How much alcohol do you drink? For most Kenyans, it started with two or three beers or a 750 millilitre bottle of whisky shared among friends and then it increased to countless bottles, drowned every evening.
These functioning alcoholics, who in most cases are in denial about their problems, are facing emotional crisis as the alcohol induces sexual dysfunction.
Professor Joachim Osur, a sexual health expert in Nairobi, says about 30 to 40 percent of Kenyan adults are struggling with one or more sexual dysfunction. In men, the most common are premature ejaculation, low desire and impotence. Persistent alcohol use causes these problems.
John Maina, a 53-year-old, knows too well the dark side of excessive and prolonged alcohol drinking. He started drinking hard liquor when he graduated from the university and getting a “well-paying but demanding job”. At the time, he was a social drinker.
In his 30s, he graduated to frequent drinking until the wee hours of the morning. Over 15 years of drinking and shuttling from one rehabilitation centre to another in an effort to kick the habit, he realised that he had weak erections. Not knowing what to do, he started avoiding his matrimonial bed.
Alcohol deprives the body of its normal function and when it causes erectile dysfunction, the problem is worsened by taboos.
“Alcohol affected my sexuality. The worst thing is I knew it but never talked about it, not even with my wife. I avoided her. Sitting on bar seats, of course drinking until morning, seemed like a better life than going home,’’ he says.
The only thing that saved his life was a divorce threat.
“My wife had put up with my nonsense for years. She had prayed for me, taken me to rehab, two of my drinking buddies had died of liver cirrhosis and yet I was further drowning myself in alcohol because I thought I couldn’t function as a man,” he says.
He then decided to move houses and deleted all the contacts of his drinking buddies.
“That is how I stopped being an alcoholic … and that is how my journey to having a near-normal sex life started. The erection is back but not as strong as when I was a boy of course,” he says smiling.
Contrary to the widely held myth that alcohol is an aphrodisiac — consumption especially in excess — reduces sexual performance.
Experts say the desire is short-lived and because alcohol is a depressant, over time it gradually slows down the body systems.
“Alcohol consumption kills nerves and the sexual systems of the body that are very sensitive. Basically, it is the nerves that cause sexual response,” explains Prof Osur.
He adds that excessive alcohol consumption makes men unable to respond to normal sex stimuli because it also reduces testosterone, the primary hormone that helps in development of the male system.
“For men, there is no sex without an erection. Alcohol also affects women. It reduces their sexual drive and it may mean having sex with low stimulation,” says Prof Osur. In the midst of these problems, panic strikes and in most instances, relationships or marriages break up.
Suffering in silence
In a country where discussing sexual dysfunction is still taboo, many Kenyans are suffering in silence and for some, they shout about their ‘prowess’ in bars but shun their bedrooms and eventually become depressed. Others opt for over-the-counter Viagra or Cialis and become overdependent on them from a young age.
Sexual dysfunction, according to patients and experts, drains men of their masculinity and can escalate into bigger problems.
Stephen Kilonzo, a 41-year-old former banker echoes these sentiments.
His erectile dysfunction problems started two years into his marriage.
“Even early in my marriage, it was hard to get a firm erection, but things were at least working,” he talks of a struggle in a marriage that has since broken.
He says the challenge to have a normal sex life took his “pride” as a man and drove him into over drinking. At first, he would drown his shame with one or two beers.
“But within a short time, I was living an alcohol-dependent life and so my condition worsened,” says Kilonzo.
The heavy drinking, embarrassing his family publicly and living with constant anxiety took a toll on his life.
“Alcohol took everything from me. It robbed me of my young marriage and job. But that didn’t stop me from drinking,” he talks of his marriage that only lasted four years, a union that he calls “very perfect at the beginning.”
He recalls the numerous times when his drinking friends made jokes about his failed marriage oblivious of what had happened.
“Everything was not working for me, and so the only thing I would think of was alcohol. I was always thinking of getting myself drunk to get a temporary relief from all problems which I now realise were my own making,” says Kilonzo.
He narrates how his inability to seek professional help brought him misery, and this, he thinks, has left a scar that will take years to heal.
The former banker is now a recovering alcohol addict, having been in and out of different rehabilitation centres as he tries to get over his life on the fast lane.
“Sexual problems can be very stressful and someone who drinks to relieve stress is likely to go into severe alcoholism when they face such an issue. Many people with any form of sexual dysfunction find themselves constantly worried and awake most of the time and so if alcohol can give them a temporary relief, they are likely to indulge,” says Prof Osur.
Even as alcohol intake leads to distress and difficulties, consumption is rising. Kenya’s alcohol consumption has been growing and now stands at 3.4 litres per capita, according to a new report called the “Effect of Kenya’s Alcohol Regulation Policies.”
According to the World Health Organisation, 14 out of 100 Kenyans between the ages 15-19 are heavy episodic drinkers.
The heavy drinkers are in urban areas, according to the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada).
One major issue that sexual health experts are struggling with is that majority of Kenyans do not understand that impotence, low desire or premature ejaculation and limpness are medical problems.
Other than becoming alcoholics, people struggling with sexual dysfunction are resorting to spousal or partner violence because they do not want their partners to discover the problem. Others plunge into depression because they do not know what to do while others immense themselves in pornography, which makes the situation even worse.
“When a sexual problem occurs, seek the help of a professional. It can be cured,” says Prof Osur.
When it is caused by binge drinking, the first step to recovery is treating the primary cause, quitting alcohol.
Reducing the amount of alcohol consumed may not be beneficial, as even light drinkers are likely to suffer from the condition in the long-term.
“In the short term, depending on how much alcohol content someone has taken, one can have the desire to engage in sexual activity but may lack the energy,” Prof Osur warns.
He adds that problems related to alcohol abuse can be reversed by undergoing rehabilitation and treatment, depending on how severe the situation is.
“Sometimes it’s just counselling that one needs. In other cases, it is sex therapy, for some people its medicine while there are those who can come out by mending relationships. There is a solution to every sex problem,” Prof Osur advises.
But drinking is not one of them.