I was judging a dog show recently with the D.J. Fat Tony, fashion’s favorite spinner of sounds. Tony, like me, is sober—16 years to my 9—although his hedonism was more florid than my mere unsteadiness around wine and martinis. Now we do dogs. That is how abstinence rolls.
As the poodles, ’poos, and ’doodles paraded across the stage, I asked him about sober sex. “Sober sex is the only sex,” our hero evangelized, in a voice that still carries over speakers. “It means being present, emotional nakedness, true intimacy—genuinely being with who you’re with. If you’re into fisting, then fist.”
Our fellow judges buried themselves deep into their Chien Charmant booklets. “And yet … ,” I replied, some dimly perceived nostalgia washing over me that not even a whippet could sate.
Even in perma-plastered Britain, one can barely go 24 hours without some hack forcing their sobriety story upon you. I won’t bore you with mine. Suffice to say: I drank from the age of 14. I was good at it, lived for it; it shaped what purported to be my personality—and certainly my sexuality, never not expressed in an intoxicated guise. At age 43, I stopped, not because I had had enough but because everyone else must increasingly have thought so.
And it’s fine, really, mostly. I mean, it’s not great. You’re swapping the extremes that are fantastic and dire for something middling. You’re no longer either 0 or 10, you’re 5; 6 on a good day, 7.5 in the presence of a hound. In place of a wild old time, dancing on tables, and tall tales, I now have a life, a home, a partner. I listen to people, I remember things, and I feel the feelings, as they say. And it’s fine, really, mostly.
However, there is one aspect of dragging oneself onto the wagon that these accounts omit. And that is its sexual impact. I discussed this once with Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, now political podcaster in chief, when we were playing the part of the poster-reformed at a dinner at the House of Lords.
“So, sober sex?” I mooted. “Oxymoron, right?”
“You need to write this,” he decreed.
I have tried, dear God, I have tried. The subject appears to be taboo not only in newspaper terms but also in recovery circles. Somewhere between the words “foreplay” and “lubricant,” spade-calling enthusiasm dims. In A.A. meetings, the attitude tends to be: “I got 99 problems, but the itch ain’t one.” You can reveal any extreme of self-humiliation, but far be it from anyone to suggest issues with The Act.
I should say, before I go any further, that my beloved is extremely good at sex. He is clever and funny and emotionally intelligent and so dashing that friends refer to him as “the Unicorn.” When we first shared a bed, I would behold his face the next morning and think, “Why?” Not one but five editors attempted to commission me to write about “screwing up”—in a good way—which I did. Nine years on, we’re still happy. So, you know, it’s not him, it’s me.
In A.A. meetings, the attitude tends to be: “I got 99 problems, but the itch ain’t one.”
The official line is that sober sex is the greatest sex because both parties will be fully present, in their right minds. For some, this heightened awareness may prove winningly graphic after the fog of inebriated eroticism. However, for many of us, the appeal of intercourse is not being in our minds: getting out of our heads and into our bodies, escaping the self, not being tied to—and thus stymied by—it.
This is why sex and alcohol share a deity, after all. Dionysus is the god of altered states, not responsible behavior. There’s a reason why drinking arrives in our lives with the onset of sexual activity, and it’s not merely about self-consciousness but an ecstatic transcendence, if only for those few scant moments.
I’m English, meaning self-consciousness does play a part. The first time my boyfriend returned home with me, I had to turn the light off before kissing him. Moreover, the “present sex equals the greatest sex” paradigm does suppose relationship coitus as the norm, or, at least, some accommodating clusterfuck in which everyone’s on the same, self-actualizing page. As a scenario, this sounds not so much hot as earnest.
What about casual sex? Among the sober, is there any hope for an encounter so blissfully recreational it is positively sporting, in which the only intimacy is the pressure of flesh on salty skin? Not every bout of copulation must be infused with meaning. Indeed, it is one of the lessons of adult life that the best sex can be had with the worst people, and beer goggles do tend to help.
Frankly, I’m sick of being present. I’d like a break, not from my partner, but from me, myself, and I. “This is dangerously dissociative,” chides a strenuously therapized pal. Well, maybe that’s my kink? No judgment, O.K.? I’m not fetishizing the bad old days where I’d wake and sigh, “That was brilliant. I mean, wasn’t it? Wait, how did I blacken both elbows? What is the source of this glitter in my navel? Why am I sporting a top hat?”
At this point, I’m supposed to tell you that I’d trade 20 years of drunken escapades for one night’s sober sexual communion. And it’s true that when sober sex is good, it’s very good. Still, ditto almost anything. Just as one’s character development is supposed to cease when addiction begins, leaving one stranded at that age, so the newly sober will find themselves with a second virginity to shed, and just as little prowess as the first time around.
There can never be enough lubricant. At my optimistic moments, I would say that sober sex is (at least) two-person sex as opposed to masturbation with, or with the help of, an audience. It’s companionable, less selfish, and—yes, O.K.—fucking present.
Besides, it’s possible that our pie-eyed passions may not have been as satisfying as we imagined, certainly not for the other party. In the same way that the summers of our youth seem greener, more golden, so the fornicating of our drunken days acquires a porn-tinted seamlessness in which one cannot see the seams.
I see them now. He has a name and a mind, along with a body. I suppose what’s really radical is that this continues to feel radical. Maybe, in time, I could even find it arousing.
Hannah Betts is a features writer and columnist for The Times of London and The Telegraph