I’ve spent the past three years in my first long-term relationship with someone I love. I won’t bore you with how wonderful it can be—but, at times, sex has been a challenge.
I am attracted to my girlfriend. I like sex. I’d had a fair amount of it before our relationship. Still, when we were in bed together, I was always in my head, struggling to let go and enjoy what was happening. I was hyper-aware of every movement each of us made, and was so focused on the mechanics of it all that it felt like I wasn’t actually connecting. One day, right in the middle of overthinking my way through sex, it occurred to me that maybe I was unable to submit to pleasure because I wasn’t intoxicated. Maybe I couldn't loosen up because, before this relationship, I hadn't had much sex while I was sober—in most past sexual interactions, I relied on drinking to even flirt.
When I came of age, drinking was an integral part of socializing. Alcohol liberated me from my hang-ups, got me out of my head, and gave me the confidence to hit on whatever person I'd been eyeing for awhile (or that I'd just met). Drinking was a precursor to physical intimacy, though I didn’t totally realize it. I thought nothing of slipping a few fingers of whiskey before slipping a few fingers, and I didn’t recognize that I actually needed to drink to be able to enjoy sex. Even when I dated one person consistently, we’d go to a bar or have a couple beers at their place before anything happened.
Before I began to understand the source of my boning woes, I consulted some straight women friends on how to make sex easier. They advised me to split a bottle of wine with my partner beforehand. But she barely drinks. And while I do drink, relying on an intoxicant to encourage sex within a loving, long-term relationship didn’t seem a holistic answer to our intimacy issues.
Besides, many LGTBQ people have a fraught relationship with substances. Gay people and lesbians are more than twice as likely as heterosexual people to have a severe alcohol or tobacco use disorder, and bisexual people are three times as likely to have a substance use disorder.
So, upon recognizing that I'd been too reliant on alcohol to avoid feeling self-conscious as I got in the mood, I decided to face my fears head-on and practice being more present. Easy.
With a tangible goal in mind (better sex!) and a prescriptive method to achieve it (be present!), I dove into all things mindfulness. I started meditating, contemplating how pleasure feels and how to cultivate it, and tuning in to the small, physical pleasures of everyday life. Andrea Glik, a therapist and educator who specializes in trauma and PTSD for queer and trans people, said this was highly relevant work. According to Glik, paying attention to good-feeling physical sensations, like the enveloping warmth of a bath or the taste of food in your mouth, can lead to better sex. “The more we can start to notice, the more we can also notice when we feel good,” she said. “People are like, I want to heal my relationship to pleasure, how do I enjoy sex? And it’s like, Well, do you enjoy being in your body outside of sex?”
The answer became an increasingly louder YES. I read adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, an anthology that illuminated the connections between pleasure, healing, and social justice. I listened to podcasts about somatics, a field of study and set of practices related to fully experiencing the self within your body. I did bodywork—which can take many forms, but, in this case, was similar to reiki—with my therapist. She also encouraged me to try dance classes, and while I still haven’t (I can’t submit to L.A. prices for an hour of self-loathing), I danced in my living room, without alcohol or judgment, and had a great, sexy time.
I felt so proud of my diving into pleasure, my success at being more present, my feeling in my body. I was sure I was Fixing the Problem of Sober Sex. Then, I dissociated in bed. It was like I was floating above the scene, seeing everything, but feeling nothing. (I don’t think my partner noticed, because, it turns out, my body is excellent at keeping up appearances.)
For someone with a lot of feelings, I can be pretty cagey about revealing them. Whether I'm being sarcastic or turning a question back on its asker, I'll do anything not to show myself. Alcohol helped a lot with that, both in being more "open" and closing myself off to what was happening. It allowed me to take risks. I could draw people in while creating distance. In that way, I retained control—and I remained unseen.
“Alcohol and other substances lower inhibition,” says Dr. Christina Nelsen, CEO of the San Francisco Intimacy and Sex Therapy Center. “[They] expand our ‘yes’ list [and] numb our discomfort. The problem with that is it impedes actual intimacy.”
One way I’ve started to think about alcohol’s role in sex, at least for me, is it’s like an invisibility cloak covering your naked body. It eliminates some inhibitions and gives you a sense of freedom (“I’m streaking!!!!”) while protecting you from being seen (“I’m invisible!!!!”). It also shields you from any sensations or feelings of physical and emotional connectedness—intimacy—that you might experience if you were actually exposed. (“Is the wind blowing through my hair? Sun shining on typically shadowed parts? I feel nothing.”)
As Nelsen and Glik pointed out, having no inhibitions is not synonymous with intimacy. Real intimacy requires presence. And presence, when you’re naked with the person you love, requires vulnerability. All the hard work I’d been doing on pleasure led to greater awareness of my body and less awkwardness during sex. But defense mechanisms are crafty: The feeling of disembodiment was not a response to feeling self-conscious without substances, but about actively deterring closeness—avoiding being seen. In disassociating, my very smart, adaptive brain stepped in to create distance and protect me from being vulnerable, just as alcohol had done in the past during my more casual encounters.
I had never experienced true intimacy within the context of commitment to a partner I deeply cared about, and it scared the shit out of me. “Two people [are] falling in love. There’s a bond that’s happening. Now you have something at risk," Nelsen said. “It’s really frightening... to reveal yourself, especially to somebody you deeply want in your life and you don’t want to lose. To metaphorically and literally get naked. To be seen. What if you’re abandoned, criticized, rejected, or ignored?”
Working toward intimacy in the bedroom demands a lot of work outside the bedroom. It was one thing to feel more comfortable getting literally naked with the person I love. But to have good sex without alcohol—to allow myself to feel sexy, connected, seen—I had to confront the question: What if I’m abandoned, criticized, rejected, or ignored?
That question has guided the past few years of my life. In therapy, in conversations with friends, and in painful reflections after long bouts of hopelessness, I’ve unearthed some of the core beliefs, thought patterns, and habits I’ve developed. I opened up to my untended fears, my shame, my self-worth—all the deep, terrifying stuff that surfaced, unexpectedly, in moments of vulnerability—everything that had shaped and interfered with my approach to intimacy, without my knowing it.
There were times in bed when my girlfriend looked into my eyes and I had to look away. It was too close. But when I became aware that I was holding back for fear of abandonment or rejection, I started to take risks within the relationship. I expressed needs I typically suppressed. I started to accept help without question. I acted as if she really would be there no matter what, just like she’d always said she would. And she was. In the course of a few months, making myself vulnerable went from harrowing to uncomfortable to… not so bad. In the space that anxiety had occupied, I felt a sense of partnership and safety I’d never experienced before.
Opening up emotionally, and embracing the sense of security that my girlfriend met that with, made for a greater openness to sex and physical intimacy, too—without any chemical interventions (or dissociations). We discovered a newfound ease between us. Of course, intimacy will always be an ongoing conversation, and there will inevitably be other things that get in the way, on both our parts. But there’s a freedom in discovering and manifesting what your body is capable of on its own, without intoxicants—and so, with a person seeing you more fully.
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