The first time I ever let a man kiss my clit, had someone’s fingers inside me, saw a penis, put my mouth on a penis, let a penis enter my sacred virginal parts—that is to say, the first time I did anything sexual—I was drunk or high or both. I lost my virginity at 17, a month shy of my 18th birthday, on Christmas Eve. I was plied with a 22 of Newcastle, a joint, and while I wasn’t so obliterated as to not remember it, I was fucked up enough to be able to do it. In the years that followed, while not every sexual encounter was lubricated with alcohol, absolutely every first encounter was and most of the subsequent encounters required it. Which is to say, almost all my sex was the fuzzy kind.
And thank god for that because if there was one thing I didn’t know how to do, it was to be around men or fuck men or suck their dicks without putting on a show. I was an actress, one that moaned at the exact right moments and faked orgasms to get it to stop and withstood the jackrabbit thump so favored among men who have absolutely no idea—or care for—how to please a woman. Which was fine by me because I didn’t have sex to be pleasured; I had sex to please.
Back then, there was enough evidence to prove I was a “normal drinker” (I didn’t drink every night, and I didn’t drink any more than my friends when we went out), and equally enough evidence to qualify me for Betty Ford (I was hungover more days than not, and I kept airline shots in my purse—just in case). I went back and forth between knowing I needed major help and thinking if I just did more yoga, I’d be fine. In that sense, my passage into sobriety was both slow and fast. Slow, in that it took me 17 years to realize that alcohol had never done me any favors, 17 years of trying to make it work for me like I imagined it worked for all the other “normal” people. Fast in the sense that once I crossed some invisible line, I was hurtling so quickly toward total dissolution that I didn’t have the strength to stave off what was happening to me. The whole thing was like that Price Is Right game where the little yodeler is climbing the mountain and you never know when he is going to stop or how far he’s going to make it, but you know he has the potential to go all the way.
When I stopped drinking alcohol for good in 2013, I also stopped having sex and not just with men but with myself too. Meditation, exploring the astral plane, thinking about Jesus, taking pictures, crying in the bathtub, looking at the sky and running through fields, researching addiction, finding myself: these things were what mattered. An orgasm, which I didn’t have for the entire first year, didn’t.
But then one day, the desire came back along with a new skill: I could orgasm for minutes at a time—a howling, screaming, endless rip of pleasure—which was not discovered through any sort of intercourse, but in the course of remembering I could masturbate. To say that I started to desire sex again would be an understatement, because I was insatiable, in a way I had never even imagined I could be insatiable. The term “walking sex” might have been a term used to describe myself, and by might I mean did. I was an orgasm waiting to happen.
The first man I slept with in sobriety—someone I’d only met because my friend had fucked him and we’d started following each other on Instagram—was a target the second I saw his big bear face on social media. I knew we would fuck, and I knew it would be good. After a few weeks of incessant texting and DM’ing, he came over to my apartment, tore my clothes off, pulled my tampon out, and put his glasses on. He told me he wanted to have a better look at my pussy. Then I basically starred in my own porno, and not the kind I’d grown up on where it’s all about the size of John Holms’s dick but the kind of pornography where the star of the show was just me and my desires. This was new.
Whereas before sobriety I couldn’t stand to be seen with my clothes off or let anyone give me pleasure without feeling the need to repay it; whereas before—when I was mostly drunk through the whole thing—sex was shameful and words like pussy were even more; whereas in every single sexual encounter I’d been in prior to this moment in my 34th year of life, I’d focused on looking fuckable, fucking good, and being the prop for his pleasure; in this first sober sexual encounter of mine, there wasn’t any of that. It was, for the first time in my life, entirely about me and what I wanted.
I wish I could tell you that this was the case in every encounter thereafter, but it wasn’t. I’ve had terrible partners and selfish partners and the kind of partners that still make me want to contort myself into a mirage of female fuckability. I’ve been jackrabbit-thumped and choked and I’ve had men who turned on ESPN instead of cuddling with me. In other words, sobriety hasn’t prevented me from having terrible sex with terribly inconsiderate, ill-equipped, emotionally unavailable, clueless, selfish men, because LORD, they are out there, and they are abundant, and good luck dodging them. But what I have had, most notably, is a severely escalating awareness of what it feels like to be left out of the equation of your own sexuality and an escalating inability to put up with it. Here is the time in my life when I walk out on bad sex, I ask for what I need, and his ego does not hold more value than my comfort or what I’m willing to put up with.
I’m not talking about how awkward it is to be fully present for the sound of your own queef or to hear the slapping noise that sex actually makes. This isn’t about what your naked skin and naked humanity really feel like in the presence of another person and you are, maybe for the first time, present. This whole thing isn’t even about sex. It’s about my sexuality, and sobriety is the reason I came to own it. This is about reclamation.
The story of sex, post addiction, is as wide and deep and varied as we are. Some of us will come through sobriety and find that it opens the door for more questioning—of our sexual orientation or our gender or both. Some of us will find that we have never wanted to be monogamous or that maybe we don’t ever want to have sex again. Others of us, and a good number too, will have thicker layers to peel back. For survivors of sexual assault that have any sort of sexual trauma, sober sex might reopen every wound you’ve ever tried to deny or maybe it’s even impossible—this is a thing that happens too. Maybe you married your college sweetheart and all you’ve ever known is the drunk version of each other, and maybe you don’t know where to go from here, and maybe you never will. Perhaps you no longer want to fuck your partner, or perhaps you’ve found—as so many of my friends have—the fact that your partner still drinks is a barrier to your sexual attraction. I could go on.
Whatever it is, sober sex, or even the lack of sex in sobriety, is like all other things: another offering, another way for you to find your way home to you.
This essay has been adapted from Holly Whitaker’s new book about drinking culture, Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed With Alcohol.