“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.
The opening of my book is a scene in which I come out of a blackout in the middle of having sex with a man I don’t remember meeting. This was a thunderingly strange experience. I was on top of the guy, moving back and forth, and I didn’t even know where he’d come from, but I was making all these moaning noises—as if someone, somewhere, was having a very good time.
In recent years, our culture has begun to talk, for the first time, about the issue of alcohol and consent. Thank God, because down in the trenches, the lines weren’t very clear. In all my young years of erotic adventure, I can’t remember ever hearing the word “consent.” It simply wasn’t on our radar. “Did you use a condom?” was the panic question of the next morning, not did you both fully consent. We knew that you could drink yourself past the point of coherence, but where was that line? Because the drunker you both got, the more that sucker MOVED.
In comments sections, and opinion pieces, I often see a lacerating certainty on the issue of consent (as well as an insistence that alcohol has nothing to do with the assault conversation). But when I talk to college students, and 20- and 30-somethings, I don’t hear certainty. I hear a hot mess of confusion (and a hunger to talk about the role of alcohol). Our culture has heroized drunken sex, but we have also criminalized it, and so where does “fun” become “danger”? Blackouts, in particular, are a troubling gray zone, because when someone is in a blackout, the other person can’t necessarily tell. I’ve written at length about the legal tangle of blackouts, so I don’t want to dwell too long on it here, but the point is that I’m glad we’re talking about this. I don’t think it’s a foolish idea to reflect on the disturbing way that a reckless GOOD time can pivot into a reckless BAD time. I interviewed a blackout expert for my book, and he told me something I have repeated a lot lately: “When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them.”
Did you read the Stanford victim’s statement? Of course you did. The last time I checked, 16 million people had. That statement will probably go down as one of the most moving testimonies of sexual assault ever published. The disorientation of the hospital, the emotional terror of the lonely weeks that followed, the degradation in the media and the courtroom. At one point, Emily Doe grows angry that the man who assaulted her is going to blame alcohol. She is right about this. If we simply “blame alcohol” for what happened behind that dumpster, then we miss so much: The problematic ways our society and our justice system have treated assault; the way universities have swept these cases under the rug; the way athletes too often get a greater share of public sympathy when their behavior should have earned them less; the way young boys feel entitled to limp female bodies. If we make this all about alcohol, we miss a lot. But if we cut alcohol out of the conversation entirely, we miss a lot, too. There is room, and brainpower, to talk about it all.
Recently, I was speaking to a college male who told me his last frat party was the theme “Blackout or Back Out.” He told me this with the unblinking face of someone who never thought to question the decision. At a recent event, a young man asked me what I thought about blackouts becoming a badge of honor among college dudes. “Let’s get blackout,” etc. How did I feel? I felt depressed. Frustrated. I was concerned the conversation about alcohol and consent was becoming a “women’s issue” when it was very much a “cultural issue,” and I wondered how I might reach the other side. Every once in a while, I heard from a guy who was quietly negotiating his own role. I’m going to share one more letter with you, Just Another Girl, because I want you to hear what that sounds like.
Throughout college I was in a frat. We weren’t quite the jocks, but weren’t social outcasts either. Straddled somewhere in the middle between the blue-blooded arm candy all the sororities fought for, and the nerds who would apply engineering skills to new ways to smoke weed or deliver beer, sat me, and my friends. I drank so much then. I could always put the booze down, but if there was a free moment, or if a party was imminent, there I was with drink in hand. It’s leading me to “a secret” we’ve had for a while at the house, and that was about the conversation of consent. We had one incident that brought us together, in which a brother thought a girl was into him, and was going to invite her (read: drag) to his room. Although we stopped it, he was beyond intoxicated as well. That Sunday we had a meeting about what had happened. A lot came out, and we realized that between the cheers, high fives, and gloating of sexual feats, there were a bunch of boys who have had a lot of sex, but couldn’t even remember it. It was a solemn moment, and some guys did admit they felt they had made mistakes sleeping with some people. I can’t tell you how many times I have come to realizing that there was a girl with me. And the first question was “who is this,” followed by “where am I,” down into “how’d I get here.” I wasn’t ever scared, or hurt, and for that I am thankful. I do feel, though, that I missed out on a lot. At the end of it I felt so fucking weak. I don’t drink that way anymore, and with it has gone my confidence. I can’t speak to strangers well anymore, and I feel as if my liquid courage was the only thing that propped me up then. Even worse, people expect it from me still, as if I had some sort of mojo that allowed me to talk to girls and say all the right things. But unfortunately, that was the blacked-out me.
There is way more in this email than I can possibly unpack here. The normalization of blacked-out, forgotten sex. The experience of male sexuality as defined by conquest. The way sexual violence can slither in under cover of boozy good times. Even if we could eliminate the question of consent for a moment, what we’re left with is a pretty bleak portrait. Sex nobody remembers. Sex whose true purpose seems to be high-fives around the dinner table. Meanwhile, the slow leaking away of your self.
Consent is an essential conversation, but it is not the only conversation to be having about alcohol and sex. Many of us arrive into adulthood finding sex and heavy alcohol use to be hopelessly linked, and it’s worth asking ourselves: Is that working? Because I think a lot of the sadness in your letter, and the one from this young man, and the girls lightly weeping in my audience, and in the stories of my own crooked life comes from the gap between who we are and who we want to be. The gap between what we wanted, and what actually happened.
A few weeks ago, I had a book event with Peggy Orenstein, because our books have so much in common, and she used a word that practically rang a bell in my brain: Coercion. She said we’ve been talking about assault, which is good, but we need to talk about coercion, because it’s baked into the sexual dynamic. In fact, coercion is such a common aspect of my own pre-boyfriend, erotic coming of age—the push of the hand toward the crotch, the shove of the head downward—that I had literally never thought to question it. I thought it was how sex worked. The guys tries to coerce me, and then I decide whether or not to be coerced, and I suspect the word rang a bell in my brain because I realized in that moment that alcohol was complicity. Alcohol was my relinquishment of the power struggle. Here, take this. No tug of war needed. Everyone wins.
When I quit drinking, I thought I’d never have sex again. This is dramatic, and idiotic, and I believed it in my bones. It was not true, although it took me two years to even touch a man again, which was a long and lonely walk for a 35-year-old woman with terrible deficits of self-esteem, who had learned to see her value according to the number of hands reaching for her. In time, I was reminded of my true value, one that had more to do with my mind and my heart, just as I was reminded of my true courage, which I had not drank away so much as it had been misplaced. The first years of sobriety were like the end of The Wizard of Oz—those things were in me all along.
I don’t think people have to quit drinking to find a healthier relationship with sex and booze. But I would like to say, to anyone who wants to quit but is scared, that sex without alcohol is possible. It is thrilling, and terrifying, and real as fuck, the way I somehow suspect sex was meant to be. And I am out here, on the cliff’s edge of the thing, learning to take the right risks, and re-discovering my own desires, and refusing to fake orgasms, and occasionally breaking my heart and putting it back together again.
It’s not easy, but I don’t miss myself anymore. Sometimes my biggest complaint is that I am way too much here. But I know I have found the right person to allow close when I stop worrying so much. There is no coercion needed. No complicity drug required. The whole internal battle fades and gets replaced by a fine point of desire. Our mutual connection does what alcohol used to do for me—it makes me feel safe.
We may drink ourselves away, Just Another Girl. The good news is: You can come back.
Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget,” now out in paperback. Follow her on Twitter (@sarahhepola) and Instagram (@thesarahhepolaexperience).
Illustration by Angelica Alzona