“Without having downed a glass of overpriced Prosecco, I actually had to immerse myself in conversation, feign interest, and try really hard to care about what the other person was saying.” Emily Bahr-de Stefano talks the perils of dating sober.
The first time I ever got drunk, I was 14 — handed a half full bottle of Grand Marnier, I downed the shit in under a minute. All I remember was the feeling that came immediately afterwards: a bittersweet orange taste and a burning throat and stomach. Needless to say, that night did NOT end well (or so I have been told). The grand climax allegedly involved my friend’s mother hauling my vomit-soaked body into the shower.
I wish I could say that I used to get drunk for reasons other than appeasing the guys I hung out with. I first started drinking because a boy I liked had been AIM flirting (lol) with me, and implied that he wouldn’t make out with me unless and until I started drinking. Desperate, I obliged.
When I stopped drinking, in November 2013, it was also at the behest of a boy. On a park bench, dude told me that my drinking was ruining our relationship, and he couldn’t see me anymore. As I ugly cried in the cab ride home, I realized that my sexual awakening and first experiences with alcohol happened to coincide, and have been inextricably linked since. Even losing my virginity was a tipsy foray: three glasses into a bottle of Cabernet on Valentine’s Day and desperate to shed my V-card, I went to bed with a person I didn’t really love. And it went on like that, for the next nine years. Deciding not to drink was a choice I made for myself, but it seemed to affect everyone around me: my parents, my friends, and of course, any potential lovers or suitors. And it also sparked a period of five months where I did not kiss or get kissed, laid, or even touched sexually. Like AT ALL.
Hold the phone: I was never a very glam drunk. Just a drunk-drunk.
I was still a red-blooded young woman, so obviously I still went on dates. I found guys on Tinder and Hinge, and even went on a couple of blind dates, just to try and score. But the underlying reason for my newfound sobriety—i.e. that I stopped drinking because I couldn’t “hold my liquor”—became something like a skeleton in my closet. Should I tell my date before we met up that I had somewhat become a monk? Would they assume I had some weird religious background and pre-emptively curve me? Making things worse, these dates were always at bars.
The strategy I decided to go with was this: Once at the bar, I would wait until the actual moment the “other” prepared to open a bar tab so (a) the person wouldn’t think I was socially handicapped beforehand and reject me in advance, or (b) we would actually have time to awkwardly make small talk about where we both went to college and why we both live in New York.
In my pre-date interior monologue, the conversation would go something like, “Oh, what do you want to drink?” I’d say, “Just a Diet Coke, I don’t drink,” and then the person would say something like “Why?” or “For how long?” or even “Cool!” But then, there was always the chance they might really be thinking, “This bitch is a crazy alcoholic.” I usually prepared for the worst as a safety precaution, in case we had nothing to talk about or if the date was just a total disaster. Which, quite frankly, it usually was. I did not have a lot of second dates during that time. And I could not temper my disappointment with the dating pool by downing a glass of pinot, à la Ramona Singer.
The one thing I found from my initiation into dating sober was that it was a lot less fun than dating drunk. When I had alcohol in my system, I felt totally free of inhibitions (as most people do): going to bed with someone at the end of the first date didn’t seem problematic. Without having downed a glass of overpriced prosecco, I actually had to immerse myself in conversation, feign interest, and try really hard to care about what the other person was saying. I was more judgmental, more self-conscious, and more picky about the guys who actually pursued me. I realized “going out for a drink” was becoming nearly impossible, and that I’d rather have a first date where we actually do something other than watch the other person get blotto.
During one apocalyptic date, I watched a guy basically inhale beers while I sipped on water for two hours like I was on Gwyneth Paltrow’s food stamp challenge. Starving, and somehow unable to vocalize my desire for a soda, I listened to his mind-numbing stories about his heinous tattoos. We parted ways with the most awkward hug ever: he walked me to the subway— he was headed some hip restaurant where his friend was a waiter (I was not invited). It was beyond tragic. On the train home, I couldn’t help but think, Am I 100% boring without alcohol? Dating was a minefield that seemed easy to navigate when my blood was made of gin and juice. Without it, everything seemed precarious, awful, and terrifying.
DISCLAIMER: To avoid sounding like Amanda Bynes in Easy A, I do not think I am “morally superior” to those who do drink. Alcohol is not evil, I just become the worst version of myself when I drink. Ever since 2014, I’ve struggled with my relationship to alcohol and drugs, some days harder than others. There are even times I wish I could partake in the social ceremony of alcohol. I get blurry eyed nostalgia thinking of doing shots on shots (I was always a tequila girl, but I loved picklebacks too), or tricking men into buying me drinks, which I always thought of as lighthearted sexual fraud. I even just miss the feeling of numbing out. But I know now that I can’t use alcohol in weekend warrior fashion. It was getting in the way of my life because it had become my life.
Before I was a year into my sobriety, I found it difficult to truly identify as one who doesn’t use alcohol, especially since it was such a big part of my dating life for the past nine years. When it came to interacting on a date, I was silenced by the discomfort I felt in my new position as “non-drinker,” just as I had been silenced before by alcohol itself.
But in my time alone, I actually got to know myself (read: my sex parts) a lot better. I had more orgasms from myself than I had from all the men I’d slept with combined, which was a slightly horrifying realization to make. You know that element of shame that is attached to masturbation? Where you want to slam your laptop down and forget you ever touched yourself to that scene in Wild Things? Well, my not drinking already made me feel like some kind of untouchable, so everything else taboo was fair game. I learned about the depths of my sexual psyche: turns out that, like many, I have a bondage fetish and like to call dudes “daddy.” I realized that I not only like guys, but that I’m also into girls. I learned that I can make myself come multiple times in a row, which sounds tragic in retrospect, but it was like a religious experience. Doing all this without the burden or task of putting the satisfaction of a man before my own made me feel lonely sometimes, but in a way more important sense, I felt free. Free from giving a shit about another, and liberated in my ability to be completely sexually selfish.
I already felt like a social pariah being “dry,” so what was the harm in a little self-love?
All things end, as did my sexual abstinence, but I still don’t drink. November will make three years since the last time I got smashed. Drinking left me susceptible to a ton of dangerous sexual situations, not excluding assault. I feel a lot more sexually autonomous and in control now— no more blurry, panicked mornings where I would wake up in someone else’s clothes, not knowing whose they were, where I was or how I got there. I didn’t realize how co-dependent alcohol is with modern dating, but in my own experience, I’m better without it.
Not drinking didn’t remove the problems that sex presents; rather, it made all problems readily apparent. I no longer worry whether I am boring without alcohol: I actually feel more confident and that my date wouldn’t rather be at TGI Fridays than talk to me. And while a lot of people can drink without blacking out at the dimly lit cocktail bar with Trevor who works at a start-up in SoHo, I can’t. But now I can hear myself think and speak, which is weird, but it’s given me a better buzz than all the whiskey sours I could pour into my face—thank god.
Emily Bahr-de Stefano studied film at Columbia and now is a writer in NYC