The normalization of leisure sex and recreational drugs: Exploring associations between polydrug use and sexual practices by English festival-goers

Mark McCormack, Fiona Measham, Liam Wignall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Downloads (Pure)


The relationship between drug use and sexual practice is complex. Significant focus has been placed on risky practices, yet the broader associations between drug use and sexual activities remain elusive outside such contexts. This is despite similar trends of liberalizing attitudes and practices being identified in each area, theorized as the normalization of recreational drug use and the liberalization of consensual sexual practice. In this article, we draw on convenience sample surveys of 966 festival-goers at an English music festival in 2016 and 2019 to assess prevalence of polydrug use and to examine whether people who consume illicit drugs are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors considered more liberal than the traditional norm. We show that people who reported polydrug use in the last 12 months were significantly more likely to engage in non-traditional sexual behaviors, including sex with a friend and anal sex, in that same time period. In combining and comparing two usually distinct discourses, this exploratory study suggests that the normalization of drugs and the liberalization of consensual sexual practices are related and can be conceptualized as part of a broader societal acceptance and cultural accommodation of illicit drug use and particular sexual practices as leisure activities, despite markedly different policy and legal contexts for each activity. We conclude that the concept of “normalization” may be more appropriate to understanding changes in sexuality than “liberalization” in the context of “leisure sex” and call for further cross-disciplinary research on drugs and sex using this approach.

© 2021 Mark McCormack, Fiona Measham, Liam Wignall. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)185-200
JournalContemporary Drug Problems
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 19 Apr 2021


  • drugs
  • festival
  • liberalization
  • normalization
  • polydrug use
  • sex
  • sexual practices

Cite this