The first time I had drunk sex was the first time I got drunk. I was in the beginning of my freshman year of college, settling into a brand new relationship with a man of legal drinking age and curious what my new home, a nationally notorious party town, had to offer. I put in my request and he provided the alcohol (some kind of flavored Bacardi mixed with soda, which is perfect for a teenager), and we both drank enough to be drunk while watching the Red Sox inch closer to breaking their World Series curse on TV.

At the time, I was unsure whether or not I actually was drunk–it’s hard to know if you’ve arrived at a feeling if you’re not yet sure what it’s supposed to feel like. Looking back, the math checks out. I didn’t get drunk just to experience drunkenness, though; I was in pursuit of drunk sex, which seemed like it would be the truest expression of my new adult freedoms. We fucked, and afterward, I had the reaction that I did not yet know would also follow hundreds of other inebriated sexual encounters in my adult life: “Oh, well, that was fine, I guess.”
Eventually, I moved out of my rowdy college town and to New York City, which is perhaps the only place in the country where drinking is more coded into everyday social life than on the campus of a football-loving state school. New Orleans and Las Vegas may provide tourists with plenty of blurry memories and morning-after headaches, but when it comes to locals getting shit-faced, it’s hard to beat New York’s all-night public transportation, plentiful bars and shitty apartments in which no one wants to spend any time.
That’s even truer for those of us who have spent most of our prime dating years in New York; rare is the Tinder match who suggests anything other than grabbing a drink as a first date. Or second date. Or third. Eventually you eat some food together or watch some Netflix, but even if you don’t insist there be a bottle of wine present, the person you’re dating almost always will. And once it’s there, it’s the liquid version of Chekov’s gun: It has to be consumed, and likely by both parties, since refusing to drink usually just makes your companion feel weird and defensive about his or her own desire to be drunk, and that’s kind of a bummer on a date.
For someone who thinks a lot about the mechanics and rituals of dating and sex, it took me an astonishingly long time even to think about the role drinking–and not just drinking, but flat-out drunkenness–played in my own sexual life. Not long ago, though, something happened for the first time in what I was worried to realize was years: I had sex with a new partner while we were both stone-cold sober. And it was great.
Suddenly, it was clear to me why I had always liked morning sex so much: by morning, there’s no longer any alcohol in my body to dull sexual sensation and make it hard to come. I realized alcohol was also the main culprit in why sexting and masturbation often felt more intense to me than sex with a partner: drinking is an entirely social activity in my life, so if I was at home sexting or just playing around, it was rarely preceded by alcohol.
Although I’m sure plenty of people will swear up and down that getting a little shitfaced before having sex with a trusted partner makes them feel wilder and freer, if this were a phenomenon unique to me, “whiskey dick” wouldn’t be a term we all immediately understand. So if alcohol often makes sex less pleasurable, in addition to making consent far more complicated and dating much more expensive, why the hell can’t we all just find another way to do this?
An enormous part of the problem, of course, is conservative attitudes about both alcohol itself and sex in general, and especially sex between young people who don’t know each other very well. Alcohol can help dull the nerves and internalized shame that come with venturing out into physical and emotional vulnerability with someone who may not actually like you very much, and whose company you may not end up enjoying. On a more nefarious level, alcohol can help soften boundaries that wouldn’t be pliable while sober, and in worst-case scenarios, its consumption is regularly used to paint rape victims as unreliable narrators of their own violations. Drinking is both an inoculation against our own social anxieties and a giant hurdle we all have to jump in order to vanquish them properly.
No one likes to examine his or her relationship with alcohol; the need to examine seems like an admission of a problem in and of itself, and the suggestion that everyone should be questioning their drinking habits invariably comes off as preachy and lame. I’m hardly a teetotaler, though, and I don’t plan to become one, but if you’ve been single for a while and often find yourself drinking with new partners, maybe give it a rest next time and see what happens. If not in the pursuit of sobriety, then at least in pursuit of a better, easier orgasm.
Illustration by Alice Rutherford.

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