Sex. Sober sex.

The first boy who kissed me did so in daylight. We stood under a weeping willow in a public garden when he bent his head to mine, and I remember every second of it. Even through my thrilled astonishment I was startled by the sheer size of his mouth, which didn’t seem as if it could possibly fit closely with mine except that it did. All the time I was kissing him I was thinking a million things about the experience, an exquisite blend of nerves and glee and sheer arousal. I was sixteen, sweet sixteen and the light shone dappled through the willow leaves.

I remember the first time I made love, as well. I was dating a beautiful loser, the sort of boy put on the earth entirely to provide teenage girls with their first summer romance, and we experimented together as teenagers do, whenever and wherever the opportunity arose.

I was sober both times. Alcohol had entered my life, but it was a party drug, not a pre-requisite for living. We were far too broke back then for alcohol to be anything but occasional; most days we chose nicotine over food, let alone contemplating a luxury like wine.

I’m not sure when sex and alcohol became inextricably linked, but I don’t think I’m alone in that association. Even without getting into the murky issues around teenage sex, consent and exploitation, there is a very strong societal link between alcohol and intimacy. Expensive wine on a date, the licentious names given to cocktails, the word cocktail, alcohol marketing – the message is very clear that if you want to get laid, you need to open a bottle.

And it’s not surprising. Drinking with somebody is an excellent way to create a false sense of intimacy, as well as lowering inhibitions and enhancing our desire for others – the famed ‘beer goggles’ are true, it appears. If you’re not sure if somebody fancies you enough to take their clothes off in front of you, getting them drunk is an effective way of stacking the cards in your favour.

But if you always drink before having sex, then you come to rely on it. Just as we become convinced that alcohol gives us courage or sparkle or confidence in social situations, we come to think of it as necessary for creating intimacy.

When we strip away the alcohol, we have to re-learn the skill without it. Most of us have blogged about finding ourselves perfectly able to hold our own at a party drinking only Perrier, or our discovery that herbal tea and a scented bath are better at relaxing us than a Chardonnay ever was.

But I absolutely refuse to believe that I’m the only one who ever felt a moment of anxiety at the prospect of sober sex.

Sex is an act of trust, every time. We strip away our defences with our clothes, and stand before our partners with our flaws on show. Good sex, in fact, demands that we don’t self-censor; nobody can properly enjoy sex if they’re worrying that their moans sound odd or their tummy fat bulges in certain positions. You can have sex with your clothes on, but you still have to be naked underneath.

Alcohol is custom-designed to help with all of this. If you’ve ever been the loud tactless person closing down the bar, you already know all too well how alcohol overrides social inhibition. If you’ve ever snogged someone you’d ordinarily shun, you know the ease of attraction that it lends. Drunkenness is an abrogation of self, and sex demands that self gets out of the way.

So. Sober sex. What a daunting prospect, right? Suddenly there’s nothing shutting down the millions of thoughts going through your head, no blurry edges obscuring your self-view. Your limbs are suddenly all present instead of melting into your partner, and oh, goodness, you can’t seriously be expected to … say … or do … those things, surely? Not sober!

Enough generalities. You want to know how it is for me. And here is where I wish I could tell you that it’s a million times better, because finally we’re conjoining our true, authentic selves without barrier or artifice. And to some extent, that’s true. Often, that’s true.

But there are differences, and – you know, I’m figuring out why nobody blogs about this now, because, well, yeesh – sometimes those differences don’t leave everyone as happy as before. And this does come back to consent, in a way. What I have found is that there are some things that I am no longer comfortable with. Things that I used to drink in order to feel comfortable with. This isn’t a matter of consent in an awful, sordid way, whereby one partner is pressuring and the other is numbing themselves to get through an ordeal. Nothing like that. But sometimes, in an intimate relationship, there are things that you know might make your partner very happy, but which are a little tiny bit over your comfort line. But you love and trust your partner, so what you do is you blur that line a little bit, so that you can meet them where they are, enthusiastically and willingly. And that’s great where there’s no power issues or abuse going on. I think everyone pushes their comfort levels a little bit where intimate relationships are involved, sometimes; agreeing despite being tired, making the effort to enjoy something new, maybe pulling on some frilly knickers that aren’t that comfortable. But because this stuff is so intimate and so integral to bodily autonomy, it’s not so easy to just talk yourself into it – for it to work, you have to feel it too. And wine, for me, answered that tension.

I can tell myself all I want that it’s about boundaries and self-respect and authenticity, but at the end of the day, sober sex is not the same. It’s better, and it’s worse, and it’s definitely more frequent. But it’s not the same.


Sun, sand and Sauvignon Blanc; a eulogy

Last summer, I took my little family for a beach holiday. Low-key and relatively local, we spent a week eating sandwiches by the sea, stripping the girls down so they could frolic in shallows warmed by a day of sun, seeing friends, touring local wildlife parks and driving through scenery for hours while Little Girl napped in her seat. In the afternoons we’d head to the fishmonger and buy whatever had come in fresh from the boats that day before heading back to our holiday cottage for dinner. No television, no internet connection, it was as wholesome as slow-made porridge and as sweet as its brown sugar crust.

Once the girls had been sluiced of the day’s sand and put to bed, LH and I would share a bottle of wine, chat, and read a book (or, in his case, laboriously read the sports pages on the text-only browser of his extremely old phone).

And I’d sit there, trying to ignore the fact that all I wanted was more wine.

We’d brought with us the remains of a wine cask ‘for cooking’, which I drained on the first evening while he showered. On the second day we went to a winery and I bought four bottles; by day three there were two left, not three, because I stayed up after LH was in bed and drank an extra one by myself. On the third day, I supplemented the allotted half bottle with a glass or two from an open bottle left in the fridge by previous tenants, leaving barely an inch in the bottom. By day five, I claimed that the fish dish I had planned needed a certain variety of sauvignon blanc to do it justice, and headed to the bottle shop to restock.

That holiday, I thought about wine. As the sun finally dipped low enough to take my girls for an evening swim, I packed picnics and wondered whether I could manufacture a reason to drive into the town after their bedtime and buy a bottle without LH knowing. At the pub we ended up lunching at mid-week, I finished my wine before the bread came out, and spent more time wondering if I could buy another one than listening to my family’s chatter. At night I deliberately didn’t see LH’s overtures towards bed, preferring to let him sleep so I could finally drink in private.

It was something special, that week. It was Little Girl’s first real experience with the beach, and her grin, as she waded completely nude in the deserted waves, rivalled the setting sun for light and beauty. No television meant Enid Blyton evenings of reading and colouring, and with no agenda except relaxation, our days were easy and unstressed. The perfect week for reconnecting as a family and strengthening our bonds.

Except that I wasn’t really there.

Wine is just a vehicle

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon; the last weekend of autumn but somehow warm enough that I’m sitting outside a cafe in half sleeves, light pants and ballet flats. There’s a busker somewhere nearby, and my hand trolley is full of fresh ingredients, biding their time until the children are in bed later and I shut myself in the kitchen with my CD player and cook a week’s worth of meals. Chickpea, cauliflower and eggplant curry; pea and ham soup; roast pork with all the trimmings; lentil soup, apricot muffins for the school lunch grind. LH is at home with the girls, constructing fairy wings out of old stockings, coat hangers and glitter.

Yes, you could indeed guess that I’m happy in this moment.

Approaching three months, I’m happy most of the time. I miss wine in the abstract, sometimes; the idea that LH and I can’t just flop on the sofa together after a hard day with the girls, crack open a bottle of red and settle back into easy conversation seems very unfair when I think about it. But I rarely miss drinking in the here-and-now any more.

When people talk about strengthening their emotional muscles as the sober days tick past, I always took them to mean that they grew better at resisting cravings. As if those muscles act only in reaction, pushing back against the force of the craving to end in deadlock. Talk about sitting with the cravings, distractions, avoiding the vulnerable times, gave me the impression that the point was to get better at saying no, and that it ended there.

But what I’m realising is that it’s more than saying no to a craving. It’s about saying yes – honouring the real need behind that craving and finding better ways to meet it. As time goes by, I meet those needs more and more with other things first, without going through the step of saying no to wine. Do you remember my friend, who said the same thing, about ringing the Solutions Desk in your head? ‘After a while, you stop asking for alcohol. Alcohol doesn’t work here anymore’.

So what did I want to feel yesterday, at my party? Pepped up, cheerful, energetic, bright; Diet Coke it was, and talking, and volunteering to lead the children in a chasing game outdoors. After everyone had gone, I wanted to feel relaxed, indulgent, sleepy. A peppermint chamomile blend in my pretty mug* and the Enigma Variations in my earbuds. Tonight I’ll find the space and solitude I need at the end of a busy weekend by shutting myself in my kitchen, a literal door doing what wine used to try and achieve metaphorically.

Because wine is just a vehicle It’s not a destination. And once you know where you’re trying to be, you can use other vehicles to get there just as well. Better, in fact, because wine has a habit of detouring through Drunkville, but now this metaphor is in danger of going off its own tracks, so let me get back to the point. Alcohol is just a thing that gets you to a place, and it turns out that despite its promise, it doesn’t have exclusive rights to utilise that road.

Hop in your sober car instead. The music is better and the scenery stays crisp. It’s quite the ride.

*You GUYS. I meant to tell you. My mother-in-law, on her first evening here, asked for a cup of tea and took down MY MUG to drink it from! A whole cupboard of matching crockery and she reaches for what is literally the only drinking vessel that isn’t part of the set. I was, you will be glad to read, very restrained about it.