TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. For years, writer Sarah Hepola relied on alcohol to give her what she saw as the adventurous sex life of a strong, liberated woman. But when she gave up drinking, she had to figure out what she really wanted. Note to parents, we're talking about sexual attitudes, not acts.
SARAH HEPOLA: I stopped drinking at the age of 35, roughly two decades into my sex life. I was scared to quit for a lot of reasons. I thought I'd be boring. I thought other people would be boring. When you drink as long and lovingly as I did, you'll find a lot of excuses not to hang up your beer mug. But nothing frightened me as much as sex without alcohol, as in no way, not happening.
I've always been self conscious about my body. In high school, I would have worn a scuba suit to pool parties if I could've gotten away with it. Some mixture of shyness, early puberty and a Hollywood beauty warp kept me in hiding for many years. But alcohol pulled me out into the crowd. This is the eternal story of alcohol, liquid courage, although it's acquired something of a modern twist for women.
In Peggy Orenstein's book "Girls & Sex," the veteran journalist describes how young women today rely on booze to stay down with the hook-up culture, which increasingly takes its cues from porn. I can't speak for anybody else, but if I'm going to be giving a lap dance, someone better bring tequila.
I applied the same logic to anything around sex. Scared to be seen naked? Drink. Scared he doesn't like you? Drink. Scared you don't like him? Oh, honey, drink up. In my 20s, I longed to be one of those marauding females who had one night stands and didn't demand anything girlie in return like commitment or phone calls.
But being that vulnerable with another person, a real human person, whose last name I probably did not know, was so confounding to my native sensitivity that alcohol was really the only way I could power through. And I wanted to like casual sex. I saw it as part of the necessary tool kit for being a woman of interest.
These days, in pop culture, drinking and promiscuity has become a power brand embraced by female heroines from Carrie Bradshaw to Amy Schumer. Drinking and sex make for an appealing rebellion, a push back to centuries of female repression. And it doesn't hurt that guys like girls who drink and let loose. Of course, when casual sex becomes the norm, it feels a little less rebellious and a little more mandatory.
Drunken hook ups are so normalized among single people in their 20s and 30s and beyond, that opting out of them can make you feel like an enemy of sexual freedom. It can make you feel like, yes, that old slur, like a prude. When I quit drinking, that's exactly what I feared I'd become, one of those dull women who ordered seltzer at the party and would probably never dance on a table again.
I stayed in my hidey-hole for more than a year. And I had an imaginary love affair with a barista named Johnny. Sometimes the little things get you through. I began to inch back into the dating world, slower than I wanted but more confident with each passing month. And what I noticed was how much I actually cared about physical intimacy.
I'd spent all these years trying to detach myself and pretend none of it was a big deal. But my experience was leading me to the opposite conclusion. Sex was a big deal to me. Around this time, I was listening to a FRESH AIR interview with the comedian Louis C.K., and he said if you're intimate with a total stranger, it's a reckless thing to do. He talked about how strange and wrong it felt for him to be that close to someone he didn't know.
And I felt validated, in part because Louis C.K. is the great philosopher comedian of our time, but also because here was a man, a straight dude, the kind whose emotional detachment from sex I'd been trying to imitate to prove I was down, and he was saying casual sex didn't live up to the hype either.
Over the past couple years, I've been more open about my feelings on this topic. And I think it makes people more open in return. I've spoken to friends who agree with me and plenty who don't. They like casual sex. It scratches an itch. It's fun. They might be straight or gay, male or female, but the more I hear people speak honestly about what they want in the bedroom, the more insane it seems to me that any one way of being would fit us all.
Conformity and sexuality do not mix. It's like demanding that everyone be the same height. Giving up alcohol did not end my sex life. You could argue, it made it more thrilling. There's something rare and radical about daring to be fully present and fully revealed to another person.
It scares the hell out of me sometimes. But the fear of vulnerability is part of the price of real connection. Sex is a journey outside our comfort zones, and the trick is making sure that in that exploration, we feel safe. I don't know how you'll get there. Sometimes I don't know how I will either. But I can promise the best way to power through isn't alcohol.
It's paying attention to your own wants and desires and being true to them.
GROSS: Sara Hepola is the author of the memoir, "Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget," which was recently published in paperback. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Tony Hale who co-stars on HBO's "Veep" as the personal assistant of Selina Meyer, the vice president who becomes president.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VEEP")
TONY HALE: (As Gary Walsh) I'm your calendar. I'm your google. I'm your Wilson the volleyball.
JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) No, you're not.
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Yes, I am.
GROSS: Hale also played Buster Bluth on "Arrested Development." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by a Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Maria Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Kenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.