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Sobering Up, And Facing The Reality Of Sex Without 'Liquid Courage'

Roy Mehta
Getty Images

I stopped drinking at the age of 35, roughly two decades into my sex life. I was scared to quit for a lot of reasons. I thought I'd be boring. I thought other people would be boring. When you drink as long, and lovingly, as I did, you will find a lot of excuses not to hang up your beer mug. But nothing frightened me as much as sex without alcohol. As in, no way. Not happening.

I've always been self-conscious about my body. In high school, I would have worn a scuba suit to pool parties, if I could have gotten away with it. Some mixture of shyness, early puberty and a Hollywood beauty warp kept me in hiding for many years, but alcohol pulled me out into the crowd.

This is the eternal story of alcohol — liquid courage — although it's acquired something of a modern twist for women. In Peggy Orenstein's book Girls & Sex, the veteran journalist describes how young women today rely on booze to stay down with a hookup culture that increasingly takes its cues from porn. I can't speak for anyone else, but if I'm going to be giving a lap dance, someone better bring tequila.

I applied the same logic to anything around sex. Scared to be seen naked? Drink. Scared he doesn't like you? Drink. Scared you don't like him? Oooh, honey, drink up.

In my 20s, I longed to be one of those marauding females who had one-night stands and didn't demand anything girly in return like commitment or phone calls. But being that vulnerable with another person — a real human person, whose last name I probably did not know — was so confounding to my native sensitivity that alcohol was really the only way I could power through.

And I wanted to like casual sex. I saw it as part of the necessary tool kit for being a Woman of Interest. These days, in pop culture, drinking and promiscuity have become a power brand, embraced by female heroines from Carrie Bradshaw to Amy Schumer.

Drinking and sex make for an appealing rebellion, a pushback to centuries of female repression — and it doesn't hurt that guys like girls who drink and let loose. Of course, when casual sex becomes the norm, it feels a little less rebellious and a little more mandatory.

Drunken hookups are so normalized among single people in their 20s, 30s and beyond that opting out can make you feel like an enemy of sexual freedom. It can make you feel like — yes, that old slur — like a prude.

When I quit drinking, that's exactly what I feared I'd become. One of those dull women who ordered seltzer at the party and would probably never dance on a table again. I stayed in my hidey-hole for more than a year, and I had an imaginary love affair with a barista named Johnny. Sometimes the little things get you through.

I began to inch back into the dating world, more slowly than I wanted but more confident with each passing month, and what I noticed was how much I actually cared about physical intimacy. I'd spent all these years trying to detach myself and pretend none of it was a big deal, but my experience was leading me to the opposite conclusion. Sex was a big deal to me.

Around this time, I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with the comedian Louis C.K., and he said, "If you're intimate with a total stranger, it's a reckless thing to do." He talked about how strange and wrong it felt for him to be that close to someone he didn't know, and I felt validated, in part because Louis C.K. is the great philosopher-comedian of our time, but also because here was a man — a straight dude, the kind whose emotional detachment from sex I'd been trying to imitate to prove I was down — and he was saying casual sex didn't live up to the hype, either.

Over the past couple of years, I've been more open about my feelings on this topic, and I think it makes people more open in return. I've spoken to friends who agree with me, and plenty who don't. They like casual sex. It scratches an itch. It's fun. They might be straight or gay, male or female, but the more I hear people speak honestly about what they want in the bedroom the more insane it seems to me that any one way of being would fit us all. Conformity and sexuality do not mix. It's like demanding that everyone be the same height.

Giving up alcohol didn't end my sex life. You could argue it made it more thrilling. There is something rare and radical about daring to be fully present, and fully revealed, to another person. It scares the hell out of me sometimes, but the fear of vulnerability is part of the price of real connection.

Sex is a journey outside our comfort zones — and the trick is making sure that in that exploration, we feel safe. I don't know how you'll get there. Sometimes I don't know how I will, either. But I can promise the best way to power through isn't alcohol. It's paying attention to your own wants and desires, and being true to them.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sarah Hepola