mating rituals

10 People on Having Sex While Sober

Photo: sandsun/Getty Images

If there’s an easier way to ask someone out than, ‘Want to get a drink?’ I don’t know it. Drinking alcohol, it goes without saying, is a major part of our culture — and specifically our dating and sex rituals and rites of passage. Whether you came of age frequenting frat parties or lo-fi concerts, there’s a good chance your early sexual encounters were alcohol-fueled.

If drinking is the conduit for so many liaisons, what does quitting mean for someone’s romantic prospects? For some people, the decision not to drink is an easy lifestyle shift. For others it is a profound emotional reckoning. Either way, ‘Want to get a drink?’ doesn’t work anymore.

The Cut asked ten people what it’s like to seek out new dates, sex, and relationships without alcohol.

1. I always wanted to be in a normal relationship.

“I was struggling with my sexuality,” says Ryan, 27. When he moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles for college, he found a gay-friendly culture that threw his parents’ rejection of him into stark relief. “I was really angry with my friends and family, thinking that I could have been happier with myself all along if they’d accepted me.” When drunk, he was consumed by anger. “I would drink at people, like, you pissed me off, so I’m going to go drink.”

“I always wanted to be in a normal relationship,” he says. But when he was using — alcohol, cocaine, and meth — he “had more promiscuous sex,” including cheating on partners: “When I was feeling bad about myself, I’d have sex with some guy and he’d leave, and I’d feel used, and that would make me feel loved. It goes back to my childhood.”

“It was really, really weird to have sex sober,” Ryan says, of a relationship he had with someone he met in rehab. “I was a lot more self-conscious sober. I think because I was dating another addict. He was insecure too.”

That relationship imploded and they both relapsed. Now, sober for almost three years, he’s engaged. He says he and his fiancé talk openly, and he doesn’t keep secrets. “I didn’t understand that someone could love me regardless of whether we had sex or not,” he says. Still, he can hear echoes of the voices that caused him to drink and use drugs in the first place. “When I look in the mirror, I see myself as not fit enough.” When receiving a compliment, “my heart says, ‘He’s lying. Run and hide,’ but my head says, ‘You’re being stupid because you have f-ed up in the past. Accept the compliment.’”

2. If she didn’t drink, she was going to be lonely forever.

“Dating basically caused me to relapse,” says Electra, 34. After years of trying to moderate but routinely blacking out, “basically hooked up to an IV of bourbon,” she’d finally decided to quit during “a profoundly lonely and very stressful time” living in a new city after a breakup. Newly sober, she moved back to the East Coast and felt her life coming together. “I consciously decided, ‘I’ll just drink on dates,’” she says, laughing. She didn’t want to present herself as a nondrinker on her dating profile. “It’s like writing, ‘I’m a vegan.’ People have a very clichéd idea of what it means to be an alcoholic or in recovery. It’s not my chosen way of defining myself.”

After she drank — heavily — on dates, her “stability was yanked away.” She realized she had to stop, which in her mind meant, I guess I’m just going to be lonely and unhappy from here on out.

“I’d done very little dating. I had just kind of drunkenly tumbled into bed and relationships,” Electra says, “I felt like I couldn’t meet someone and go through the awkwardness of the early stages, and the ramping up to sex.” For six months, she “totally shut down” her interest in meeting men. The “giant pit of sadness at the core of [her] being” dissolved. “I reached this point where I legitimately felt so okay being alone. I have so many friends.”

Then she met someone — at a cocktail party. Her fear that she would become boring hasn’t been borne out. “Not drinking didn’t stop me from having a foursome this weekend!” And now she’s sated. “I was always chasing, never satisfied. I felt like I was too much, that I wanted too much. Now I can enjoy, and I don’t have to clutch on to things. I can say good-bye. The sex I’m having is just light years better, physically and emotionally.”

3. It’s an ego-buster.

Everyone in Lee’s social circle drinks, and alcohol is served “literally everywhere” in his Texas town, including at the movie theater and Chuck E. Cheese’s. He “quit cold-turkey” three years ago, after drinking heavily after living through a traumatic childhood and tour in Afghanistan. “Everything I was seeing on Tinder, on Match, everything I was surrounded by was, ‘Let’s get a drink.’” He says being sober puts him at a disadvantage. “You’re so used to your false ego” — a drunk persona — and “when you’re the sober one, the women gravitate towards the drunk men.”

When he started dating online, he wrote on his profile that he is a recovering alcoholic. But on a date, when it’s time to order, he still feels self-conscious, not wanting to “seem like a cheapskate” or “someone who is overly comfortable.” Often, as his date drinks, the conversation becomes “a slow descent into nonsense,” which annoys him.

One woman who “got hammered” invited him home with her, and pleaded when he said no. “The hardest part was, as a guy, turning something like that down, when you want to feel wanted, but knowing it would be taking advantage.” He urged her to take an Uber but eventually left her, which felt unnatural. “I’m a protector by nature. I felt like it was my job to help her,” he says. Driving home, he felt “a kind of sense of loss” thinking about his years drinking, hanging out, meeting people.

“It’s an ego-buster,” he says, “Finding someone with the personal fortitude to not drink and to put themselves out there is going to be next to impossible.”

4. She thought she was comfortable with her body.

“I was very aware of everything, the shape of my body, what I was doing,” Lily, 29, says, of having sex sober, in the middle of the day, with a new person. “I’d never hooked up with someone for the first time sober,” she says, “Where I went to high school and college, it was essentially taken for granted that drinking was a prerequisite for any kind of fooling around.” That mentality continued throughout her 20s, unquestioned. Last year, when she needed to “take a break” from alcohol because of medication she was prescribed, her assumption that she’d also need to stop dating set off an alarm bell.

“I can have one glass of wine, not an issue,” she says, “But I did assume it was literally impossible to go on a Tinder date stone-cold sober. I’d never sat back and looked at how intertwined drinking and sex have been for me, and potentially everyone I know.”

After she started seeing someone, her discomfort was disorienting. “My whole adult life, I prided myself on not being ‘one of those women’ obsessed about body image,” she says, “I truly thought I was very open-minded, very comfortable. It was honestly shocking to realize that on some level I must be uncomfortable either with my body or sex in general … I had to question what I had been telling myself.” She didn’t tell the guy. Her self-consciousness would come and go, and they stopped seeing each other.

5. I don’t care what other people think.

“I was pretty badly bullied,” Dan, 35, says. In high school, he wasn’t a part of the crowd that smoked cigarettes across the street. “Being an outcast sounds bad,” he says, but outsider status freed him from the expectation that he had to live like everyone else. He tried alcohol for the first time in college. “I drank seven or eight beers, and I just felt really awful.” So he never drank again.

Now he’s a comedian, which means “alcohol is everywhere.” Occasionally, someone at a party will press him, or seem judgmental. “In my job, I have to get on stage and face down 1,000 people sometimes. You could totally bomb. Someone who’s not afraid of that is not going to care what other people think.” He puts encouragements to drink in the same category as unsolicited suggestions to watch television or have kids: “When people have made a decision they’re not happy with, by trying to persuade you to do the same thing, they’re trying to validate their decision.”

He says skipping drinking hasn’t affected his dating life. “The type of woman I’d be inclined to date will have a glass or two and it’s hunky-dory.” The women who don’t call him back? “I think it was for some other reason.”

6. I didn’t feel lovable.

“Nobody loves you,” a voice told Dawn, who is in her 50s, when she was meditating several years ago. “It was the feeling I’d been running from for so many years,” she says, the reason she drank and chose “the wrong men.”

After she stopped drinking at 23, Dawn dated a series of men “who were not going to leave.” She says, “I was usually better-educated, quicker-witted, with a higher income, because that domination soothed my underlying fear. My second husband was a sweet guy, but he was monotone, like wallpaper, not someone who was going to go anywhere or do anything.” With those guys: “I was trying to minimize risk. I didn’t feel lovable.”

Her current husband is her “equal,” which means, “I have to be comfortable with myself.” She still isn’t always. Once, when she was brushing her hair, her husband offered to buy her a trip to a salon. “My first thought was, ‘He doesn’t like my hair.’ I burst out crying.” Her husband backed away. “My internal voices usurped his good intentions. It was my difficulty accepting love.”

She asks herself: “If the relationship ended tomorrow, would I still be okay?” Now, finally, she does know she will, and she says that certainty is necessary. The mistake, she says, is thinking, “‘If this is over, I’ll never find anyone!’ That’s never true.”

7. I have my eyes open.

“A lot of what made my drinking a problem was dating and sex,” says Emily, 34. “I ended up sleeping with someone without intending to, not remembering names, or sleeping with the ex-boyfriends of friends.”

One night, when she hadn’t yet stopped drinking, she planned to go to an AA meeting that started at midnight. “I was all anxious and squirrelly thinking about going to the meeting,” she says. She arranged for a guy from OKCupid she’d never met to meet her outside the building where the AA group was held. They had sex in his car. “I’m not exactly sure what I was thinking,” she says, but speculates she was doubling down on “being crazy,” or maybe trying to sabotage going to the meeting, and thinking, “‘If I’m going to deny myself this one thing, why should I deny myself this other thing that feels good?’”

Once she quit drinking, she relied more on online dating, and devised a strategy for filtering out heavy drinkers, but on questionnaires didn’t answer whether she drank, so as not to scare off anyone. First dates were always for coffee, midday, when she could assess: “Are we having a real or a BS conversation?”

She had a threesome early on, to prove to herself she could. “There was all this anticipation, maybe even anxiety,” leading up to sex sober. “Alcohol can calm down a lot of thoughts running through your head,” she says, and sober, “you’re just switched on and present to what’s happening. It’s like when you’re on a roller coaster and you can see ahead, like, ‘Oh my God, I know what’s going to happen!’ I’m jumping into this and I have my eyes open! It can feel pretty thrilling.”

8. He wanted to be a hero.

“Casual sex was fun for a while when I first got sober,” says Michael, 26, who started drinking when he was 12 and eventually became addicted to heroin. “In my early 20s, I was able to make up for my low self-esteem with ego. I was an early-20s male! I had a lot of ego! It didn’t become a problem until I realized that sex wasn’t necessarily what I wanted. I wanted a relationship, and I wasn’t capable of that.”

“Lo and behold, I had other issues to work out,” he says. He started hiring sex workers. He would “feel adrenaline” before sex, and then “the sex worker would say these things like, ‘Why are you here? You’re so handsome. You’re going to make someone happy one day.’” The experience created “a hero thing” in his mind, a narrative in which he was “saving a damaged person.” Then, he would feel intense shame. “The shame came from a deep understanding that that wasn’t real intimacy.”

He went to therapy, and started abstaining from sex. “The fear ‘How am I ever going to tell anyone?’ kept me from dating for a long time. Now I know I need to get to know somebody, keep sex out of it for a while. I’m starting to date, for lack of a better term, normal people.”

9. Everyone has a dark side.

“You will seek some kind of pleasure. For some people it’s food or caffeine or sex or drugs,” Jasper, 52. For years, he threw himself into music and drugs, which meant he deprioritized sex. He was “morbidly obese as an addict.” Jasper says, “When I finally got off methadone, I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘I don’t think you’re ever having sex again.’”

“I don’t sleep around,” Jasper says, but, “As a sober guy, I’m more experimental with sex.” The drugs stifled that part of him. And now he’s healthier.

“People are looking for security, or a soul mate,” Jasper says, “I find that people have been raised with fantasies about Prince Charming. It’s better to be forthright, to look at this stuff realistically. Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met has a dark side.”

He’s been in relationships sober, and has tried dating online, although he doesn’t like assessing women by their profiles, a critique that isn’t about sobriety. “‘Sober dating’ is just dating. It’s like saying ‘life on life’s terms.’ Life has no terms. As I get older, I see that everyone just learns to suffer, and maybe suffer a little more eloquently.”

10. I tell myself it’s excitement.

Danielle, 23, first drank alcohol and had sex in college, and often thought about how sex and alcohol were “mixed together” for her peers. She says, “On one hand, there are so many preconceived anxieties and stigmas around sexual experiences. If you see sex as stressful, you feel like you need to drink, but on the other hand, [with that expectation] if you don’t have that crutch, it just amplifies the stress.”

Throughout college, “it was a given that the weekends were for getting drunk.” Compared to her friends, she was a moderate drinker. But when she drank, even just a glass or two, “depression came on full force,” usually the next day. “I saw everything in a pessimistic light. I was just kind of self-loathing, really down on myself,” she explains. As graduation neared, she considered stopping. “I wanted to get my own control.”

After a couple false starts, it’s now been six months since Danielle has had alcohol, and she’s “in a positive mental place.” “I thought it would be a bigger deal than it is. I thought people would judge me,” she says, but she’s been able to hang out with friends and date. For her, sex and alcohol “were never reliant on each other.” She does get more nervous before a date. “I tell myself it’s okay being a little bit nervous. I tell myself it’s excitement.”

10 People on Having Sex While Sober