Sex can be an incredibly vulnerable experience. For people who struggle with alcoholism, the desire to dull some of the more uncomfortable feelings associated with sex ― like fear, anxiety and insecurity ― can be even greater.
But once you get sober and stop using alcohol as a crutch, you're forced to feel everything a bit more deeply and clearly ― the good feelings and the bad.
"Sex has become a much more conscious process [since I got sober]," Seamus Kirst, author of Shitfaced: Musings of a Former Drunk, told HuffPost. "Before, I would drink to build up the confidence to flirt with people, and then drink to get through having sex. Besides my one serious relationship, I would usually have sex when I was drunk, so I wasn't really aware of what I actually enjoyed sexually, and often sex wasn't even an especially pleasurable experience."
From a scientific perspective, Lara Ray ― a UCLA professor whose research focuses on the causes and treatment of substance use disorders ― said alcohol lowers inhibitions, which may make people more likely to engage in sex. But the effect that alcohol has on feelings of sexual arousal has not been well-established.
"The work on alcohol expectancies suggests that individuals often expect alcohol to enhance sexual encounters," she added. "The degree to which alcohol actually does so is not entirely clear."
We reached out to sober men and women to find out the ways that sex changed for them ― be it physically, emotionally or spiritually ― once they quit drinking. Here's what we learned:
You feel more empowered to ask for what you want — and comfortable communicating what you don't want — in bed
"Before sobriety, the only way I would ever risk vulnerability in regards to sex is if I was drunk. It was hard for me to feel at home in my body, especially my naked body, unless I was drunk with false confidence. It was hard for me to enjoy pleasure without feeling ashamed unless I was drunk and numb. It was hard for me to ask for what I wanted unless I was drunk and uninhibited. It was hard for me to say a real 'yes' or 'no' because I was drunk and everything was blurry and uncertain, so I often said 'yes' when I meant 'no,' or 'no' when I really wanted to say 'yes.'
Now, everything I do is intentional. I might regret saying 'yes' or 'no' to [a] partner but never ashamed because I made a deliberate, clear-eyed choice. And instead of feeling numb or having false courage, I feel everything: the good and the bad, the pleasurable and the uncomfortable, and my courage comes from within ― not from a bottle. To tell a partner what I want? What I really, really want? True courage that always allows me to own my desires and my feelings and my body." ― Kerry Neville, writer, 7 years sober.
But it can be scary at first
"I'm still working on connecting to the physical and emotional aspects of sex. Intimacy is tough for me because I often hid behind the veil of alcohol in past relationships and hookups. Now that alcohol is completely off the table, I'm dealing with the fact that I find it terrifying to be emotionally intimate with a man. Eye contact, pillow talk, even flirting are more of a challenge than the physical act of sex." — Tawny Lara, blogger at Sobrietea Party, 2.5 years sober.
You're more in touch with your own body and pleasure
"Sex is a more spiritual experience, in the sense that I feel connected to it and actually understand what I want. I wrote about this a bit in my memoir, Shitfaced, but I used to have an issue with delayed ejaculation, which was caused by being incredibly anxious about sex. I began working through this toward the end of my alcoholism, but fully got over it in early recovery.
Recovery has made me realise all of the ways I used to beat myself up ― excessive drinking, excessive exercising, restrictive eating, purging, not sleeping, etc. Now, I am much more in touch with my body across all areas of my life. I do yoga for exercise, and I try to eat food that is good for me and makes me feel good about myself. That translates to sex. I am much more in touch with what I want out of sex, and don't just do what the other person wants me to do. For instance, I haven't had penetrative sex since 2014, because I haven't wanted to. When I want to, I will, where in the old days, I would have just done it because I would have felt like I had to." ― Kirst, 4 years sober.
You stop equating sex (or lack thereof) with your own self-worth
"Since becoming sober and then working on improving my sense of self and being happy with who I am, sex is no longer so closely aligned to my self-esteem. Just as I can take or leave alcohol, I take sex as it comes too. I used to worry if it hadn't happened for a while but now I value it more, I guess. And being sober, I'm more connected in everything I do, including my physical relationship." ― Matt of Sober Man 365, 2 years sober.
You have fewer regrets after the fact
"I don't regret sex as much, because now I actually think before doing it. When I used to drink, I would have sexual experiences with people that I did not want to, or in ways that I did not want to, and then feel a deep sense of shame afterward. Now, I really take the time to think about it before having a sexual experience, and because of that thought process, I usually don't have the same moment the next day of, 'WTF just happened?' There are many times now where I don't have sex with someone, and I recognize that if I'd been drunk, I definitely would have, and would have felt shitty about it later." ― Kirst.
The sensations can be intense, especially at first
"Sex changed for me in a lot of ways when I got sober. For one, it became more intense. I am in a much better relationship with myself and my body and all of my senses are heightened. This allows me to feel things in a more intense way, emotionally, physically, spiritually and this includes sex." ―Kelly Fitzgerald, writer at Sober Señorita, 5 years sober.
You start to approach sex like an adult
"I'm finally a grown woman having grown-up sex. That is, I can now allow myself to have a wide range of desires, to express these desires, to play, to be serious, to be disappointed, to be thrilled ― all of it without having to feel like I'm 19 and need to chug a six-pack, or 30 and down a bottle of wine in order to be tender, to be rough, to make love and to fuck. All that drinking was a cover for fear of allowing myself to feel my power. Sober, I know I can survive rejection and can also make the first move!" ― Neville.
And regain some of the self-respect you may feel like you lost in your drinking days
"My sex life drastically changed when I got sober. As a binge drinker, I frequently had sex with people who didn't respect me. I often slept with my male friends aka drinking buddies, convincing myself that those 2 a.m. texts were a prelude to romance and love. I rarely had sex sober, even when in a relationship. Now that I'm booze-free (and in therapy), I've gained some much-needed self-respect and no longer engage in those behaviors." ― Lara.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.