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.