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How to have sober sex

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Dry January is in full swing, and with it comes a newfound soberness to usually tipsy activities. You may find yourself dating while sober, which is one thing — but what about sober sex?

Alcohol loosens inhibitions and mutes our emotions, including anxiety. If you’re used to having sex under the influence, doing it while sober can feel…terrifying. But why is that, and how can we have sober sex? 

Why we have sex while drunk 

Sex brings out our deepest vulnerabilities, said Casey Tanner, certified sex therapist and expert for sex toy brand LELO, whether it’s with a new partner or someone we’ve known for decades. We might worry about how we look, about our “performance,” and about when we’re going to orgasm, to name a few concerns. Unsurprisingly, these worries prevent us from enjoying sex or maybe even initiating it, said Tanner.

Alcohol, meanwhile, turns the volume down on anxieties that come up before or during sex. This can feel like a relief, Tanner continued. “[People] might find that when tipsy, they tap into a more daring or relaxed sexual version of themselves that is difficult to access sober,” they explained. There’s a reason alcohol is called “liquid courage.”

In the long run, however, using alcohol before sex habitually can leave you feeling out of touch with yourself and your partners once you sober up, Tanner said. 

Physically, you may not be tuned-in to what your body needs, like lube. Mentally, you may remember having hot, consensual sex, but not the details. You may even internalize the belief that you’re only “good at sex” after drinking, which could lead to less intimacy and initiation in the long run. 

Benefits of sober sex

Alcohol acts as “social lubricant” by quieting down nerves one may feel in a public setting. The problem is, “when we numb the bad, we also numb the good,” said Heather Lowe, certified recovery coach from the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education (ICARE) and founder of wellness company Ditched the Drink. This means that alcohol dilutes the senses, so while you may be less nervous, you’ll also feel less sensation. 

When you’re sober, however, you feel it all — literally. 

Sober sex allows us to be more in-tuned with our bodies and our partner’s, Tanner said. When we have sex sober, “we stop compartmentalizing sex to a particular mind-state, and build confidence in our ability to access sensuality more authentically.”

Intimacy will be greater while sober than if you’re drunk and going through the motions, Lowe said. 

How to have sober sex

Transitioning from tipsy/drunk sex to sober sex may not be immediately gratifying, said Tanner. That’s okay.

Feel the feelings, Lowe advised. Accept and allow emotions that come up instead of fighting them. This practice ideally starts outside of the bedroom. “The most important thing anyone can do in any journey — but especially an alcohol-free journey — is to spend just a few minutes a day with yourself, in your own breath, and paying attention to you,” Lowe said. 

This is called mindfulness, which can look like a guided meditation or just closing your eyes and paying attention to your breath. Thoughts are going to pop up, and that’s completely normal; bring your focus back to the sensations in your body.

You can do this when you’re alone, but it’s also possible while surrounded by people. If you’re at a bar, for instance, you can take a few minutes to notice what’s going on in your body, rather than what’s happening around you. 

You can experiment with mindful sex either partnered or solo first. Pay attention to your senses, and focus on your breath and how you feel. Just like regular mindfulness, your brain will produce thoughts; that’s normal. Guide yourself back to your breath and body.

“It may take some time to ‘get out of your head’ and fully let go during sex…if it does, this is okay,” said Helen Burkitt, senior sexual health and contraception nurse at SH:24, and Emily Jackson, social media executive at SH:24, a digital sexual health service in partnership with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

Being more aware can be both helpful and anxiety provoking, said Tanner. “You may not be used to hearing your breath, sensing a partner’s mood, or noticing the smells and tastes the way you do sober,” they said. “Rather than judging these new experiences as positive or negative, you can use your sobered-up five senses to actually stay more present.”

The reality is, sex is awkward, at least some of the time. It doesn’t look like how it’s portrayed in movies or porn.

The reality is, sex is awkward, at least some of the time. It doesn’t look like how it’s portrayed in movies or porn. Emotions will come up when you’re sober and about to have sex (or during it). 

In the moment, you can tell your partner how you’re feeling, Lowe suggested. No matter what, though, approach yourself with comparison and curiosity.

“Good sex is paying attention to yourself,” Lowe said. When you’re able to pay attention, you can discover more about yourself and your partner.

Communication is also key during any sexual encounter, said Burkitt and Jackson. Telling your partner your likes and dislikes (or writing them down for yourself beforehand) can be a fun way to alleviate nerves. The more open you are with your partner, the more comfortable you may feel. 

Should you have sex sober while your partner is drunk?

If you’re participating in Dry January, or exploring sobriety in general, but your partner isn’t, you run the risk of having sex while one party is under the influence. If they’re unable to express themselves intelligibly, they can’t consent, said Burkitt and Jackson.

If they’re unable to express themselves intelligibly, they can’t consent.

“They may seem fairly lucid — but if they are unable to communicate their needs clearly, they cannot consent and [fall] into the category of an incapacitated person,” they said. 

And anyway, you may not want to have sex with someone who is sloshed while you’re not. The experience won’t be the same for the two of you. 

“It’s most powerful when two people are communicating the same and speaking the same language,” Lowe said. “If somebody has had too many drinks, you’re no longer on the same wavelength, so it’s going to be hard to feel connected.”

When in doubt, wait until the morning when they’re sober.

Sober sex, like sobriety in general, puts us in touch with our bodies and our feelings — and those of our partner. That may be a scary prospect, but feeling the fear comes with the territory.

“It’s okay to feel awkward. It’s okay for it to be messy,” Lowe said. “Letting yourself feel what you actually feel instead of pouring alcohol on it will ultimately make for a better and more powerful experience.”

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