Journalist Ian Lecklitner writes about food, sex, drugs, and why they make us feel the way they do. He’s discovered that we’re wired for pleasure in a myriad of ways — and also that American culture is hellbent on restricting how we experience it. Connnect with Ian on Twitter and Instagram.
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Aria Vega [00:00:00] [Voiceover] This podcast contains explicit content. Listener's discretion is advised. POV by Lustery explores culture, politics and creativity in the sex industry, one point of view at a time. I'm your host, Aria Vega.
Aria Vega [00:00:17] Ian Lecklitner is a journalist who investigates health, sex, drugs and the culture we create around them. He's written for Popular Science, Men's Health and Mel Magazine, including over 1300 articles for Mel since 2015. Ian's interest in mood-altering substances began by exploring the one that we all consume — food.
Ian Lecklitner [00:00:39] [Interview] I started writing six years ago now, seven years, almost. Time flies, I guess... I really started writing about food and just health, which I think is a pretty natural place for a writer to fall into. We all love food, we all care about health, so that's kind of where we go. Then over time, my food coverage kind of shifted into substances, which is where the drugs came into the mix. I had some of my own experience with all that stuff as well... Yeah, here I am today.
Aria Vega [00:01:12] Can you describe what sex, drugs and food have in common in terms of how they impact the brain? I know that they operate in a similar capacity there.
Ian Lecklitner [00:01:22] Yeah, I mean, just as a caveat, I'm not a neuroscientist or anything like that. And even, I will quickly say that even neuroscientists, as far as my research has shown and all the people I've talked to, still have a lot to learn about how the brain works and what's going on up there. But at a basic level, food, sex, and drugs all kind of trigger something in the brain, a lot of times hormones like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, which are kind of feel-good hormones, to put it simply, which make us feel good, which is why we have cravings for all three of these things.
Aria Vega [00:02:08] [Voiceover] Cravings may be human nature, but culture is also at play in determining how we understand, and thus experience, pleasure. Here in the U.S., people are still fond of the old cliche "sex, drugs and rock & roll" to denote a sort of unrestrained hedonism. What exactly has made us so suspicious of a good fucking time?
Ian Lecklitner [00:02:30] [Interview] Yeah, that's that's a hard one. And I don't really I don't really get it, because my opinion for pretty much my whole life has been that you might as well have a good time, right? You might as well do all these things that bring you pleasure, because you only have so much time here, and why not? I think there's a couple things at play here. A lot of people point to religious undertones in our country, and not only Christianity, but a lot of religions kind of point to some restriction of pleasure, not diving too far into that. But I also think pointing to religion can be kind of a cop-out as well in America. We also have kind of this hustle culture and we compete with each other to kind of have harder lives, so to speak. We kind of tell each other whoever is not working hard enough or whoever is having too much fun is doing worse, for some reason. So I think it comes from there as well, that people get jealous of you if if you're having too much pleasure in your life. I mean, in America, we're kind of taught to look down upon that, which I think is sad.
Aria Vega [00:03:41] Yeah, I think you really nailed it between the capitalistic drives that are then translated into culture so that we perpetuate it ourselves. Those things are very much at odds with, you know, slowing down and listening to your body. And another thing I think is interesting, you mentioned the tension between pleasure-filled pursuits and many religious perspectives. But that tension is interesting to me because it's so common for people to have spiritual experiences during sex and while using substances. Do you think that that could be related to why organized religions see a tension there, seeing it as perhaps a pathway to a different sort of enlightenment?
Ian Lecklitner [00:04:27] Yeah, that is interesting because we think of some religious things, like the obvious example, the Kama Sutra is very literally looking at sexuality and its religious implications. And we also... You know, I think every religion can agree that like sex as an act is instrumental to humanity and just moving forward. So I just am a little boggled as to why when we don't use it as a quote unquote "tool to reproduce," it becomes, at least according to some religions, a bad thing. They kind of suggest that we're misusing what a God gave us. But personally, I don't really vibe with that.
Aria Vega [00:05:14] If you really do believe in an intelligent designer and you also believe that pleasure is sinful, or at least needs to be severely moderated in order to not be sinful, I always want to ask those people, what do you make of the existence of the clitoris, this entire organ that has no known purpose but pleasure? How do you reconcile that? It really seems like it's... I don't know, it's so...stigma is working really hard, still.
Aria Vega [00:05:46] [Voiceover] Sex isn't the only type of pleasure that's subjected to stigma. You see, Ian and I were part of the D.A.R.E. Generation, to whom drug use of any kind was presented as an unforgivable sin. D.A.R.E., for those of you who are blissfully unfamiliar, stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. In the 90s and early 2000s, public schools partnered with the program to quote unquote "educate" children about the dangers of drugs. D.A.R.E. was an outgrowth of Nancy Reagan's infamous Just Say No anti-drug campaign in the 80s, and it contained minimal evidence-based research in its materials. It was essentially just a bunch of faith-based propaganda. But D.A.R.E. was not the only game in town. Other anti-drug organizations, such as Above the Influence, made memorable commercials that were inescapable when I was growing up, like this one, depicting a teen girl so stoned she imagines her dog trying to convince her to quit smoking weed.
Commercial Audio [00:06:48] "Hey, Lindsay, I wish you didn't smoke weed. You're not the same when you smoke, and I miss my friend. I'll be outside."
Ian Lecklitner [00:07:00] [Interview] I actually had a conversation about D.A.R.E. and just that whole idea of "just say no" recently with someone. And one of the things we talked about, kind of the problems with it that you already hinted at, is similar to our issue with sex ed in America, actually, which is that when you have these religious undertones and you try to talk about drugs or sex in a very dumbed down way and not always correct and forthright way, you create more mystery around it than you should, which ends up just resulting in kids being like, Oh, that sounds mysterious and kind of cool, maybe I should try it, or whatever. Whereas we might be better off if we were just completely honest with what drugs do, how sex works, blah blah blah. I think the messaging of Just Say No doesn't really leave a lot of room for people to make good choices.
Aria Vega [00:07:57] It doesn't leave room for any choice, really, none that aren't rooted in shame. It doesn't make room for human nature. It doesn't actually let you make a choice, it is trying to coerce you into a choice.
Ian Lecklitner [00:08:10] Yeah, I totally agree, and we could get conspiratorial about it if we wanted to. You know, you could certainly say that, like some people would view infighting within society as kind of an important way to separate people and keep them feeling on edge. It's hard to control everyone in the United States if everyone's on the same page and happy, and not telling one group of people they're worse than another for what they're interested in. It seems fairly consistent across presidencies and stuff like that as well. You know, like you mentioned, this war on drugs thing hasn't really changed, and we've had presidents come in and say they're going to treat drugs differently. But we still don't even have full cannabis legalization federally, which is a huge problem.
Aria Vega [00:09:08] Yeah, it's particularly fascinating to watch how dramatically cannabis in particular has, you know, departed from the D.A.R.E. aarrative. Arguably, a lot of other substances are still there, but as a seasoned toker myself, it's pretty wild to walk into a store and buy it like a pack of gum when I have such vivid memories of trying to get high in my tiny little college town without attracting the attention of police. But I know that you also use cannabis and you live in California, where it's probably been legal for the longest. What has it been like to observe this rapid cultural shift in such a short period of time?
Ian Lecklitner [00:09:45] Yeah... Well, I think it's very weird for one, and I can't help but just think of the over-capitalization of cannabis. And I actually think in some ways it has swung in the opposite direction as far as, from D.A.R.E. to where it is now, we're kind of still getting these myths, but now they're the other way around. So now, instead of cannabis being this thing that's going to turn your brain into a fried egg, now it's like the thing that cures every single illness and every bad feeling ever, which isn't true either. But I guess that's a good way to make a lot more money. You know, I think my personal relationship with cannabis has kind of been challenged lately, because I've gone through periods of my life where I smoked every day and then more recently, I kind of fell off of it. And I think there's some reasons for that. I've written about this: scientifically, we still have a lot to learn about weed, but they do say that as you get older, your body reacts differently. I think weed is also like a very cerebral drug, so your mind set really has to be in the right place if you're going to be using it a lot, or else you might not feel the effects you want. My trust in weed has been, affected in a bad way because, as a writer who writes about weed, I get these PR emails every single day about some new thing that weed is allegedly going to cure or whatever. And I kind of just got so scrambled on being like, I just want weed to relax every once in a while. I don't need to be told like it's going to fix my whole life every day.
Aria Vega [00:11:30] Yeah, it's like we're allergic to any sort of nuance about it, right? We don't know how to talk about it if we're not talking about it as like this evil thing or Oh no, totally benign. Right? Because I don't I don't believe that at all. I mean, like, my relationship with cannabis has also shifted a lot. And while I am comfortable with being a daily user at this point, I also don't entirely have a choice about it. I definitely am dependent on it and wish I hadn't started quite so young. I don't really see that conversation being had anywhere, of any sort of ambivalence in a relationship to it. You know, everybody just wants to talk about it, like you're saying, as this miracle drug. And yes, for some people— me included!— It was the most effective way to manage depression. That's not nothing, that's important. However, I wish there was just more room to say, love weed, smoke weed every day, however, it is not benign. If I had kids, I would be really anxious about seeing my teenager smoking heavily. And I wish that the information I had about it now was available 10 or 12 years ago when I started.
Ian Lecklitner [00:12:46] Yeah, I think it goes back to what we were saying earlier about, one, the kind of jumbled legalization process that we're going through has prevented nationally coming up with what we really know about weed and putting it all in one spot so people can make the right choices. And so for now, we're kind of like... I mean, even me over the past couple of years, I went from having that medical marijuana card to it pretty quickly just being totally legal, and you can just buy as much weed as you want and use as much as you want. And also the products are just... There's like a billion weed products out there. So it makes it very difficult to know what's right for you and what to use, how much you need. I guess, in America, we love to do a good job of putting stuff out there, particularly when it comes to substances and not teaching people the best way to use it.
Aria Vega [00:13:45] ...Or even just like consulting particular indigenous knowledge about using it, because when it comes to these plants that we're using, you know, so many substances are derived from plants, plants that have been around for millennia and people have been using them the whole time. And so it's like, OK, maybe the government doesn't have a good stockpile of information because of the Schedule I designation. However, that doesn't mean that nobody knows the answers to some of the questions we're asking. And one of the questions that I love asking is how does this impact sex? So for Mel, you've written a lot about how particular drugs impact the experience of sex, including weed, molly and shrooms. I'm sure I've missed some, but can you talk a little bit about what you learned, what types of substances heighten arousal and pleasure and which types can dampen it?
Ian Lecklitner [00:14:39] First off, just a quick caveat is that one thing I certainly learned with all of these substances is that they affect people in different ways and that, one person could take something and be totally horned up and the other person could just be passed out on the couch. I think a couple of things are clear, though. Starting with the weed, we can go one of two ways. It can either make somebody feel really spaced out and make it hard for them to concentrate on a sexual act, or anything, really. It can also do the opposite for some people, and really bring their mind in and help them focus sexually. For some people, if they have any kind of tension, it can help them relax, which is really important for sexual functioning and eventually climaxing, hopefully. One really interesting tidbit I learned about weed along the way is that — again, this can go one of two ways — but generally speaking, people who have overactive mind can benefit from a little bit of the impairment that weed causes. It kind of takes a second to slow their mind down, which can help if you're somebody whose tendency is to rush through sex or to feel like they need to go like quickly from position to position, and have a lot of expectations around what you need to do in bed. Sometimes it's helpful to just slow down, and I think weed can can certainly do that. There's also some science that suggests the endocannabinoid system in our body has some effect on our genital function, in addition to a number of other areas throughout the body. So in a way, you could theorize that weed gets you feeling more sensitive, which is good, in most cases. As far as some of the other drugs go, shrooms is like a very chaotic drug, I think, to try to take before sex. The one thing I learned about that is, once again, that people just have wildly different experiences. Best practice, if you're going to try to have sex on shrooms, is obviously take a low enough dose so you're not just like shattering your entire ego while trying to have sex, because you're not going to be able to concentrate on that if you're in a whole nother world. Molly, or any kind of MDMA, I think is considered to be kind of like a classic sex drug. The chem sex scene, as it's called, is a big fan of MDMA.
Aria Vega [00:17:26] Oh, can you talk about that a little bit? I actually don't don't know much about the chemsex scene.
Ian Lecklitner [00:17:30] Yeah, so chemsex is just kind of a word that refers to a group of people, a community that's just all about using chemicals to enhance their sexual experiences as much as possible. There's a subreddit that I used to peruse a lot while researching some of this stuff called... I believe it's called Sex on Drugs. So they would be kind of considered a part of this scene. If you head there, you'll see lots of conversations about which drugs are the best for what kind of sexual functioning, and stuff like that. Like I said, there are big fans of MDMA for a number of reasons. MDMA is a release of serotonin and dopamine, but also norepinephrine, which is kind of like adrenaline and it gets your blood pumping. It puts you into this kind of fight or flight response, which increases your arousal. But the sad fact about that is it also sends blood away from your genital regions because, if we were to speak evolutionarily, if you're running away from a bear or something, you want that blood in your legs and not necessarily in your dick. So a lot of times, you know, people will find that if they're on MDMA, they may have trouble climaxing. You might really want to, but yeah, you'll probably struggle to do that. Similar to drugs like cocaine, alcohol too. So that is always the tough thing when you're trying to have sex on drugs, is a lot of drugs impact your genital functioning in some way.
Aria Vega [00:19:11] It's so intriguing, I did not realize..., I mean, there are certain drugs like, I would say, molly, MDMA and meth as well, that people describe as being drugs that are especially great at enhancing the pleasure associated with sex. What I didn't realize that that you paid for that by potentially struggling to to climax. It's almost like the body's like built in a way of being like, OK yeah, have fun, but like not all the time, you know?
Ian Lecklitner [00:19:38] Yeah! And I think some people use drugs like meth, for example, or there was one drug I wrote about called mephedrone, which is kind of like a synthetic... Some people describe it as like a combo of cocaine and MDMA. I think it technically it's a bath salt, but some people actually use those drugs because they want to have that lowered sensitivity, because then they can last longer, particularly guys. Which is why you'll hear about chemsex guys [who] will use meth a lot, because then they can have like a three hour sesh and not have to worry about premature ejaculation.
Aria Vega [00:20:16] So I guess a lot of their... research, it really is research, a lot of their research is around figuring out how to have the optimal sexual experience, perhaps on a particular drug. You know, it's funny, I'm listening to you to talk about all these substances and alcohol sort of popped in my brain as an afterthought, and I feel like that happens to a lot of us. You know, we're thinking and talking about drugs, and alcohol very much counts, but we just sort of have this social/cultural relationship with it that separates it out, the same way that caffeine is a mood-altering substance, but it's socially acceptable, unlike many of the ones that we're talking about. It's like our society has decided that drugs are only OK if they help you do capitalism better, or numb you from its most painful effects. Has your research and journalism about these topics, has it changed your understanding or opinion about alcohol, or the way that we collectively relate to it?
Ian Lecklitner [00:21:15] Yeah, for sure. I mean, my research aside, my journalism aside, alcohol is definitely something I have a love/hate relationship with. In fact, I don't drink alcohol anymore. It's been... January 1st will be two years without alcohol for me.
Aria Vega [00:21:32] Wow, congratulations!
Ian Lecklitner [00:21:34] Thank you, I appreciate that. Yeah, alcohol is tricky. It's it's a drug that I think a lot of people have good and bad experiences with. A saying that I've heard before that really resonates with me [is] "the best times I ever had were when I was drinking alcohol, and the worst times I ever had were when I was drinking alcohol," which certainly is the case for me. I think it's also strange to me that alcohol is kind of our go-to societal legalized, accepted drug because in my opinion, it's kind of a shitty drug. It's got a lot of negative side effects. It's very easy to overdo, and it also doesn't make you feel that amazing, at least again, from my perspective. I think there's a lot of redeeming qualities to alcohol, and it was fun enough for me to have to quit or else it just would have got worse and worse. But compared to a lot of other drugs, the kind of bumbling intoxication of alcohol and the stupid shit you do when you drink too much of it is unfortunate. So, yeah, it's just strange to me that we've decided to kind of commodify that, yeah, drug of all of them, yet here we are.
Aria Vega [00:22:54] A lot of people think that if you avoid one substance for whatever reason, then then you shouldn't or wouldn't want to use any substances. But this is yet another area where black and white thinking can obscure the truth. What has your experience taught you about the intricacies of our individual relationships with substances? Because you've been saying throughout that "this is the rule, but there are always exceptions."
Ian Lecklitner [00:23:23] Yeah, well, I think a couple of things. For one, my personal journey, you know, I was a big drinker, and I always smoked weed every now and then. But I think I actually what really helped me stop drinking was having weed available. Because I think our usage of drugs is a lot more complicated than just like chasing pleasure or trying to do something hedonistic, a lot of it boils down to kind of like escapism, trying to just leave reality for a moment. And I think in order for me to stop drinking so much, I needed something, you know, that at least that made me feel like part of the crew. Because that's another big aspect, too, is that just in America is something we all bond over is changing our perception of reality in a moment, and sometimes just getting fucked up is something that we just love to do together, which I think is totally fine. But yeah, I mean, I think people turn to drugs for a number of reasons. You know, speaking to not using one drug and using another or whatever, I think we should actually encourage that more than we do. And part of the reason for that is how we've treated legalizing some substances and not legalizing others, I think would be helpful to just legalize across the board and practice harm reduction and give people the resources they need to just safely use and make decisions for themselves, and maybe less people than would get pushed into just drinking a lot of alcohol, which, as you know, I've described, isn't, in my opinion, the best drug for everyone to be using. In fact, I wrote years ago about the impact of weed legalization on kind of the negative aspects of alcohol throughout our society, like drunk driving, people getting into fights or physically harming their partners within their homes and stuff like that. And it was already, this was early legalization, glaringly obvious that people turning to weed was just safer for them and a lot of the times the people around them.
Aria Vega [00:25:52] I keep coming back to what you said about bonding, about substance use as a bonding ritual for people because that's what sex is too, right? Sex is a bonding ritual, no matter like who you're having sex with and what the nature of your relationship is, it is an inherently bonding ritual. It makes sense to me that because you can't have sex with everybody, that we would seek out this other neurologically fast-tracked way to make connections, especially like, we're speaking a lot about American culture. We have a loneliness epidemic here. We have more people, not just living alone, but feeling alone, feeling like they don't have a person that they can call when something's gone wrong. I'm not surprised that we are sort of coming around— because we're also going through like a psychedelics revolution— we're coming around on a lot of things when it comes to substances, and I don't see it as being a coincidence that we're simultaneously suffering through this epidemic of struggling to bond. To say nothing of the pandemic!
Ian Lecklitner [00:26:58] Yeah, I mean, I think even besides the rough times it's been recently, I think humans are really amazing and we have this really awesome brain, which is great in some ways, but it can also result in like feeling existentially bad in ways that some other species with less developed brains might not be able to. Which is why I think we have this tendency to be like so driven towards pleasure and bonding over pleasure and just feeling good together, because it gives us an opportunity to kind of escape the dark side of the brain, I suspect. Yeah, I mean, you know what it's like to be human, and every day, it's like, What are we doing here and why?
Aria Vega [00:27:46] Yeah. All this intelligence comes with a cost, truly.
Ian Lecklitner [00:27:50] Yeah, absolutely. I think generally my opinion is you have these functions in our body for a reason. And you could argue that like sex feels good because it makes us more likely to reproduce or whatever, but clearly, our ability to feel pleasure is much larger than just that. And I do think, just to reiterate, a big part of that is just to make life worth living, especially for a human that, you know, has this amazing capacity to think good and bad things. We really need to have something to look forward to to keep truckin', you know?
Aria Vega [00:28:36] [Voiceover] That's Ian Lecklitner, journalist and pleasure expert. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @IanLecklitner. Were you a recipient of abstinence only education about sex, drugs or both as a young person? I'd love to chat with you about it. Send an email or voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can find me on Twitter @vegadreamcast. If you're into the show, please leave us a five-star rating and a review. POV is brought to you by Lustery, and this episode was hosted by me, Aria Vega. It was edited and produced by Kathryn Fischer and Adrienne Teicher, and our showrunner is Paulita Pappel. Lustery is the home of real-life partners filming their sex lives behind closed doors. If you're 18 or older, you can find us at lustery.com, and we're on Twitter and Instagram @lusterypov. Bye bye, lovers!