“Ask a Former Drunk” is a five-part advice series running on Tuesdays. Read the last installment here.
It’s 2:30 a.m., and I just finished reading your book. I’m 20, and I’ve been dealing with blackouts ever since I started drinking, which was just three years ago. Going to college made it worse. Blackouts were/are an every week thing. For the last months I’ve been thinking of reducing my alcohol intake, but somehow I always end up drinking just as much if not more. But this summer was different. I woke up at a guy’s apartment twice. And I hooked up with a longtime friend that I never intended to even kiss. And I kind of knew, with that, I had reached bottom. I can relate to many of your stories and your pain.
Just Another Girl Who Misses Her Own Self
It’s 7:14 a.m., and I just started my letter to you. I’ve been thinking about it since I read it, several months ago. It was the way you signed the letter that jolted me—“Just another girl who misses her own self.” I’ve written a book about booze, I’ve written rafts of articles about booze, I’ve written 7,500 words in this Jezebel series alone, and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to express the estrangement of too-much-alcohol like you did with those eight words. We drink to get away from ourselves — and then we wonder how we got so lost.
People reading our exchange will notice you did not ask a question, which is true of most women who share their stories about drunk sex. They tell me about that time in college. They tell me about that time on vacation in Mexico. They don’t say, “What is your advice about this?” They don’t say, “How would you categorize this?” They simply say, This happened. They say, I feel less alone now, thank you.
Much of the conversation around alcohol and sex has focused on assault—the line at which intoxication becomes incapacitation, for instance—but what we fail to mention is how haunted people can be by the sex they actually, technically consented to. I don’t know where you place yourself on that continuum, Just Another Girl, and sometimes I don’t either. I struggle to categorize my own stumbling, partially forgotten, drunken smear of a sexual history. But this past year has shown me there is a lot of silent suffering out there on the topic.
At a recent event in Austin, I was talking about the interplay between alcohol and sex—how booze was the glue of my sex life, but also its unraveling—and over the course of the hour, six different women in the audience began crying, like a summer storm passing through the crowd. These were not dramatic tears, but the slow, wordless drip of a person tipping back into her own pain. Afterward, the moderator asked me, “Are all your events like this?” No, but it has become commonplace for me to be pulled aside at an appearance, and stand across from a young woman who is trembling, tears leaking from her eyes, and I don’t know what happened, and I don’t know what to say, but it has left me with a grim determination to have this conversation, Just Another Girl, even if what I’m about to say is imperfect or incomplete. (Because that’s why we have comments sections.) Alcohol and sex. Sex and alcohol. Where do we even start?
I wonder what my sex life would even look like if alcohol hadn’t been there. Alcohol gave me comfort in my own body, and it allowed me to turn my erotic curiosity and hunger for experience into an action plan. I was tired of being the stuttering girl sucking in her stomach after the lights went out. I wanted to be the woman who roamed wild and free.
Alcohol also helped me cut the girlish strings on my heart, an action my college years demanded. Three months into my freshman year, I split a six pack with a dashing sophomore, and we wound up partially clothed on his bed, my bare legs wrapped around his waist, my hands around his neck. I pulled back slightly and asked him the question, the naive question of a girl who does not yet understand her fate: “What does this mean?”
He looked past me, into his studio apartment, and then back into my eyes. “It means that I’m a 19-year-old boy, and we’re having fun.”
“Fun” is a relative term. One of the tragedies of sex and love is how frequently we assume a mutual experience when a singular one is being had. We call this “he said/she said,” though of course it is also “he said/he said” and “she said/she said,” because nobody is immune from the temptation to project their wishes and best guesses onto another human. It’s our nature: Because I’m digging this thing we’re doing, she must be digging this thing we’re doing. Or, because I want to date him, he must want to date me.
I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy that night with the dashing sophomore. I’m saying the fun part for me might have been turning our physical intimacy into a sustained attachment. I’d had a boyfriend in high school—the kind of funny, good-hearted teen boy you’d want your daughter to date—and I was in the market for a replacement model. I just didn’t get it yet. It took me a while to stop asking that dopey question in dim lighting. What does it meeeannnn? You idiot. Catch a clue. It means you’re “having fun.”
I wanted to have fun, too. And alcohol evened the score. I cared less about everything when I was drinking: What you thought of me, what I looked like in this dress, whether that taco was warm or cold when I stuffed it in my mouth. I don’t want to make it sound like I drank in order to have sex. I drank for a million reasons. But in high school, I hadn’t required alcohol to be physical with my boyfriend, because I trusted him. In college, I started to trust alcohol instead. Booze downshifted my intense body consciousness, and it revved up my bravado. Sex was scary—but alcohol made me feel safe.
I want to share a snippet from a note a woman wrote me that literally came in to my Facebook page as I was writing this to you this morning.
Men often use us, and it’s painful. I want to be healthy and present during sex, but it hurts to be used and shrugged off like trash. I don’t know. Is it better to be drunk and not feel anything?
Holy shit, Just Another Girl. It’s like she heard us talking. Is it better to be drunk and not feel anything? This is the question I asked myself at 18. If sex means nothing to the guy, and I’m going to be tossed aside anyway, then why don’t I drink myself to the point where it no longer hurts? And if the “relationship” doesn’t work out, then alcohol becomes the excuse behind which both of you can hide. Why did you sleep with that person? Because I was drunk. Why did you say you liked him so much? Because I was drunk. The alcohol is an entrance door, and an exit ramp. It’s like you don’t have to own anything—not your ambivalence, not your asshole nature, not your soft-bellied desires.
Recently I read Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex, which I highly recommend. Orenstein, a veteran journalist, interviews girls aged 15 to 20 and finds their sex lives brimming with alcohol-fueled hook-ups. She quotes a professor at Occidental, who talks about the “compulsory carelessness” of drunken sex. Orenstein asks some of the girls if they would ever consider having sex without alcohol, and they say OMG no, that would be awkward. As one puts it, “Being sober makes it seem like you want to be in a relationship.” Right. Couldn’t have that.
I understand that different women have different set points for sex without emotion. I have friends who enjoy casual sex. They find it fun and uncomplicated. I’m glad we live in a time when women have the right to enjoy unattached sex, same as men. But the key word is ENJOY. The problem—with anything, but certainly sex—is when you drink in order to conform, because you’re trying to match what others expect of you, or because you want so badly to be someone else. And the problem with drinking away your inhibitions or complicating emotions around sex is that your judgment often goes along for the ride. I was bewildered by the things I said and did when I drank too much. Was this the REAL ME? I took off my clothes in odd places. I told off friends. I hit on men I didn’t know, and didn’t even necessarily like.
You hooked up with a longterm friend, Just Another Girl, which is a common story, and so confounding. That slap to the forehead: What was I thinking? How do I get out of this? Did someone get taken advantage of here? Was it me, him? And because women are often terrified of hurting other people’s feelings, they might continue to hook up with a guy they don’t like, which is naturally going to require more alcohol. It’s like alcohol becomes the magical fix-it potion you add to any encounter in order to stop feeling, but the problem with feelings is that they don’t go away. They wait for you. They lurk. I wonder if the return of the feeling isn’t what those women softly crying at my Austin event were experiencing. I have known that quiet ambush. Being human is so exhausting. Aren’t we done with this? Can’t I move on? But here they come again: The feelings, like an unwelcome visitor who never learned to knock.
In my 20s, I began to actively pursue drunken one-night stands. I liked the control it gave me. No more sinking heart when he didn’t call. Just wake up the next morning and: Goodbye. At 31, I moved to New York City, and these swaggering good times became a shield against any intruding sadness. This was the era of Girls Gone Wild and celebrity sex tapes, and boozy one-night stands had become the domain of strong female heroines. I liked telling stories about my escapades at cocktail parties where I sipped my martini and struggled to look taller and more interesting.
“Control” would be an oversell, though. I guess I was controlling my expectations, and my emotional attachment, but not my behavior. I could be such a sloppy drunk. I tripped. I knocked over my drinks. I blacked out quite a bit, and the more I drank, the worse the blackouts became. I’ve mentioned before in this column that women are more prone to blackouts than me—something you found out the hard way, Just Another Girl—and when you combine the propensity for temporary amnesia with a landscape of casual sex, things can get scary. Alcohol may have made me feel safe, but the reality was otherwise. Booze and safety do not make happy bedfellows.