Doing it without substances has a lot of benefits.
One of the biggest fears I hear from newly sober folks in the recovery community is that they're scared to date and have sex sober. Because, let's be honest: Sex is vulnerable and awkward. If you've been using chemical courage to fuel your thirst for years, that kind of vulnerability may feel terrifying. Ironically, though, sobriety has dramatically improved my sex life. I talked to experts about the joy of sober sex and why you should try it — even if you’re not in recovery.
First of all, feeling fearful of sober sex is totally normal. “I discuss this daily with my clients,” Michele Waldron, a sex therapist and substance abuse counselor in Boston, tells me. A lot of folks use substances to feel less inhibited, she explains, but the truth is that being inebriated can disrupt our ability to connect. “Sober sex is more vulnerable due to the human emotional connection that is easy to minimize while under the influence,” she adds. Ironically, we may use substances as a way to take the edge off the discomfort of being vulnerable during sex — thus preventing the real intimacy we may be seeking.
And inebriation doesn’t just hinder our intimacy with sexual partners. Some of us use drugs and alcohol to escape getting intimate with ourselves. “Often, substance use creates challenges with social and emotional intimacy,” Waldron says. “Seeing and getting to know yourself while sober can be one of the most difficult parts of treatment.” This intimacy avoidance tactic isn’t something that only people in recovery do, either. Even people who aren’t in treatment or who don’t identify as addicts or alcoholics may use substances to feel more sexually at ease.
No shame to folks who like to get lit and get laid — it can definitely be fun — but the comfort and lack of inhibition some people feel when they have sex on drugs can be a bit of illusion. “Substance use helps people escape discomfort and various emotions,” Waldron says. “If one is able to stay sober, there has likely been a lot of growth in understanding yourself and gaining tools for emotion regulation. This would allow you to potentially know your boundaries and thus communicate them.”
In other words, one of the benefits of sober sex is that you may be better emotionally equipped to figure out what actually makes you feel good sexually and set boundaries accordingly. Those boundaries are important, not just for keeping you emotionally safe, but also for maximizing pleasure. “Orgasms are more powerful when you are connected to the moment, yourself, and potentially the other person,” Waldron says.
This checks out scientifically, too. Research shows that alcohol can decrease the intensity of orgasms — particularly for people with vaginas. That’s because alcohol reduces blood flow to the vagina and impedes our ability to self-lubricate. What about sex and weed? Weed can make sex more pleasurable for some people, and recent research shows that having sex stoned is more physiologically pleasurable than having sex drunk.
But sex isn’t just about orgasm — so even if you want to light up sometimes to get in the mood, sober sex still has a lot of emotional benefits. “Sober sex that takes place as an authentic, intentional person allows one to explore and connect in meaningful ways that are difficult to do when under the influence,” Waldron says, noting that sobriety can often help people explore new sexual frontiers and also heal from sexual trauma.
If you have experienced addiction or trauma, though, sexual healing may take time. “Over time in treatment, many can get to a place where they are able to explore,” Waldron says. “Some people carry a lot of sexual shame from childhood that creates challenges when they try to connect with their authentic sexual self. Some people also experience sexual dysfunction from their substance use and can develop performance anxiety.”
Confronting the deep, difficult issues intertwined with sexuality can be hard, but doing so soberly can help people to grow and thrive in new ways, sexually and otherwise. “It is freeing when someone is able to explore alone or with a partner,” says Waldron. Yes. Sobriety has totally transformed my sexual experience. After a lifetime of drunken or drugged out sexcapades, having sex sober has helped me get in touch with my kinks, create actually healthy boundaries, and explore new facets of my sexual and gender identities without the regrets that I used to think were just part of sex. Plus orgasms.