Feb 3, 2017
Sober Sex in the City
There are at least five bars within a five-minute walk from my Bushwick apartment that I would categorize as decent to a guaranteed good time and I’m very grateful, because being drunk makes so many things better: brunch, grocery shopping, trashy novels, scrolling through Instagram, riding the subway alone. But not sex. Drinking does not make sex better. Not even with strangers.
If you’re single and living in New York, you likely drink before most of your hook-ups. It isn’t hard to understand why. You’re meeting your Tinder date “for a drink”; you’re drunk-texting your safe-bet booty call; you’re easing nerves before the scruff guy shows up. Eventually you land in bed for boozy sex before sneaking away with a crushing hangover the next morning or, if you’re brave, drinking again with your co-conspirator at brunch, sunglasses on and pride depleted.
It is notoriously difficult to measure how “drunk” a city is, how much more or less we drink than people over the Hudson River or on the other coast, but it’s fair to say that the New York dating population likes its alcohol. We drink more because bars don’t close until 4 a.m., and we don’t have to drive ourselves home. Census data shows we stay single a couple years longer than the average marrieds in other states, which means that, at least in my group of (single) twenty- and thirty-something friends, it’s not uncommon to go out most every night of the week. In an ongoing loop, we date and we drink; we drink and we date.
But because of where we live—New York—it is easy to believe that this is not a problem; that we don’t have a problem. If we do think so, then it might seem like a prettier problem than most, and one that all our friends have, too. We can avoid the shame surrounding passing out drunk on a crap couch in front of the TV in some other city, because we pass out in New York, the best city in the world. After a night of drinking at local craft cocktail bars, we end up splayed across Casper mattresses wrapped in Brooklinen sheets. It’s all on-trend.
Nonetheless, our wayward dating and boozing have real consequences that every one of us bemoan: bad spending habits; loneliness; depression; increasingly brutal hangovers; decreased productivity. Plus there is another that we acknowledge less: Many single people in the New York dating pool forget what it’s like to have sex fully sober, especially with someone new.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever had sober sex,” my friend Tim* admitted to me when I brought up the subject. “Maybe the closest has been hungover sex.” We all have our repeats and go-tos, but dating often means regularly having new sex with new people. When was the last time you had sex with a near-stranger sober?
I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about my dearth of sober sex, but if you’re like me, after one too many, you have a hard time getting off. My social drinking routine is strong, so in the last few years that I’ve been single, I’ve had a lot more sex, but a lot fewer orgasms. I found this isn’t uncommon among women: “Even with long-time partners who I’m really comfortable with, I get [the female version of] whiskey dick,” my friend Janice explained. “In college when I was only having sex drunk before I got a boyfriend, I didn’t think I was capable of having an orgasm at all.”
Alcohol makes a fine social lubricant, but it is not a good personal lubricant. For women, dehydration can make sex really uncomfortable, if not painful. (Nota bene: since the verbiage used to describe very drunk sex can sound alarming, I’m only discussing consensual sex throughout this piece.) Janice said it’s a fine line: “Having a glass of wine will loosen me up enough to be confident, but I tend to hold back because I lose a lot of feeling. Several drinks in, I can’t tell what’s even going on sometimes.”
In men, of course, the correlations between booze and performance in bed are more obvious. Alcohol makes blood vessels dilate, and that affects how blood moves in and out of the penis. All New York women of dating age have experienced drunk guys who can’t get it up at all, or lose it halfway through, or take forever to come. But despite the facts, we keep doing it drunk. We positively associate drinking with having the nerve to approach people, to eventually get laid, and maybe to have wild crazy night, because it’s so often the vehicle. But in reality, the actual sex, the lasting impact, and the connections we make are inferior.
I began to understand the full implications and pitfalls of drunk sex from Bruce, a regular of mine who is sober both in life and sex. When you’re sober, you can remember the temperature of your lover’s skin and the decibel of their noises. Because of my heightened senses, I’ve sometimes mistaken Bruce’s intact memory for tenderness—he references little things I’ve told him because his mind isn’t habitually clouded by a fog of vodka. He’s not trying to be sweet, he just can’t help but be present because he’s never in an altered state. Ironically, I met him while I was incredibly drunk at a wedding. He’s 29, ten years clean, and probably the most highly skilled lover I’ve ever had. It’s like he’s channeled all the energy, pain, and stress one might otherwise alleviate with copious booze or other vices into sex. And it’s glorious.
I asked Bruce what his favorite thing was about having sex sober and he practically shouted at me: “Remembering it! Even if it’s someone you’re casually hooking up with, it’s definitely a more genuine connection you’re going to have. You’re more emotionally and physically and spiritually present.”
“Spiritually?” I gasped, not knowing him to be religious but aware of AA’s underlying God-theme.
“Yeah, your chi is more in line.”
Right, your chi. But Bruce was onto something, of course. When you hook up drunk you wake up the next day physically and emotionally aware of your encounter, but it can be a vague memory, like you watched it happen to someone else. This may be ideal when you go home with someone you regret, or end up in bed with your ex, but it shouldn’t be the norm. When you’re sober, you feel an orgasm more deeply, and it stays with you. The little hairs on your arms can stand up just thinking of it the next day.
I was curious how sex and dating changed for people in New York who don’t drink at all—by design—so I asked my friend Amanda, a sometimes-attendee of Alcoholics Anonymous, about where to start “in the rooms,” as they’re called. It seems just as we judge our drinking destinations by neighborhood and the crowds that frequent them, there exists an insider-y review system of AA meetings across the city. She responded with a flurry of texts suggesting which ones to hit up first: “We will be most inspired by Perry St. or Midnight on Houston to start. I cannot with North Brooklyn yet. Perry St. is for serious storytellers, it’s solid speakers.”
She was right about Perry Street. The theatrics were strong. The meeting begins, the lights go off, and a wall sconce illuminates the first speaker to open the meeting. You’re truly anonymous in the crowd and thus get to indulge in another very city-specific pastime: voyeurism. To my surprise, I did more than just observe and look for interview subjects at these meetings. I found myself nodding along to many people’s problems and stories, which made me seriously question my own drinking habits.
Unlike Amanda, I didn’t think the North Brooklyn meetings were so bad. I went to an all-women’s meeting off Lorimer shortly after election night, and there was an intense feminist conversation happening, discussing very valid fears for the future. All-women’s meetings provide a much-needed safe space for women to discuss sexual abuse and assault, a topic that comes up often in AA. Still, I could see how it could be intimidating: The room was full of well-dressed cool girls and Swedish tourists with innovative hair. Recovery is the great equalizer though—people bring snacks to share; they approach you and welcome you when you’re new; they invite you to the social gatherings post-meeting; they text you with a simple, genuine “How are you doing?”
Not everyone is so friendly. The crowd at the Bushwick meeting just down the street from my apartment was familiar, identical to one you’d find at Happy Fun Hideaway on a weekend: queer, covered in tattoos, a few bearded dudes, and a clique of 30-something women who remember Williamsburg before Bushwick became the new Williamsburg, and everything in between. At this meeting I ended up introducing myself and sharing my own story. Several women approached me to connect and offer support after the meeting, but even though the crowd was mixed, I noted that none of the men came near me.
And then I found out why. In the first pages of the book Living Sober, there’s a section entitled “Some questions often asked by new non-drinkers.” One of them is “What about sex?”
The question leads to a short chapter called “Steering Clear of Emotional Entanglements.” AA is well known for its strong suggestion to stay away from sex, love, and relationships for the first year of sobriety, since you are at your most vulnerable. The new, enlightened feeling of sobriety can lead to fierce crushes, which can quickly lead to relapses. If there is one universal problem bigger than drinking, it is intimacy, and the two are often part of a vicious cycle. “A great many of us blamed our drinking on lack of affection, saw ourselves as constantly in search of love, drinking as we prowled from bar to party,” says Living Sober. If I’m being fully honest, this sounds like a typical Friday night.
The path for anyone, sober or otherwise, to relationship-level-emotional-readiness is complicated, but on a simpler level, how do you explain to an Internet date that you never drink alcohol? One sober woman I spoke with, Mona, said she doesn’t usually reveal that she’s sober until a few dates in and only if she likes someone. If she doesn’t like them, she figures, why bother? “Some guys will drill you, ask you a hundred questions about why you don’t drink. Some will be mean. Some will empathize or say something like “congratulations.” You can tell who is uncomfortable,” she says. According to Mona, people react best if they’re comfortable with their own relationship to alcohol.
Mona enthusiastically agrees that sex sober is better. Her sex drive has increased and she’s having more of it: “When I was drinking, the only thing we had to have in common was our love of alcohol. I would take anyone home but I did not sleep with most of them, because I was too drunk to have sex.”
Now she’s learning how to let go and be truly comfortable, while also guiding partners through awkward sex moments. “I am able to have a lot of compassion when my partner is having some trouble sexually. That changes everything. They end up being able to have sex because I am present, forgiving, helpful, not shutting down. Instead, I am engaging.”
I feel this is a lesson we could all learn from. Many of us rely so much on alcohol to engage with new people, the idea of connecting without a drink in hand is a revelation. My friend Nate, sober for two years, remembers the moment it clicked for him on an early sobriety trip to Metropolitan, the Williamsburg gay bar: “I get to the bar, proudly order my seltzer and then I turn around and see all these groups of people mingling, and I’m there alone. I look down at my seltzer and I’m like, ‘I don’t have my magic wand anymore.’ Oh fuck, how am I gonna do this now? It’s totally different.”
He’s dated a little since getting sober, but he says it’s complicated. “I’ve dated sober people in the rooms, which is a double-edged sword: Do I want to date someone who is a crazy alcoholic like me? Or someone who doesn’t understand?” Nate says the biggest difference dating sober is becoming picky. “I’m no longer a sure thing,” he says. “Now I ask, ‘Do I want to hook up with this person?’ instead of just sleeping with them.”
Nate admitted he’s afraid to have sex sober, so he’s gone without it for his two years of sobriety. I feel this, too: There are body insecurities, fears of awkwardness, and intense nervous butterflies, especially when you don’t have a foundation of trust or familiarity.
The longer I’ve stayed single, the more those butterflies have morphed into a valid excuse to have a drink or three before a promising date, rather than a cute, fluttery feeling of honest excitement. But what’s more notable than the dwindling numbers of orgasms I’ve experienced because of it is the lack of deeper connections I’ve been able to sustain. I don’t officially identify as an alcoholic, but I certainly see how my love of booze contributes to my avoidance of unwelcome emotions and tendency to jump into bed with just about anyone.
At a certain point, infinite access and all night partying becomes less exciting, and doing something different is appealing, if not necessary. Being present and alcohol-free with a lover is a kind of high that our more traditional substances have usurped, but not ultimately surpassed. For me right now, the thrill of making meaningful eye contact totally sober with the person I’m dating is preferable to whatever kind of sexy fun a night of binge drinking may lead to. And if you’re still not convinced: while nothing about your booze-free night out will be guaranteed, your headache-free morning after is a very sure thing. ♦
*Names changed to protect the not-so-innocent.
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