take MDMA are more thrill-seeking than their peers. (They also, he found, tended to have sexual encounters earlier in life.) That’s quite the chain of causality: Sensation-seeking people take drugs that reduce their inhibitions and increase sensations, in settings where there are lots of hot, sweaty sensation-seekers. No wonder dance parties are so fun.