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If You Bring One He’ll Drink All Your Beer

December 1, 2008

A friend from Alabama once asked me why you have to bring two Baptists when you go fishing. The title of the post is the punchline. I know that might offend some folks, but the joke is a great lead-in for discussion of alcohol abuse, denial, shaming and hipocrisy.

Jessica Valenti put up a trailer for a film that is likely a piece of ab-only propoganda, and she noted what was obvious from the video: most of the problem with the “hook-up culture” is a problem of drunkenness. It’s a problem of people using alcohol as a disinhibitor, either for themselves or their potential sex partners, or both. The problem with that is that people end up doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do. But, for social conservatives of various kinds, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

Now, I never drank. Every sexual experience I ever had, I was sober. I don’t have any excuses. And I don’t need excuses: I didn’t do things that I figured I would regret. But then, I’m not everybody. I’ve always been comfortable with sex — often comfortable enough to make some people uncomfortable. And if everyone was that comfortable with sex, there would be a lot less drinking.

On my account, alcohol is most folks’ preferred medication for stress. And in this culture, sex produces a lot of stress. There are all sorts of anxieties about meeting potential sex partners, and then about being sexual, and then about what happens next. For GLBT folks, a lot of that just revolves around disapproval and pressure, and cultural dynamics that arise from it; while for het folks it’s the usual dating anxiety stuff that the popular culture bombards us all with whether it applies to us or not.

When I was brand new to college, my dorm had one of these conversational sex ed/icebreaker meetings that many places do. When the resident director said that alcohol decreases sexual sensation, one attractive woman from the swim team (harder partiers I have rarely met than sprint swimmers) said, “but it increases desire!” And even then, I thought that was wrong. I think many of us, at least, are pretty horny much of the time, especially when we’re in our late teens and mid twenties, the prime getting-drunk-and-hooking-up years. But we also live in a culture that shames women for wanting sex, for wanting certain kinds of sex, for having female bodies … and women disproportionately have to live with unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection, the biological consequences that our technology should but doesn’t always allow us to defeat. The shame and fear as background noise, from where I stand, looks so pervasive that I’m not surprised it often drowns out the horny. (Patriarchy is hardly optimal for men, either, and men have their own anxieties about sex.)

Alcohol is a depressant. It puts the voices of fear to sleep.

That’s not all good. Fear is my friend. Fear tells me when to check my risk tolerance and evaluate my plan. Perfectly reasonable fears caution people to wear condoms, to discuss limits, to give some opportunities a pass. The problem is there are things out there that women are afraid of, but shouldn’t be, because they shouldn’t exist. If I had my way, there would be perfect contraception, perfect infection control, no rape, and no slut shaming, no body shame, no performance anxiety … and then there wouldn’t be much for people to be afraid of when finding and being with sex partners. If that were the world we live in, lots of folks wouldn’t have to drink to get sexual with someone.

But that’s not the world a lot of social conservatives want. The folks that think Gardasil and comprehensive sex ed encourage sexual behavior are in favor of all those unreasonable fears. Not to put too fine a point on it, but some of them appear to believe that unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease are God’s chosen punishment for sex outside of marriage: the threat of damnation alone doesn’t actually do that well at deterring horny teens. They don’t want there to be nothing to fear.

But sexuality has been fraught with fear for so long that memory runs not to the contrary, and people still do it. They drown the fear in alcohol: which leads to bad judgment, failed safety measures, poor communication, violence and eventually unconsciousness. Which makes all those fears more justified. Which gives people ever more reason to be afraid.

Even if the fear worked as a deterrent, what kind of a world is that? If people want to wait for marriage, great — and the sooner we can all marry the partner of our choice, the more okay I will be with that. If people just aren’t sexual or don’t want partnered sex or even give up sex as a personal religious commitment, I respect that. But people should abstain if they want to, not because they’re terrified and ashamed, like two white-knuckled Baptists in a fishing boat, staring each other down, neither of them reaching for a beer.

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