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Sober Sex: It's More Fun Than It Sounds

When I was using, I never turned down a romantic opportunity, usually with harrowing results. Then I pulled myself together and said yes to the right guy.

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By Melissa Petro

01/30/12

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Sex feels good. Better than the feeling of being alone. Better than the feeling of not knowing one’s future, which, before I left my fiancé, had been laid out before me like a yellow brick road. 

I always thought I knew my future. I believed I controlled my destiny. Growing up, I had heavily invested in an image of myself as the good, achieving daughter. After college, my high school sweetheart and I had moved from the Midwest to New York. Together, we were, by all outside appearances, making it big in the Big Apple. But on the inside, things were amiss. A year into our engagement, I shocked us both by announcing I didn’t want to get married. I wanted to be a writer, I told him, and I had clear ideas of how a writer’s life ought to look. Those ideas that did not include being a part of a committed, monogamous relationship. Leaving him, I moved to Greenwich Village—an overpriced studio on Sixth Avenue at West 3rd street, arguably the tackiest street in New York. Sandwiched between two adult movie stores, I started my new life.

Sobriety was an opportunity to become just one person, versus two—the unlovable person I feared I was on the inside, and the “I don’t give a fuck” person I presented to others.

While I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with promiscuity, the decision to have sex with random people was a bad choice for me. I was not honest with myself or others about my motivations, nor was I honest about the way it affected me. When I first left my fiancé, I was excited to experiment. We had been together for so long. I had never really been sexually attracted to him. I was only with him, I had always feared, because that relationship kept me safe. Now that I was single, there was no one there to stop me. 

Sex took me out of my fear. It took me out of my body, away from my insecurities. The knowledge that I was on the wrong side of 25 melted into the relieving feeling of pleasure when I fucked. It became so that I could not pass up any opportunity to have sex. Sex with classmates from my graduate program led to online dating, which went a little like this: We would meet at the bar where, if I liked the guy, I’d have a drink or two to loosen up. If I didn’t like the guy, a couple drinks would soften the disappointment. Either way, we’d end up at my place or his. I rarely saw a guy more than once. Sex within the first two hours of meeting, I realize today, scared most of them off. Eventually, the humiliation of online dating led to sex for money. If I was going to do it anyway, I reasoned with myself, why not get paid? 

Though not true of all sex workers, for me, having sex for money was demonstrative of a total lack of self-concern. Whether it was sex for money or “casual encounters,” I took little measures to protect myself from the dangers inherent in putting yourself alone in a room with a man you don’t know. Using alcohol and fantasy, I purposely dulled my intuition—what most sex workers rely on to keep themselves safe. Using sex to check out, I was not present with my partners. The money became an addiction of its own. In many ways, I didn’t do it for the money: I did it to get high.

Outside of paid encounters, it must also be said, my sexual behavior was incredibly risky, for the reasons academics suggest: by engaging in unprotected anal sex, for example, with a boyfriend or potential boyfriend—something I would not do with a client because I defined the one interaction as "personal" and the other as "professional." My standard, by the way, for what constituted a “boyfriend” at that time was reduced to anyone that was non-paying (no matter for how briefly or how little I knew the man).

When I first found recovery, people were often astounded that my problem was “only alcohol” (and not drugs). Three years after leaving my fiancé, my life had telescoped from promise to pathos. At 27 years old, I was bloated from booze. My complexion was damaged from poor nutrition and nervous picking. Inside, I felt used up and financially strapped by useless degrees. Unemployed and unemployable, I had long ago stopped writing. The apartment I lived in, which I found out had formerly been a storage unit, had no heat and was overrun with mice. I was drinking nearly every day. People came in and out. I didn’t lock my doors.

They say all addictions stem from a desire for intimacy. For me, I believe this was true. All I wanted was security, a sense of self, and love. In recovery, I was offered an opportunity to live by a new set of principles. Sobriety, I was taught, meant that I would have to learn to pass up instant gratification in exchange for the dreams and ambitions I had tossed aside. It was an opportunity to become just one person, versus two—the unlovable person I feared I was on the inside, and the “I don’t give a fuck” person I presented to others. In sobriety, I could become the woman I was meant to be. In the beginning, when I heard “Just don’t drink and go to meetings,” I knew this was not enough for me. Like many women with “outside issues,” I knew I would need a total overhaul. Second to drinking, I was most concerned with my behaviors surrounding sex. 

Some people claim that their first experience with sober sex is amazing. For me, this wasn’t the case. The first time I had “sober sex,” I cried—and not because it was beautiful. I met a guy in the rooms on my sixth day of sobriety. One night, after a meeting, he took me out for dessert. When the bill came, he paid. I hadn’t experienced courtesy since I’d been with my ex. It took every ounce of self-restraint to not to fuck him right there—not because I was attracted to him (although I was) or because we got along so well (we did)—but because, prior to recovery, that’s what I’d do. Two or three days later, I invited him in. He stayed with me and, together, we slept in my bed and still, we didn’t have sex. “I think actually like this guy,” I told my sponsor the next day. “I don’t want to fuck it up.”

As an active addict, every impulse had become an imperative. Somewhere, I had lost my ability to say no. But you can only say “yes”—I have learned in recovery—if “no” is an option. Eventually—okay, like a day later—we made a decision to have sex. Though I’d had sex countless times with countless people, it was the first time I’d made that decision in years. 

When it was over, I freaked out. The noise was so loud. I didn’t know this guy! I didn’t trust him! How did I know he wouldn’t hurt me? How did I know I wouldn’t hurt him? I didn’t. I didn’t know the answer to any of those questions. Staying in that moment of not knowing—when it comes to sex, and life—is sobriety. 

Five years later, I’m still sober—and he and I are still together. As luck would have it, he was a decent guy. A fellow in recovery, he went above and beyond what friends might do. He picked up the condom wrappers that others had tossed behind my dresser. He cleaned my bathroom, mopping up where other men had pissed. He loved me until I learned to love myself. He loves me still, and I love him. It goes without saying: the sober sex got better. 

Melissa Petro writes for Salon, Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Rumpus.net and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor at xoJane and was a guest blogger at the feminist website, Bitch Magazine. She lives in New York City.

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