The sun is streaming through the curtains of a room that you have never seen before. You squint and rub your bloodshot eyes, as your hand reaches out to feel the prone body of the snoring person who a few hours earlier was a stranger. You notice your own naked body and wonder how the two of you spent the interceding time. You look at the floor next to the bed and see your clothes, strewn across the carpet, wine bottles and glasses, a few joints, and a line of cocaine on the dresser across the room.
You slide out of bed, gather your belongings, hightail it to the bathroom and quickly get yourself street ready. Wondering how you will explain your lateness for work this time, you swear you will never allow this to happen again. That resolve lasts until the next weekend, where you are once again at the familiar bar where you and your friends hang out. You insist that they keep you from leaving with someone other than one of them and they promise, but once you are a few drinks deep, your resolve goes out the window and you find yourself on the arm of a person with whom you have been flirting and dancing, your inhibitions washed away on the wave of alcohol that is now coursing through you.
Alcohol is the most frequently used mood-altering and mind-numbing substance in the United States. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that over half of all American adults were current drinkers of alcohol at the time of their 2015 national survey. When enjoyed in moderation, it can be a social lubricant, a shared activity, a way of celebrating life events. When indulged in excess, used habitually, or abused, it can establish and continue a pattern of behavior that can cause serious damage and wreak havoc on your life.
It is also the most oft imbibed date rape drug, according to various police reports and experts who specialize in sexual assault cases. It far surpasses Rohypnol, (a.k.a. ‘roofies’) that is sometimes used to spike an unguarded drink.
The downside of sexual activity when impaired
- Risky sexual behavior
- Increased risk of STDs
- Increased chance of pregnancy
- Lack of ability to consent to sexual activity
- Greater likelihood of physical or sexual assault
- Use of additional substances beyond what was ingested at the onset
- Being abandoned in an unfamiliar place
- Getting robbed
- Loss of memory of what occurred/blackouts
According to a woman I spoke to who was willing to she here experience here, sex while impaired in committed relationships was “missing something. The only time I could feel comfortable in my own skin was after a few drinks. That meant, I couldn’t even get in bed with my husband unless I had a few… and then a few turned into a few too many.”
When she considered where that pattern began, she remembered her first traumatic sexual encounter in her teens when in the basement of a boy’s home, they were mixing drinks and she passed out and the next thing she knew, her pants were around her ankles and he was nowhere in sight. Over the years, she repressed the memory and it came to her awareness in a couple’s counseling session they had to repair the rift that was caused by her drinking.
When she made a courageous decision to get into recovery, she had to face the frightening prospect of being with her husband without a substance between them. Awkward initially, she admitted that she felt like she was a teenager again and in many ways, a virgin, since she had not known what it was like to be fully present in any sexual encounter.
A gay man I spoke to had limited experience with sober sex, since his relationships with men were fueled by substances and the way he met these companions was in bars. On the rare occasions those encounters occurred, he felt a sense of shame arise since his family and church told him his inclination, attractions and actions were sinful. He too entered treatment and began to face the reality of who he was and how he chose to share loving interactions with partners. To date, he remains sober and is in a committed relationship leading toward marriage.
A couple who have been in a long-term relationship both have substance abuse problems. When they met, they were both drinking heavily, and much of their social life consisted of meeting up at their favorite bar after work, having several drinks and then heading home to bed. Morning-after hangovers greeted them along with the chirping of birds.
In therapy, they admitted that they had never felt intimate with each other and that sex was something they did because it was expected, and not because they truly enjoyed it. Their therapist reminded them that their commitment to monogamy was not genuine, since the substances were like two additional partners in their relationship. They were allowing their addictions to share their bed and it simply wasn’t big enough to accommodate all four of them. In subsequent sessions, they — with a sense of embarrassment — admitted that they were having a better time under the covers than they had under the influence.
A young man in an Intensive Outpatient (IOP) where he had gone following inpatient rehab, expressed fear of sober sex, since he had rarely experienced it. He presented as calm and confident and by most standards, except his own, he was attractive and well-spoken.
He shared with the group (and gave the therapist permission to share his story so it could be a cautionary tale to others) that in the depths of his addiction, he had gone on a spree, drank, snorted cocaine and downed a handful of pills. He denied that it was a suicide attempt but rather a common occurrence. His body rebelled, he vomited the pills and then with dramatic pause, while he was telling the group what happened next, they groaned because they knew what was coming. Yes, he tossed them back into his mouth. He was alone at the time, but said that there were nearly as many dramatic experiences when he was with women who witnessed and in some cases shared intoxication with him. He kept the group informed about his forays into dating, mating and relating with sober women and let them know that sober sex was far more rewarding than what he had previously experienced.
In 12-step programs, the recommendation is that a person in recovery wait a year before engaging in a new relationship or sexual interaction with that person. Even if someone’s decision making power isn’t compromised by a substance, it may still be by the psychological impediments of the addiction. Call it the “addicted to love syndrome” that recovery pioneer John Bradshaw wrote about in his book called Post-Romantic Stress Disorder: What to Do When the Honeymoon Is Over. The same pleasure-inducing feelings that come along with substances are also contained within the hormones dopamine and norepinephrine that join the party when sexual interaction occurs.
Feedback from those who have experienced sober sex:
- Get to know what kind of touch you like and what kind of touch you don’t like.
- Communicate that with any partner with whom you share intimacy.
- Take it slowly, knowing that there is no rush.
- Set boundaries that feel safe for you as you remind yourself that not only does no mean no, but only a fully expressed yes means yes.
- Have a safer sex conversation with potential partners, and keep your agreements about what that means.
- Take time to get to know your partner (again, if you are in a long-term relationship) as a unique individual.
- Engage in romantic activities.
- Be fully present with your partner.
- Write enticing notes to each other.
- Express physical affection that need not lead to sex.
- Be brave.
- Have fun.