Bicycle rides across the streets of Boston, stopping for impromptu dance parties by the river, all the while dressed up as salads and fruits – one of Avanti Nagral’s most memorable dates with her current partner she met in college did not involve alcohol.
“These themed bicycle parties happen frequently in Boston,” she told VICE. “That month’s theme was ‘fruit,’ hence the quirky dress code. And of course, no one was allowed to drink because you had to ride those bikes.”
The 24-year-old singer, a graduate of psychology from Harvard University, had her first drink at the age of 18. This was with her parents, because they didn’t want her to “taste alcohol in a shady dorm room.” Although she’s abstained from drinking ever since as it would lead to a dry throat, thus affecting her singing, she slowly started noticing the detrimental effect alcohol had on her friends and classmates.
“So many of my friends had stories of harassment, being taken advantage of, and hazy consent,” she said. “I realised early on that alcohol on dates changes the power dynamics, and messy situations can follow.”
So, the bicycle date, with all the dancing and social bonding, actually helped break down barriers as opposed to having some “liquid courage”, often a key player in getting people together.
The 2018 Academy Award winner for best international film, Another Round, opens with a scene that is the opposite of Nagral’s sober experience. It captures how high school graduation in Denmark is celebrated by students who run down the streets with crates of alcohol, their graduation hats still on, tripping, drinking together, and dancing.
However, as the film progresses, we understand through the story of four middle-aged men the disastrous consequences of alcohol on their dating and love lives.
Recently, Bumble listed “dry dating” as a trend after discovering that around 62 percent of its users prefer going on dates without alcohol because they believe this increases the likelihood of forming genuine human connections. In the UK, the dating app found that one in three people were more likely to go on a dry date compared to pre-pandemic times. In India, nearly 51 percent of the users planned to consider dry dating in 2022.
The socially distanced dates due to the pandemic might have further cemented the popularity of dry dating. With restaurants shut, many couples opted for socially distanced walks, strolling in parks and other outdoor activities.
But even before the pandemic, non-alcoholic or NOLO drinks (No- and Low-Alcohol Drinks) were witnessing an exponential rise. According to a trade magazine that covers the drinks market, 2019 saw a 20 percent rise in the sales of NOLO drinks, a trend that has continued in pandemic times.
This sentiment seems even more popular with Gen Z. According to a recent report by Berenberg Research, people in their early 20s are drinking over 20 percent less per capita than the millennials did at the same age. A Gallup poll conducted last year found that now only 60 percent of American adults drink alcoholic beverages, down from 65 percent in 2019, a two-decade low.
For Pearl Majithia, a 25-year-old film producer, the reasons to dry date are largely rooted in wanting a healthy lifestyle. But when she recently joined dating apps, she couldn’t help but feel like an anomaly.
“Nearly every second bio on dating apps mentions alcohol in some way or the other,” she told VICE. “I’m no one to judge how they envision a date, but I can’t help but feel surprised at how prevalent it is.”
According to Majithia, while alcohol is a conscious choice adults make, one can’t completely discount the societal expectations attached to the idea of an “ideal” date. “It seems to me that most profiles on dating apps find the need to crack an alcohol pun, mention their favourite drink, or have one of those clichéd lines about sunsets and drinks.”
Personally, Majithia said that she’d prefer signing up for more creative ways of approaching a date, beyond claustrophobic pubs and endless tequila shots with a high propensity to give way to torturous Monday mornings.
“I’d be more than happy to go for a hike with my date, a museum, maybe a planned heritage walk or even something as simple as a pottery class that might actually help me bond better with my date,” she said.
But how does one exactly go about dry dating, without making things awkward? Majithia said that planning every aspect of the date in advance has helped her. “I wouldn’t want to meet in a place where alcohol is even an option,” she said. “So just meeting over coffee, or at a non-alcoholic restaurant or going for an outdoor activity helps. I don’t want alcohol to even be a question that I’ll have to address.”
Majithia also said that the idea of a “date night” must be relooked at, considering the implicit assumption that drinks must flow if it’s a date night.
That doesn’t mean Majithia doesn’t enjoy a drink every now and then – just that she’s careful about who she drinks with and when. “It’s definitely a relaxant,” she said. “Only recently, at a cousin’s wedding, we all drank and danced away. But with dates, alcohol does nothing to me.”
Jasdeep Mago, a neuropsychologist, told VICE that many people opt for dates with alcohol because “not everyone is super confident and charismatic” when it comes to dating.
“We must understand that not everyone’s built for a conventional date either,” she added. “Alcohol does make things easy in such cases.”
Booze can work as a social lubricant and help someone open up a bit more. It can also help if they are generally nervous about dating or have a difficult time talking about themselves. On the other hand, it can become a crutch, and relying on a drink to get comfortable with a date is problematic, too.
For Samreen, a 29-year-old journalist, the preference for dry dates is purely a safety measure. “As a woman, I didn’t want to get into a space where either my drinks are spiked or the date gets sloshed and becomes my liability,” she said. “Also, with first dates, I am wary of getting their trauma dumped on me after a drink or two.”
When Samreen worked in India’s capital city New Delhi, where a woman is said to be raped every five hours and ten minutes, the safety aspect to dry dates was all the more important.
“In Delhi, it’s common knowledge that a woman can’t travel alone after certain hours,” she said. “If I’m drunk, the cab driver and at least two people on the street are bound to know, thus posing immense risk to my safety in a city like Delhi.”
The rise of the “sober curious” movement popularised by author Ruby Warrington emphasises that there are whole new worlds to be experienced on the “other side of alcohol.”
“For many of us,” she writes in her book Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol, “getting Sober Curious begins with a simple question: Would my life be better without alcohol? To discover the answer for yourself, all that remains is to put the cork back in the bottle, open your eyes, and see.”
For others, the reason to stick to dry dates comes from difficult realisations marked by past trauma and anxieties.
When 35-year-old marketing manager Siddharth Kar lost his partner, he signed up for therapy a year later. “I had a lot of issues trusting men,” he told VICE. “I realised that I could no longer be sober before going on dates.”
The inhibitions, the walls, and the mental barriers that came in the wake of his partner’s passing could only be softened by alcohol.
Even the premise of Another Round is based on Norwegian psychologist Finn Skårderud's hypothesis that humans are born with a 0.05 percent blood alcohol level shortfall – the idea being that humans were meant to have that additional blood alcohol content to have an efficient, smooth, and zestful life.
“I could only allow someone to touch me after I was drunk,” Kar said. “But while some dates were beautiful, others ended up in me being sexually assaulted because I just couldn’t fight back.”
However, things came to a head when Kar completely broke down one night. He was on medication for a complex form of PTSD and other grief-related issues.
“I kept having suicidal thoughts. Later, my doctor told me that this was because alcohol was interfering with my meds.”
This prompted Kar to rethink his need to get drunk before a romantic encounter, and now, it’s been two months since he’s had a drink. He said this was “liberating,” and that his dates have become only more fun and exciting now since the focus is on each other, not getting drunk.
Mago, the neuropsychologist, also said that those who prefer going for dry dates are healthily prioritising self-growth over everything else. “It’s not that they woke up one day and decided to go for dry dates,” she said. “This comes with a lot of self-realisation because they understand that real connections matter more than just mindless dates that go nowhere.”
In Kar’s case, this holds all the more true.
“I am now able to think from my mind and not my dick, although a side-effect of my psych medicines is low libido,” he said. “But now, I’m having a stronger dialogue both with myself and the date. I’m finally in a space where I can once again have conversations about life and dreams.”
Follow Arman Khan on Instagram.