Between The Sheets

The Nerve-Wracking Glory Of Sober Sex

The only buzz came from a vibrator.

This couple is having sober sex together for the first time.

Sam, 27, started feeling nervous in the elevator.

She’d brought men back to her New York apartment before, but this time was different: Sam was now one month sober. And under the bright elevator lights, she couldn’t help but worry. How would the sex be? Was her mascara smudged? Did the man she had swiped “yes” on still find her attractive?

“I’ve never had a serious boyfriend, so most of my experiences starting in college were with drunken sex,” Sam says. She recalls loving the excitement of a one-night stand — and swapping romanticized stories the morning after over brunch with girlfriends — but because she was always drunk, her memories were blurry. “I remember wanting someone to consistently hook up with in college so I could get ‘good’ at it. But because I only had drunken sex, I could never really remember it.” Sam says this made her feel less confident when it came to her actual “moves” in the bedroom; her drunken self could be bold, but without alcohol, she felt frozen.

So when she stopped drinking earlier this year at age 27, she had to relearn how to be intimate with men. In certain instances, like the elevator ride, she briefly fantasized about drinking again to smooth over her insecurities, which was disappointing. She had hoped that sobriety would instantly transform her into a more empowered version of herself, but the shift was taking time.

Still, despite the nerves, she was committed to sober sex. Once she and her date got upstairs, she dimmed the lights and put on music, which helped her feel like she was in control again. And when they started kissing on her couch, she began to relax. In the end, the sex was decent, and they ended up hooking up a few more times after that night. Their fling ultimately fizzled — he was two years younger and still in his heavy partying phase, Sam explains — but she has no regrets about their time together. “The best part about sober sex is being able to remember everything, for better or worse,” she says.

Like Sam, many young women are experimenting with dry or “damp” lifestyles. They’re drinking less, enjoying the mental and physical benefits of sober curiosity (things like better sleep, clearer skin, and less anxiety), and many are finding they’re having just as much fun as before. Still, when it comes to sex, most say that they struggled with confidence, body image issues, and fears of underperforming when they first started hooking up after they quit drinking. Many haven’t had alcohol-free sex with a new partner since their teenage years — if ever. And while being sober has innumerable perks, it comes with a caveat: Alcohol-free sex necessitates a deeper level of vulnerability than the drunken variety and, at times, can be uncomfortable.

While I’ve given many drunk blowjobs that I’ve regretted, I don’t think I’ll ever give a sober blowjob I regret.

Zoe, 29, who lives in Sydney, got sober three months ago. Her first experience with sober sex came after a third date with a cute guy who had taken her paddleboarding. She was optimistic about their chemistry between the sheets, but the encounter was anticlimactic.

“He couldn’t get an erection, and the whole thing was one of the most awkward interactions I’ve ever had,” she recalls. Because she was clear-headed, she was able to be honest about the fact that she didn’t want to spend the night with him — and didn’t see a future for them as a couple. If she had been drinking, she likely would have glossed over the lackluster sex and stayed the night to avoid rejecting him.

Zoe went on to have a positive sober sexual encounter with a new partner she met on a dating app. After an early morning coffee date, Zoe and her date were kissing on the beach by 9 a.m. They met up for dinner later that evening, and when they had sex, they were both sober.

She was initially nervous about undressing in front of him because of the self-harm scars on her thighs. But their encounter was slow and sensual, and she was surprised by how confident she felt. “It proved I didn’t need any alcohol to loosen up.”

Since then, her relationship with sober sex — and her body — has continued to improve.

“I’ve had the worst sex of my life and the best sex of my life in the past few months,” she says. “And while I’ve given many drunk blowjobs that I’ve regretted, I don’t think I’ll ever give a sober blowjob I regret.”

While many women experienced lessened anxiety and depression on the other side of sobriety, others have been forced to confront core beliefs about their self-worth.

Kathleen, 28, who lives in Brooklyn, had been sober for three months before having sex with a new partner for the first time. After she ran into an acquaintance who lived in her neighborhood, they made plans to hang out at his place a few nights later. When he leaned in to kiss her, Kathleen was caught off guard.

“It all happened very fast,” she says.

Once they started having sex, Kathleen experienced a familiar need to seem “hot,” rather than focusing on how it felt or what she wanted. The interaction felt performative, she explains, not genuine or pleasurable. “I was so in my head and wanted to get it over with.”

As a teenager and in early adulthood, Kathleen absorbed the societal idea that everyone around her — from characters in movies to her friends — was having “great” sex. The depiction of steamy intercourse that always resulted in orgasm left her with a host of intimacy and body image issues.

“It put a lot of pressure on me,” she explains. Experiencing these emotions in sobriety has inspired her to get to the root of them, and even inspired her to make another big change.

“I’ve decided I’m going to take a break from dating and sleeping with people,” she says. “I would love to feel comfortable being intimate without having these reservations and feeling pressure.”

Being present in my body has allowed me to actually get off. My sober orgasm rate is tenfold what it was before.

For other women, sober sex has unlocked a newfound confidence and freedom in the bedroom. Although she works at a bar, Alli, 27, from New Hampshire, has been alcohol-free for the last two and a half years. When she was drinking, she wasn’t taking care of herself and didn’t feel sexy. In sobriety, she has become much more self-assured.

After getting out of a long-term relationship, Alli slept with a friend for the first time. “We had this very intense chemistry, and it was so exciting and thrilling to feel wanted,” she remembers. “I wasn’t nervous to have sex because now that I’m sober, I feel like I’m thriving. It’s really empowering.” Her one rule? She wanted her friend to also be sober when they slept together.

The request paid off. “It was amazing. When you have sex with someone and they’re sober, you get to experience it that much more fully, and it’s a much purer energy exchange.”

There is another reason sober sex can be particularly satisfying. While some women have a harder time achieving orgasm when drunk, the opposite can occur when they are fully present for every sensation. A 2004 study confirmed this: The women surveyed reported needing much more stimulation to have an orgasm than women who had little or nothing to drink.

“Whisky dick — or whatever you want to call it for women — is real. It’s so much harder to get there with substances involved,” Alli says. “Being present in my body has allowed me to actually get off. My sober orgasm rate is tenfold what it was before.”

Katie, 31, from Santa Cruz, found both good sex and love in sobriety — but not all at once. She is currently nine months sober and began dating in her first month without alcohol. While she was initially apprehensive about mentioning her sobriety on dates, she was pleasantly surprised to discover that most of the men she went out with barely batted an eye when she disclosed it. Best of all, she’s been able to forge more mature connections — with one exception.

While raising the topic of safe sex had never been problematic when she was drinking, one of her first potential partners in sobriety became offended when she brought up using a condom. She always prioritized using protection — even in her drinking days — so she was especially shocked when he challenged her on it. “He was also the only guy who gave me a hard time about not drinking. He was like, ‘Why can’t you just have a margarita or something?’” Red flags all around — they didn’t end up having sex.

He felt confident enough in their connection to keep having “bad” sex for as long as they needed.

Now, Katie is in a committed relationship with a man she started seeing a few months later. They met through a mutual friend and immediately felt a strong emotional connection when it came to shared values and past relationships. By their second date, it was clear they had a future as a couple. “It was intense,” Katie recalls.

Because they fell for each other quickly, Katie says they were both nervous when they had sex for the first time. “There was this pressure that it would be the most mind-blowing sex of our lives because of our connection.” But their chemistry between the sheets paled in comparison to what they felt on their dates. After a lackluster first and second time having sex, Katie got in her head and started to worry they were going to break up.

Luckily, her partner was less worried. “He made me feel so safe about everything,” Katie says, and reassured her that he felt confident enough in their connection to keep having “bad” sex for as long as they needed. By the fourth round, relaxed and secure, their emotional and physical connections matched up. The sex has been amazing ever since.

Despite the initial nerves and hiccups, Katie largely credits their relationship today with going sober. She believes that anyone — whether they have a drinking problem or not — can benefit from taking a break from alcohol if their love life is hitting a dead end. And despite the initial nerves and hiccups, sober sex can lead to some seriously satisfying outcomes.

“For anyone who wants to be serious about dating and finding a partner, being sober is the best thing you can do. You cut out a lot of the bullsh*t up front and are finally honest about who you are.”