The Limits of Sexual Healing
Before I got sober, life was a series of one-night stands. Now I want something both more meaningful and pleasurable—and don't know how to get it.
For the first ten years of being sexually active, I never had an orgasm. I remember being high, unable to sleep, my heart hummingbird-hammering against my chest, trying with a vibrator to make it happen after a night out. I’d watch the clock—three, four, five AM—occasionally stopping to type a new porn site address in my browser to find something hotter, dirtier, more likely to cause the release I craved. But nothing worked.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. If not a full-fledged addiction, sex was definitely the third part of the drugs-and-alcohol temptation trifecta—and the riskier the sex, the better. I’d snort coke off almost any body part, I’d pass out in stranger’s beds, and I was a pro at sneaking into a bar bathroom with a date for a fast and furious quickie.
Of course, it’s not like I’m the only alcoholic ever to act like this. A 2008 University of Chicago study found that women who drink daily show more interest in sex than their non-drinking counterparts. I wonder if they had trouble climaxing as well. Most likely, they did—studies have found that excessive alcohol use is linked to the inability to climax in women. But it wasn’t sexual fulfillment I was seeking so much as the anything-can-happen excitement, the validation, the moment when I felt like I wasn’t alone.
I didn’t feel desire until I was drunk, and once I was, it was almost impossible for me to stop thinking about anything else.
Most of the time the men I’d hook up with were also active alcoholics and addicts. After sex, we’d often share drunken, rambling monologues about our lives. I never saw most of them again—in my list of sexual partners from that time, there are numerous items like Guy from Boxcar Lounge or Dude I met after Stephanie’s birthday party—but there were a few I’d keep in a rotating roster of guys to call when I was feeling drunk and sad. They weren’t boyfriends, but they also weren’t quite friends with benefits. Addiction added a layer of urgency to our up-all-night encounters. Sharing coke made us feel like partners in crime, and sipping vodka from the same glass made us feel far more intimately connected than we were otherwise. And oddly, even though ‘whiskey dick’ is an oft-discussed phenomenon, I never found that to be the case with the men I slept with. That may be because they, like me, had sex and alcohol so completely intertwined in their brains that their bodies followed suit.
“Studies show that the way alcohol affects individuals is based more on expectation than anything else,” says David J. Hanson, PhD Professor Emeritus of sociology at the State University of New York, Potsdam, and author of Preventing Alcohol Abuse. In other words, because I associated alcohol with semi-anonymous sexual encounters, that’s what I continued to do. After three drinks, I’d begin looking through my phone for potential partners to text, and after five, I’d easily flirt with anyone at the bar. I didn’t feel desire until I was drunk, and once I was, it was almost impossible for me to stop thinking about anything else.
Of course, the next morning, I’d usually feel regret, but I’d also feel like the night hadn’t been wasted. At least I’d had an experience. At least someone wanted me. And losing that validation was one of the things that stopped me from getting sober for a long time. Yes, I wanted real romance, not hazy half memories of being naked with a guy whose name I didn’t know. Yes, I wanted to have sex with someone whose last name I would remember. But I was so afraid that it wouldn’t happen, and I’d end up even worse off: Single, lonely, and celibate. At least sex was something.
When I got sober, I became more sexually active than ever, attending sex parties and juggling multiple partners. I craved the thrill, and was surprised in the ways my body responded. Finally, an orgasm was within reach. In almost every situation, I felt myself closer to climaxing than ever, only I’d pull away at the crucial moments. I wanted to experience an orgasm I’d remember, to fully be present during sex. But I didn’t want to do that with a stranger.
Which was why I was thrilled when I got a text from John, one of the men I used to sleep with during my binge-drinking days. He and I would spend entire weekends in his cluttered one-bedroom apartment doing lines, drinking vodka, having sex, and falling into a fitful, Xanax-aided sleep, repeating the cycle over and over again until it was time for one of us to go to work. But now, he was sober.
After a quick phone conversation, he invited me to dinner.
Only as friends, he added. He explained that he wasn’t sure where sex fit into his new, sober life.
At the restaurant, he seemed older than I remembered. He was fidgety, barely able to hold eye contact during dinner. He interrupted my stories, and went off on long tangents about the tennis lessons he was taking. I wasn’t enjoying myself, but I felt I might as well stick it out. And even though I was only drinking water, I found myself wanting him to invite me to his apartment. I edged my hand closer to his arm and then, when the check came, asked if we could continue the conversation at his place.
He hesitated slightly before he agreed. I was again the aggressor, lying down on the couch as he turned on the TV. Back when we were using, he would take charge, easily throwing me on the bed and climbing on top of me. But this time, I was the one who initiated things, wiggling out of my jeans and towards him, throwing my arms around his chest. He watched as I slowly undid his belt buckle and hooked my thumbs under the waistband of his boxers. I expected him to say no. But he didn’t.
He also didn’t do anything else. I tried a few different things, expecting him to become aroused. But he didn’t. Instead, he watched my attempts with bemused indifference, before pulling me back towards him. He pulled up his boxers, then pulled the comforter over both of us.
“I’m sorry,” I said, guiding his hand below my waist. I was still eager to do something. I didn’t want to hang out, I wanted to hook up. And I couldn’t understand why he didn’t.
He pulled his hand away. “I was worried that might happen. In fact, I haven’t even tried to have sex since I got sober.”
Then why was I here? I knew I should have been focusing on trying to be his friend; on connecting in a way that wasn’t sexual—but it was almost impossible when I was focused on my frustration. Didn’t he realize that he was supposed to help me have an orgasm; to give me the training wheels that would lead me to the sober sexual fulfillment I craved?
Noticing my disappointment, he propped his head on his hand and appraised me.
“Maybe it’s better if you go home,” he said finally. He swung his legs off the bed and pulled on a pair of boxers and jeans. I stayed underneath the covers, feeling rejected and lonely and confused. I’d thought John and I would be at sexually in sync, but we had nothing in common—even our conversations about sobriety were stilted and awkward. I wondered if I’d ever feel close enough to let go with anyone. And I felt betrayed at my body for still craving sex—even though I should have known better.
According to experts, both of our newly sober reactions to sex were normal. While some people lose interest altogether, my hypersexuality was on the other end of the spectrum. “It’s common to see newly sober people act out sexually, which is why people are encouraged not to act on those urges.” explains Alex Katehakis, the clinical director for the Center for Healthy Sex and the author of Erotic Intelligence. “If you’re using sex to manage anxiety or to find validation, then you’re not learning healthy coping mechanisms.”
In the back of my mind, I’d known this. But I was hoping that hooking up with someone I’d known when I was using, who was also now sober, would be a sort of loophole. After all, we’d both been there, done that, and I thought that maybe I could turn what we’d had into a normal, mutually sexually fulfilling relationship. Instead, I found myself with a guy I didn’t even really like, who wasn’t really into sex.
Which of course, was because I was following the sexual script I’d had when I was drinking—and what I realize more than ever is that I need to change it. I knew my franticness and frustration was a cue that I wasn’t sober, not really. I also knew that I needed to work harder on forming a genuine connection with the guys I was sleeping with.
And the experts agree. Katehakis recommends people take the suggestion not to date in the first year of sobriety seriously, and then focus on getting to know someone slowly, with frequent self check-ins to figure out whether they like that person. She warns about cross addiction to sex or love. And I realize that’s a danger. But it’s still hard to let go of the one high that actually seemed to have the potential to get better with sobriety. I mean, do I really have to wait a year to finally experience an orgasm with another person?
At least, in the meantime, my vibrator and I can have some fun.