Illustration by Dave van Patten

Being Hung Over Makes Me Super Horny

And I’m not alone. But what’s the reason for it?

I can handle the headache. The dry, pasty mouth is no big deal. The nausea — which, like a cold or a sprain, brings with it the pleasing knowledge that it will soon be gone — is fine. What I cannot accept about a hangover is the awful, overwhelming regret.

The morning after is always a torrent of cringing and questioning amidst the pain. Why was I so confessional last night? Why did I admit that I thought so-and-so is pretty? Why did it seem so necessary at 2 a.m. to tell that friend how glad I am that we’re close? And in that murky, sick state, I also often cast my thoughts back to my bigger regrets: my choice to go to grad school, my career path, and of course, my last relationship — what went wrong, and how, probably, I’ll never be in love again.

But almost every time I overdo it with booze, amid the unease in my belly and my mind the next morning, I’ll notice my thoughts about past romances are slowly taken over by other, surprising thoughts: Primarily, when I was in a relationship why didn’t we have sex all the time? Why didn’t we try that thing — in fact, why didn’t we try everything, everywhere? Why, God, why didn’t I go home with that woman when she asked? Suddenly, lying there in bed feeling a bit ill, my mind turns into a running film of every sexual fantasy and missed opportunity I’ve ever had.

Understandably, I think, I have often felt a bit taken aback and embarrassed by my own wandering, hazy mind. But, wanting to know whether I was alone, I Googled the phenomenon, and it turns out I am not. While many people claimed that sex was the last thing they’d ever think about while hung over, there are also plenty of tales of feeling aroused the morning after. There is even a name for it: hangover horn. Turns out, being horny while hangover is rather common.

That same Googling, however, did little to provide an explanation. There was reasonable-sounding speculation, like a desire to feel better, or more simply, that one is still drunk when one wakes up — along with some more dubious ones, like suggesting that alcohol’s effect on erections in men somehow translated into more sexual thoughts.

Casting about for reaction in my own social circle did result in cries of recognition (mixed in with the odd bit of revulsion), along with a couple of plausible theories. There were definitely some who said being touched was the furthest thing from their minds while recovering from a hard night out. But one friend said “I feel terribly anxious and weepy when I am hungover and sex seems to be the only thing that helps” — also helpfully paraphrasing writer Kingsley Amis recommendation of hair of the dog and vigorous lovemaking.

Another friend was more philosophical, suggesting that while hungover “one is slowed down enough to ask what one wants.” It’s as if there is something about the hangover that puts you more in touch with your desire as you cast off both your own repression and social constraint.

Unfortunately, despite it being well-recognized anecdotally, there is little in the way of scientific backing. Academic work on the hangover has been growing, in particular with the Alcohol Hangover Research Group. Led by Dutch scholar Joris Verster of Utrecht University, the team is dedicated to explaining the mechanisms of the hangover, which are actually less understood than one might think. While it’s often assumed that hangovers stem from dehydration, low blood sugar, or more simply, all that alcohol in you — it is, after all, a poison — in reality, things are more murky, and hangovers are actually still something of a mystery. For one, they technically start when your blood alcohol level has reached zero. Moreover, tests on people with hangovers suggest that their electrolyte levels aren’t significantly different from normal, and while dehydration might explain, say, headaches, it doesn’t help with the full range of symptoms. Yet, in all the differing theories, there is still no mention of sexual arousal. We don’t exactly know why hangovers make you so literally thirsty, let alone why you might feel that way metaphorically.

Seeking to put things on a more solid footing, I spoke to Richard Stephens, a psychology professor from Keele University in England, who is a founding member of the Alcohol Hangover Research Group and author of The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad. While going through the usual hangover myths with Stephens was of no help in finding an answer — there’s no correlation between, say, low electrolytes and arousal — even more modern scientific theories left us stymied. He said that current thinking, for example, suggests that the hangover is when “your body mounts an immune response to alcohol, so there’s a lot of inflammation,” and in which your body is flooded with cytokine — molecules the immune system uses to communicate — as it tries to get rid of all those toxins. But again, there’s no link there to feeling randy.

Some of Stephens’ earlier work, however, offered the basis for at least one theory. A study on choice response time suggested higher-order functions in the brain — the kind of thought we associate with, say, inhibition — may not only be affected by alcohol, but continue to be affected even after the alcohol is gone from your system.

“It might be that a hangover affects disinhibition,” Stephens said. It’s at least plausible that the loss of inhibitions you feel while drunk — the reason you tell your friend you love them or that their hair looks funny — not only carries over to the next morning, but has a similar effect on unleashing desire that you might normally repress.

At the end of the day, though, it is only a mildly plausible theory, and one that experimentation or further research might debunk. There is, however, something in the idea at least that rings true. If the worst of a hangover is regret, that regret arrives paradoxically, one’s cloudy head somehow also full of an awful clarity. As the noise of abstract thinking is quietened — the rationalizing, the justification — in its place are plain, simple truths. It was my fault. I should have tried harder. And, yes, in the temporary absence of the superego, there is a suddenly unbound id, all your barely contained sexual wants, bubbling up to the surface of an otherwise calm mind.

Yet there is something else there in the hangover. It’s a sign that last night, what you wanted was more — more affection, more intimacy, an unknown something other — and finding your hopes unfulfilled, you instead substituted alcohol. The morning after is a product of that attempt to drink your way to something better, or at least past something worse. Unfortunately, in the harsh light of day, what you’re left with is a headache and maybe some heartache — and if you’re unfortunate enough to wake up in a bed that only contains you, an urge for release, but no one there to help. There’s just all that desire, and nowhere for it to go. It’s enough to drive one to drink.