The first time I ever had sex was one of the first times I was ever truly, authentically, completely and totally wasted.
I was a 17 and had just walked in a fashion show modeling women's lingerie for charity (which is a whole other issue, I know).
Some sweet gay production assistant had been sneaking me Cosmopolitans all night to help quell my nerves. It took three for me to muster up the courage to be on stage in my underwear, and another three for me to wind down after the show. And at my "modeling weight" — a measly 115 pounds at 5'6", I was drunk as all hell.
I was ugly drunk. I was mascara tears drunk. I was hold-my-hair-back-while-I-throw-up-out-of-the-window-of-a-cab drunk. I was poor-decision-making drunk.
After the show, my boyfriend Cooper* came to pick me up, his friend Max in the back seat.
I was so f*cked up that even the stone-faced security guard wasn't comfortable with me going into the parking lot alone, so he grabbed me by the arm and haphazardly helped me into the front seat of Cooper's truck. Then, he lit me a Marlboro Light 100, and I attempted to blow perfect smoke rings into the static nighttime air. Through my intoxicated lens, the yellow neon lights of the parking lot looked like the lighting of a low budget porno.
Cooper had never seen me this way: hammered in high heels, stumbling around the slate grey cement in a tulle mini skirt, pink lipstick smeared across my pimply teenage face, clumsy lips releasing clumsy clouds of smoke. But off he drove.
I don't know if my fuzzy recollection of that night has been dramatized in memory over the years, but in my mind's eye, Cooper recklessly tore through the vacant suburban streets. We sped through red lights, wildly honking the horn and loudly singing along to Johnny Cash. The traffic appeared to be one endless stream of dizzying lights.
As soon as the thought popped into my head, I said it out loud.
"I'm ready to HAVE SEX TONIGHT!"
In my group of friends, I was the last standing virgin, and I was sick and tired of being the innocent one. I wanted to be a wise woman with complex stories to pull from a loaded past.
But I hadn't had sex yet because I was scared.
Cooper and I had been together for seven months. He was an experienced 20-year-old boy who had been having sex since he was 14, mainly with older, cool, alternative girls with tongue piercings and cat eyeliner (most of whom wanted to beat me up). But I was scared to do it with him.
I was scared of the piercing pain and the promised pools of blood. I was scared of letting him see my naked body up close. I was scared that maybe I had a weird vagina or large nipples or wasn't properly proportioned. And most of all, I was scared I wouldn't like it.
After six Cosmopolitans, though, sex didn't seem quite so scary. I felt young and drunk and alive and ready.
As we turned into the apartment complex, Cooper slammed hard on the brakes. The car came to a screeching halt that propelled my loose-limbed body forward. The boys helped me up the stairs, and I resisted. "I don't need your f*cking help. I'm finnnneeee. I'm just having fun!" I slurred.
Once we were safely inside, Cooper and I excused ourselves to the bedroom.
Cartoon Network blared in the background. After 40 minutes of making out, Cooper asked me if I was sure I wanted to have sex. I was sure. I was sure because I didn't want the buzz to wear off and to lose my nerve, forever remaining a virgin. I was sure because I only smoked cigarettes, and I wanted to join the club of advanced girls who talked about blowjobs and sex and smoked cigarettes.
So, we had sex. He was slow and gentle and kept asking if I was "OK." I assured him I was "OK" because the booze had disconnected me from my body and my brain. The eerie juxtaposition of animation and sweaty disconnected sex will forever be burned into my memory. I haven't watched cartoons since.
I woke up the next morning feeling like someone had stuffed cotton balls into my skull. Cooper was gone. My head hurt too much to care.
I called a taxi like a grown-up. I went back to my parents' house in my skirt and tucked myself beneath the comforter of my four poster bed, no longer a virgin. I didn't feel anything except the uncomfortable non-feeling of blankness. The destructive non-feeling of nothingness.
I didn't realize it at the time, but that hungover morning, a dangerous seed was planted in my teenage brain. Yeah, the sex thing hadn't been nearly as traumatic and horrible and painful as I had initially feared, but it was because I had discovered a new weapon to protect me: alcohol.
So that was the solution, huh? Get drunk to ease the crippling body anxiety. Get drunk to ease the reality that I didn't actually enjoy sex. Get drunk to not feel anything and just do what girls are supposed to do: Have sex with boys.
I had been taught by sisters, babysitters and society as a whole that female pleasure is irrelevant. Getting the boy off is the ultimate goal. My mom used to say "Shut your eyes, and think of England, darling" anytime anything was unpleasant. Luckily, with alcohol, I didn't have to think of England. I didn't have to think at all.
I didn't have sex again until my second semester of art school in Los Angeles. And when I did, I repeated the routine verbatim: Get wasted with boyfriend, lose all inhibitions, have sex that didn't seem so scary and jarring. Except this time, I added pills to the mix. And did so for the next several years.
It wasn't until I moved to New York and reconnected with an old friend that I really thought about what I was doing.
This old friend noticed the way I would inhale drinks before hooking up. He noticed the way I didn't stop. He was concerned, and his concern made me question if I was doing it all wrong.
So, one night, we had sober sex. I was terrified — shaking, self-conscious and full of doubt. The sex wasn't mind-blowing, but I was back in my body and experiencing every moment.
As time went by, I had more and more sober sex. Some of it was awful. Some of it was awesome. Some of my fears about hating sex were indeed true. (Turns out I don't like sex with boys, but I love sex with girls).
I soon realized that being conscious while having sex put the power back in my hands. It made me realize what I like and what I don't like. I could say "Stop, that doesn't feel good" or "KEEP GOING." I was in control.
I could have love sex. Passion sex. Make-up sex and breakup sex. I couldn't believe how multifaceted sex was, how each experience conjured up different feelings inside of me.
A younger friend recently revealed to me that she's never had sober sex. I told her she shouldn't judge herself. I told her I've done it a million times, and I understand the temptation around needing a drink first.
Because sometimes sex triggers scary memories that we have buried deep down within ourselves. Sometimes the drink gives us a sense of resistance against the undeniable vulnerability of penetration. And sometimes being wasted simply gives us the confidence to take our clothes off without wanting to die.
I told my young friend to ask herself why she thinks she needs to use booze, pills or drugs to numb her from sex. I told her sex is supposed to feel good for girls, not just for boys. And by being intoxicated, we might be numbing ourselves from our fears, but we are also numbing ourselves from actually experiencing sex.
If sober sex conjures up a bad memory, something is wrong, and you need to talk to someone. If sober sex makes you realize you're not attracted to your partner, maybe you should break up. If sober sex makes you question your gorgeousness, you need to start working on the relationship with yourself (the most important relationship of all).
Because when you do have awesome sober sex, it's a high better than any drink or any drug could ever be.
*Name has been changed