Why sex can be the scariest thing about not drinking

Currently, millions of people around the world have given up drinking for a whole month.

Which sounds brilliantly rejuvenating, not to mention smug-making. But there is a side to this abstemiousness that most will experience, but almost no one will tell you about. I speak, of course, of sober sex – that last great taboo in a culture where seduction and the sauce go together like gin and tonic.

Night terrors

Given that the start of our erotic lives coincides with the beginning of our drinking careers, many so-called "dryathletes" will be having sober sex for the first time – and finding it extremely odd. Thanks to my status as an alcohol abstainer of three years, numerous folk have already sidled up to me and confided their qualms, one lamenting: "Here's what they don't tell you about not being trolleyed – the sex is utterly terrifying.

Even among former booze hounds, the subject is acknowledged only in whispers. I recently met a man whose passion for Alcoholics Anonymous has carried him to meetings across the globe, and who proclaimed: "Sobriety is the best thing that's ever happened to me."

"And how's the sex?" I asked.

"Oh, horrific," he replied.

Intimate acts defined

Articles purporting to be about sober sex tend to focus on finding someone, rather than The Act itself. I get this, of course. I was 90 days dry when I met my partner, and had to turn the lights off merely to kiss him. But I'm talking about activities further down the erotic line, about which everybody draws a euphemistic veil.

In those rare cases where the subject is addressed, the approach tends to be blithely optimistic. Life coach Harriet Waley-Cohen's article on sober encounters, for example, focuses on positives such as being mentally present, less likely to have regrets, and a lack of brewer's droop.

Asked to elaborate, she says: "My number one tip is to make sure you are with a partner you trust."


Start with the basics

Soberistas.com founder Lucy Rocca, who recently launched a website selling alcohol-free merchandise (think T-shirts reading "Sober warrior" and mugs printed with the words "I am good enough"), agrees.

"As someone who drank heavily for 22 years and has been sober for seven, I know that sober sex is better – but there are prerequisites," she says. "One, you need to be in love with your partner; two, you need to be confident in your own skin. When you get those two components, it's perfect."

All well and good, but what if you want a hot night with A N Other, rather than something deep and meaningful with The One? What about people who don't find sober sex so earth-moving? People who are self-conscious? People for whom teetotal intercourse feels clumsy? People who have a need to be out of their heads to get into their bodies? People for whom being hammered is utterly essential to being turned on?

Old habits die hard

The drive is an ancient one, as embodied by Dionysus, god of booze and orgiastic ecstasy; of drunkenly erased boundaries. Before I dragged myself on to the wagon, I had never had sober sex. I was either hammered, or still tipsy from the night before. And that was the way I liked it, viewing non-sloshed sex – like the procreative version –as a fetish too far. Of course, the unoiled act can be a revelation. However, for many, sober sex means effectively losing one's virginity all over again, with just as little prowess: a rude – or insufficiently rude – shock.

Former soaks can be drawn on the subject. First and foremost among their advice: don't go on about being sober, or no one will want to have sex with you anyway. On the upside, not being blitzed will mean that both parties are consenting – no joking matter in these fraught times. Not having had a skinful will mean that you remember what happened, albeit this may not always be a good thing. It will also make you more likely to be aware of what you want, if less likely to articulate it. There will be fewer UDIs (A&E speak for Unidentified Drinking Injuries), and many sober types make a case for finding their heightened awareness arousing.

A different kind of good

Pressed to be full and frank, one seasoned female non-drinker recommends upping the foreplay and considering fantasy, reasoning that "you weren't exactly present when you were plastered".

A friend, who is two decades dry, says: "If I were being glass half-empty, I would tell you that sex has never been the same again. In glass half-full mode, I'd say it is akin to 'couple sex' as opposed to 'single sex'. It is more loving, or at least companionable, mutually considerate, and present. Smashed sex and sober sex are good in different ways; the latter is just a different kind of good."

If this sounds grudging, then it is possible that our paralytic passions may not have been as dazzling as we previously thought - certainly not for the other party. It is perhaps no coincidence that I used to refer to hot sex as "blackout sex". "It was brilliant... wasn't it?" I was wont to ask next morning.

For long-term renouncers, there will be an inevitable period of re-adjustment. As for temporary teetotallers who remain unconvinced? Well, one can always lie back and think of February.

The Telegraph, London