Have you ever said no to a date because you were so terrified by the thought of having to have sex with that person at some point? Not because you weren’t attracted to them, but because the thought of having sex with anyone, including yourself, sends shivers of fear and embarrassment down your spine? No? Oh great, just me then.
At 30, I’ve had more than my share of boyfriends, one night stands and even a husband at one point. I’d never been shy when it came to sex - until I gave up alcohol three months ago. I have been celibate for the exact same amount of time I have been sober. Coincidence? I think not. Was it in my plan? Definitely not. But the thought of having sober sex is almost enough to make me reach for the martinis again.
'Sex-appeal’: that is what I was told I possessed from quite a young age. It was handy too, because I wasn’t conventionally pretty. I was tall, curvy, had tons of badly-maintained ginger curls, hiding my low self-esteem and shyness behind an image of pure, unadulterated sass – what my mum liked to call, ‘Hat-titude’. I threw my weight around and acted like I didn’t care about anyone, especially myself. Words like ‘Amazonian’, ‘curvaceous’ and ‘vivacious’ were used to describe me. I liked them, they made me feel special.
It didn’t take long for me to realise that I could flirt my way in and out of almost any situation. By the time I was 20, my desire to be liked and wanted landed me in a position of acute promiscuity. All my relationships were based around sex and rather a lot of it. I’m not sure I knew how to love in any other way. But underneath, I was cripplingly shy and unsure if anyone liked me unless I was putting out.
I cannot remember the exact moment that I started telling people ‘sex means nothing’. But it happened, and I started to believe it. Which was great, because it meant I could have loads of it and would no longer cry myself to sleep with shame afterwards. I suddenly had, for the first time, the self-confidence that had been repeatedly knocked out of me when I was younger and bullied at school. I was no longer the big fat, ginger girl, I was a Titian-haired goddess, and my gosh, was I going to use it.
I convinced myself that my behaviour was utterly normal. Wasn’t everyone having one-night-stands and going to work in yesterday’s clothes? Wasn’t it completely normal to sink three tequilas after work and then carry on drinking all night with some random chap you met at the bar? Was I not the most fun and cool girl around, one of the lads, because I slept around without getting names, let alone telephone numbers? Uh, no!
Now, I’m sure you have started to create a picture of me and my lifestyle, but it wasn’t nearly as raucous as you might expect. In fact, it was pretty sad and a little bit dark; my endless search for love, affection and acceptance was destined to end badly. I could only carry on my ‘sex means nothing’ way of working if I didn’t feel anything. At the time, I had a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol, which helped. I had never had sober sex, until I was married and even then, it wasn’t very often.
something very interesting started to happen. People started to be much nicer to me. They were interested in what I had to say, they hung out that little bit longer after dinner just to chat
When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see me, I saw some party girl that would throw herself at anyone just to shy away from her own pain of wanting to be wanted. I didn’t know what to do with myself, I didn’t even really trust my own judgement anymore. I had lost sight of who I really was.
After returning from a rather promiscuous trip to Ibiza in October, I was holed up with an old friend and several bottles of wine, when we started discussing children and how I wanted them but couldn’t find a man to have them with and so I was going to do it on my own. Because, of course, I knew best. Men don’t want ‘real’ relationships, they don’t ‘actually’ want to settle down, they didn’t really ‘care’ about me.... and whatever else I could come up with in my drunken stupor.
The next day, I couldn’t sweep that conversation under the carpet as I had before. This time, I felt completely empty and broken. I realised that of course, no man wanted to be with me because I was a mess, a pain-in-the-arse to be around, a complete liability if I was drinking or my anxiety had tightened its grip on me. I had no self-respect in regard to sex and I definitely didn’t like myself, so why should they respect or like me either?
I think that is what they call rock bottom but it’s what I call the beginning. I decided that I never wanted to feel like that again. I vowed that I would not touch a drop of alcohol for the foreseeable future and I haven’t.
Going sober – I went completely cold turkey – sent my anxiety levels, my spots, my weight (because I replaced the sugar from alcohol with back-to-back biscuits) skyrocketing. But it was all made easier when something very interesting started to happen. People started to be much nicer to me. They were interested in what I had to say, they hung out that little bit longer after dinner just to chat. I was complimented on what ‘good form’ I was on, I even had my closest pal tell me "I was so proud to introduce you to my friends" after an afternoon at the pub watching rugby, they downing pints and me with my AF (alcohol-free) beer. Bar staff would smile at me and strike up conversations, rather than just hurry past. It was bizarre. The scenario I had always tried to create on my nights out, to be accepted and liked by everyone, was suddenly happening all the time and all I'd had to do was not drink.
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Gone were the hungover mornings where every memory of my wild behaviour would come washing over me like a veil of shame, gone were the apologetic phone calls I would have to make for my outlandish actions and gone was the feeling of finding a safe space within someone else, for I had found it within me.
But also gone, was the ability to have sex. The sudden realisation came on a weekend away with a man from my school days who I'd started to become close to again. I’d always thought of him as potentially ‘The One’. I’d been in love with him with for more than half of my lifetime. We’d had a saucy night on the odd occasion, but he’d stuck by me as a friend, through thick and thin. There has always been a mutual spark, but because of my inability to show love in the right ways, I ended up pushing him away with my provocative and confrontational behaviour. He had become bored of sloppy drunk Hattie, who became loud and started storming about the place once inebriated. I believe he had given up hope that he would ever get the Hattie he first met at school back.
We started to become close enough to sneak the odd kiss here and there, close enough to share a bed. But that’s where it stops. Because, sober, I have become terrified of sex. The girl that based her entire connection-making process on putting-out can, no longer, put out. I’m more shocked than anyone.
That night, he went up to bed and I intended to follow but I was struck by an immobilising fear of the possibility of having sex. I was – and still am - terrified that if let my guard down I might ruin things forever. What if he hated it, I hated it, we hated it and we couldn’t just write it off as a drunken mistake? What if I had lost my knack and what I once thought were some quite good bedroom moves were nothing more than a boozy fumble? What if he regretted it in the morning because he’d been drinking while I remembered every painful detail? What if I truly was a big, fat, ginger girl and he suddenly realised this? What if, what if, what if…
I didn’t go up to join him, I slept on the sofa. In the morning I just lied outright that I had fallen asleep in front of the TV.
I decided that, for the time being, I would put pursuing this relationship that I had wanted for so long, on hold, because I’d lost my sexual confidence and didn’t want to lose the possibility that we might one day make it, while I was finding myself.
I’m still not at the point where sober sex feels comfortable, but I am closer. They say that sober sex gives you better orgasms, that it’s liberating, but who are they? Will I ever be able to lose my inhibitions again without the help tequila?
I consulted counsellor Sabrina Joy , who reassured me that my experience wasn’t terribly unusual.
“So many women (and men) depend on alcohol to have sex," she told me, "it is far more common than you think." Indeed, 81 per cent of the 2,000 UK adults surveyed by a dating app said they were too nervous not to drink before having sex with a new partner. “People think drinking is going to give them more confidence. After all, alcohol is known to reduce inhibitory control in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain for decision making," says Sabrina. "This means that people do more ‘daring’ things, they act more ‘confidently’ under the influence because their inhibitions are reduced and perceived threats don’t feel so threatening anymore.
“The problem is that we have a preconceived idea as to what ‘sexy’, as shown to us by Victoria Secret models and Abercrombie and Fitch doormen, but actually everyone can be sexy in their own way.”
She told me that I should challenge my own ideas of what made me sexy. Maybe it wasn’t the dominant Amazonian personality I’d adopted, which was so much easier to carry off after a few drinks, but which ultimately landed me in situations where I felt crushed.
“Maybe you are funny, or kind or have a fantastic personality – that’s your sexy,” she says. “Once you relax into yourself and become confident in your own skin then you will find that you are having some of the best sex of your life.”
That’s my work right now, finding out what makes me feel confident – and doing a lot more of it – looking after my skin, my health, training as a yoga teacher perhaps. “Being present and in the moment with a person who really ‘wants’ you, is the sexiest feeling in the world, so there is no need to depend on alcohol,” says Sabrina.
And isn’t that what I’ve always dreamed of, to be wanted?
How to overcome sex shyness
“Confidence is often mistaken for the absence of fear,” says counsellor Sabrina Joy. “Confidence is feeling the fear and doing it anyway (within reason of course, I’m not inviting people to go sky diving without a parachute). Our brain is plastic, meaning it has the ability to change - you can learn to be more confident. Yes, even without the booze.”
1. Challenge your negative thoughts
"We all have those thoughts 'I’m not pretty enough', 'I’m not skinny enough', 'I’m not successful enough'. Being intimate with someone takes confidence and vulnerability. For every one of those negative thoughts, write down evidence that counters them. You’ll begin to view yourself in a more realistic, positive and badass way."
2. Begin to express what you want in bed
"A lot of us have believe we’re being selfish or bossy if we ask for what we want. But the truth is, sex is about asking for what we want. It’s about having the confidence to speak up and say 'yes, do more of that' or 'try doing this' or 'I like it when you do...'. If you’re someone who finds it difficult to voice what you want or need, take baby steps. Try asking for what you want in other areas. If your coffee isn’t hot enough ask the barista to make a new one. If you’re having a massage and you feel like you’re being beaten, don’t just lie there white-knuckling the table, ask for less pressure."
3. Do things that fill you with a sense of mastery and pleasure
"We can get so caught up in the things we “have” to do, we forget to take part in the things we are boss at or put the biggest, cheesiest grin on our face. When we do things we love and are incredible at we’re boosting our confidence, self-love and self-esteem. We radiate sexiness."
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