For more than a decade, I relied on alcohol to feel less awkward on dates, more confident in bed, and even to psych myself up to try something sexual that I’d never do sober. The thought of dating or hooking up without so-called liquid courage was so terrifying that it was part of the reason I stayed active in my alcohol use disorder—despite the many negative impacts drinking had on my life. All those years, I thought post-happy-hour hookups were helping my sex life, but it turns out they were actually hindering it.
Once I quit drinking in 2015, I learned how liquid courage works (or doesn’t). I was doing what I call “dating yourself”—hanging out alone, picking up hobbies, going to therapy, and, of course, masturbating. This quality time with myself helped me reconnect with who I am without booze. It also allowed me to discern what I actually wanted in a partner and what I liked in bed from what society conditioned me to desire. I learned, too, that humans need inhibitions to make safe, conscious decisions. In a sense, I cultivated intrinsic courage that I eventually brought on dates and later into the bedroom. In fact, my sex life even improved in sobriety.
In true Adam Ruins Everything fashion, I’m here to ruin the concept of liquid courage so you can feel more confident and empowered in the bedroom (and anywhere else in life!) without alcohol.
Alcohol might actually make your sex life worse.
Using alcohol to gain “liquid courage” seems like a good idea. Legend has it that the term (also known as “Dutch courage”) dates back to the 1600s when soldiers in the Anglo-Dutch War took shots of gin before battle to help calm their nerves and give them the courage to fight. While most of us don’t take shots to prepare for war, many people do rely on booze to reduce anxiety before a date or sexual adventure.
“I see liquid courage as the freedom from judgment, even from ourselves, that many people feel when they drink alcohol,” Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, cofounder of therapy platform Viva and author of The Shadow Work Workbook, tells SELF. “As alcohol lowers our inhibitions and increases impulsive behavior, it often gives people the freedom to make choices they may not feel fearless enough to enact when sober.”
The thing is, drunk sex isn’t all rainbows and orgasms. You’ve probably heard the term “whiskey dick” at some point in your life, or even used it yourself. This is colloquial jargon for “too drunk to get it up,” and yes, it’s really a thing. Excessive alcohol use (more than four drinks in one sitting for women and more than five for men, according to the CDC) can cause erectile dysfunction (ED). Since alcohol serves as a depressant to the central nervous system, excessive drinking can hinder how the brain communicates with—and how blood flows to—the penis. A 2018 study focused on the correlation between alcohol dependence and sexual dysfunction in cisgender men found that 37% of the 84 participants struggling with alcohol use disorder also experienced ED, premature ejaculation, and dissatisfying orgasms.
Alcohol can be a real mood killer for people with vulvas too. Vaginal dryness is another potential unsexy side effect of excessive alcohol consumption—one that can make penetration feel uncomfortable or even painful. Another 2018 study surveyed 92 cisgender women between the ages 40 and 60 with a history of alcohol addiction and found that, compared to a control group, the participants had a significantly higher prevalence of sexual dysfunction, including decreased vaginal fluid and reduced sexual activity. These findings suggest that excessive alcohol use can interfere with your sex life in the long-term too.
And we can’t talk about the intersection of alcohol and sex without discussing sexual assault. You can easily be taken advantage of when you’re intoxicated, and having sex while drunk can be also be risky due to clouded judgment, says Caraballo: “This goes both for our own risk-taking behavior and what we will tolerate, and also for how we read a sexual partner’s comments and body language, all of which can be distorted and misunderstood easily if we’re under the influence.” Slurred words aren’t the only form of miscommunication when it comes to drunk sex—alcohol can also put your or your partner’s safety at risk.
Authentic connections can equal better sex.
Sure, taking multiple tequila shots with a stranger might create an instant bond and even a shared sense of adventure. But that surface-level connection can hinder your ability to form authentic, emotional ties, which can diminish the quality of the sex you’re having. Tara Suwinyattichaiporn, PhD, professor of relational and sexual communication at Cal State University Fullerton and host of the Luvbites by Dr. Tara podcast, tells SELF that a strong emotional connection can lead to better sex and more intense orgasms. “When you’re not drunk, you’re more in tune with your senses and each other, which allows for a more mindful sexual experience,” she says. Instead of using booze to get in the mood, Dr. Suwinyattichaiporn suggests trying a different shared activity that’ll help you feel more in touch with your body and your partner, like exercising, meditating, or making a new dessert recipe together.
The “mindful sexual experience” she describes was a foreign concept to me when I drank, as I often used alcohol to create a performative bedroom persona. “It’s easy to get caught up in the act of performing sex rather than being truly present within it,” Caraballo says. “When you have a strong connection to your authentic self, and that confidence of making the choices that are right for you, it allows you to be more present in your sexual experiences, and that will almost always lead to better and more satisfying results.” It’s no wonder my sex life got better once I quit drinking—I stopped performing and generated authentic connections with my partners and myself.
Disability consultant Bethany Stevens, who has a master’s degree in sexuality studies and is currently working toward her PhD in sociology at Georgia State University, tells SELF that giving up booze improved her sex life too, along with her social skills. “I wasted a lot of years not knowing who I am, engaging with conflict that did not matter, sleeping with and making out with people who weren’t a good match for me, breaking my own heart, and creating drama because I didn’t want to work with my inner self,” she says. Stevens credits her two years of sobriety for much of her personal growth—both in and out of the bedroom. “I wanted an easy fix to confidence,” she adds. “I pregamed like a champ and chugged my way through most social settings. I realize now that working on socializing without alcohol would have allowed me to know myself a bit more.”
Sober sex and socializing is a trend for good reason.
In June 2022, the dating app Hinge surveyed 3,000 Gen Z singles around the world about what they’re looking for in a date. A staggering 75% of respondents mentioned that they want booze-free romantic hangouts, while two thirds said that an intoxicated first date is a deal breaker. Along with the rise of sober curiosity and the increasing ubiquity of Dry January, these findings suggest that people are naturally gravitating toward a more mindful approach to alcohol. That mindfulness looks different for everyone—some people might aim to drink in moderation, while full-on sobriety might be right for others. Regardless, the motivation is to feel better; it’s well-established that alcohol can do a number on your physical and mental health, so being more aware of your consumption has the potential to significantly improve your quality of life, sex very much included.
I’m not knocking the occasional drink on a date or having a glass of wine with your partner to unwind before sex. I’m speaking more about the negative side effects that can arise when that one drink turns into three and inhibitions are lost, along with the ability to be fully present with your body and your partner, or even to consent to sex. There’s a difference between relaxing with a negroni and relying on that negroni to turn you into a different person.
If you’re sober-sex–curious but the thought of flirting or getting naked without alcohol feels overwhelming, you can try creating a new pre-sex ritual for you and your partner(s) to share. Maybe it’s going on an active date, like a hike or fun workout class, instead of heading to the bar—physical activity is a known stress reliever, and research shows that increased blood flow from exercise can stimulate libido and may also improve body image. You can also ease into the mood with nonsexual contact first, like snuggling or giving each other a massage.
Stevens tells her students to experiment with various forms of touch during sex as well, as a way to increase mindfulness. “Different kinds of touch you can use include slow strokes, feathers, and light nail scratching,” she says. “This is a tool that can get you and your partner to slow down during sexual activities, and to listen and be responsive to what feels good to you and them.”
If you’re not ready to have sex just yet, let your partner know. You can also tell them that you need a break at any time during your first (or eighth) sober-sex experience. It’s more than okay to change your mind! Anyone worth your time—and your body—will respect your boundaries and appreciate your self-awareness. And if totally sober sex feels too intimidating, you can try sticking with just one drink at first, instead of your usual two or three, say. “This approach allows you to slowly push yourself out of your comfort zone with grace and compassion,” Dr. Suwinyattichaiporn says. “It can also increase your self-esteem when you’re able to consistently stick to only one drink because it tells your brain that you are capable!”
Of course, I know all too well that drinking in moderation is easier said than done for some of us. (If you’re dealing with an alcohol use disorder or think you might have a drinking problem and you’re interested in seeking help, here’s SELF’s guide to substance use disorder treatment.) But I’m also certain that removing my alcohol crutch has allowed my confidence—in and out of the bedroom—to bloom. As a drinker, I spent so much time managing my relationship with alcohol that I had no time to manage my relationships with people, including myself. Now I know that meeting the real, sober me—the person I hid from—was the key to unlocking my confidence all along.