Sober Sex and Why we Suck at it

Sober Sex and Why we Suck at it

Alcohol: Dunedinís favourite lube

The modern Dunedin love story tends to follow the same arc, albeit with a few twists and turns along the way. You’ve swiped right on that guy and his big fish, or that girl with the huge… groups of friends. You exchange a few flirtatious messages on Tinder before one of you sends your snapchat username. Snapchat: the new second-base. A few face snaps are sent throughout the night, and before you know it you're a box and a half deep and standing outside their flat. Intellectual conversation and questions about yourself can wait until the morning. In the meantime, it’s all about the root ‘n boot. 

Hookup culture in Dunedin, for many of us, is soaked in booze. But so are most of the things we do for fun; we go to the rugby drunk, we go to gigs drunk, even BYO’s, a time-honoured tradition, are centred around finding an excuse to drink. There’s nothing wrong with drinking, but it does seem to be an assumed part of anything we think is a “good time”. And this includes sex. More specifically, this includes hookups.

As a clarifier, alcohol can obviously make it harder to both communicate clearly and think straight, so when alcohol and sex are involved, there is a need to be extra careful about consent. Although consent when drinking is possible, if someone is on their way to being blackout drunk, there is no way they can possibly consent. The intersection between alcohol, sex and consent could easily be an entire article on its own, but this piece is about what place alcohol has in Dunedin’s consensual hookup culture. 

We’ve all received the cheeky 3am ‘wyd’ after a night out, most likely from someone we’ve met on Tinder — the app which delivers hundreds of potential lovers right to your fingertips. No longer must we be subjected to the tedious mission of attracting someone from across the bar, nor must we (God forbid) actually approach that cute someone in the library/cafe/gym. When one student was asked if he would ever approach a girl sober, he said “I feel like that would be weird. Why would you?” Why indeed, when with a simple flick of the thumb, you can match with someone equally interested, and be saved from rejection. Genius. Tinder, like alcohol, is a way to get around the awkwardness of propositioning sex in person, facing rejection in person, and confronting the reality of literally entwining with another human being. Tinder removes barriers by creating distance, and alcohol removes barriers by making the distance less personal. Together, they combine to form a hookup culture that is almost devoid of emotional investment or the “risk” of catching feelings.

For many in Dunedin, alcohol-fuelled one-night stands are the norm, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. Tim, a third-year, told us that he can’t remember a single time he had sober sex at Uni, but “that’s just the way Dunedin is, aye?” He said the “liquid courage” helped him talk to girls, because otherwise he’d be too scared. “Well, obviously, most of the time I’ve been hooking up with someone I’ve been drunk – you know I can’t talk to girls unless I’ve had a few drinks. I just figure it helps me get the conversation going.” When pressed about why he felt the need to “get over” something, Tim reflected: “I guess maybe if our culture didn’t think sex was so taboo, we wouldn’t feel the need to have liquid courage to get it started. Maybe, yeah, maybe it’s a bigger cultural problem.” Wise words from an unassuming breatha. 

Rose, a fourth-year, agreed that alcohol and casual sex in Dunedin had a deep-rooted entanglement. “They’re hand in hand. I can't see them separated in my experience of Uni.” Rose wasn’t a fan of alcohol’s place in the bedroom. She told us “Most of my hookups were drunk, but the ones that were sober tended to have more meaning.” She described a trope of “breathas not wanting to have someone who’s clingy or anything because suddenly there’s feelings involved”, which is combatted by “having alcohol in your system [which] mutes those feelings and now there’s no feelings attached.” To Rose, alcohol was about avoiding the emotional side of sex. 

According to the students we spoke to, the addition of alcohol into the mix of sex and love has created a disconnect between people – though they weren’t all opposed to that. Inebriation may eliminate inhibition, but it also makes real, honest intimacy hard to come by. Sophie told us that “sex under the influence felt out of my control, something that I was objectified in and [where I] didn’t really understand how the other person felt about me.” She wasn’t sure if “we were having sex because we actually liked each other, or just because we were drunk and that’s the thing to do.”  

For Jenna, “it started as like a ‘haha gonna get drunk, go into town, and find someone to sleep with’, but it eventually got to the point where I mentally couldn’t have sex without being at the very least tipsy, so pretty much all my sexual experiences [in my first year] I hardly remember.” Alcohol helped Jenna’s confidence to hook up with people, but it quickly became a necessity. She told us that “I only had the confidence to let people see me naked when I was drunk.” Since first year, Jenna says their relationships with both alcohol and sex have become much healthier. “I don’t feel like I need to be intoxicated in order to have sex anymore. It’s nice to be able to have sex and remember it, and be an active participant.”

Like Jenna, Rose also found alcohol wasn’t necessary in every sexual encounter. She argued that alcohol shouldn’t be something we need to get over the “awkwardness” of sex, esepcially given that we’re at Uni, a place she reckoned was the most sexually-accepting chapter of our lives: “I think Uni is quite liberating with the idea of sex. Uni is the place where you can be the most open about it.” Sophie has also had more sober sex since her drunk sex experiences, and finds it easier to communicate desires and understand what the other person wants too. “I don’t have sex with anyone if I’ve had too much alcohol, so I actually have control of the situation and also understand more clearly the persons intentions.” Tim hasn’t changed.

Alcohol has numbing effects on the mind and the body. It slows us down, and sends us to sleep. It hits the mute button. “Unfortunately, people see liquid courage as more important than feeling your way through the steps of a very significant encounter like [sex],” said Rose. “Drinking mutes the most important steps in a sexual encounter, which is being in someone’s space, knowing how they respond, and vice versa. When all those senses are muted, you can’t really know for sure if you’re really having a good encounter or not.” Tim disagreed, and said that alcohol lets people get over their normal social anxieties and enjoy each other's company a bit more - even if it was just for one night. For the record, Tim also thought that all the girls he’s brought home on the piss “have had a pretty good time”, so make of that what you will.

At the end of the day, alcohol is still a popular wingman. Everyone pretty much agreed that it worked well to boost confidence, and that if it wasn’t taken past a point, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Inebriation gives us the mindset that we can be anyone, see anyone and get anyone. It makes everything funnier, everyone sexier, and attracting a lover that much easier. But for many students, sex that relies on alcohol feels like it’s missing something intangible, and all of the students we talked to thought it was time we thought a little more about the role alcohol plays in our sex lives. 

If it makes you uncomfortable to think about it, it’s probably worth thinking about.

This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2022.
Posted 6:04pm Monday 25th July 2022 by Anna Robertshawe.