Young adults are changing drinking culture – and guess what? Queer women are leading the way

BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE

We have a funny relationship with alcohol, us Brits. Growing up in the sticks in the northeast of England, I was perhaps a little behind some of my city-raised kin. Still, I was just 15 years old the first time I was served alcohol at the local village pub, older boyfriend in toe. 

From there came university and with it, chants of – Down it! Down it! Down it! – punctuated our (many) nights out. Drinking was very much to get drunk.

I didn’t really stop to question the drinking culture I’d so easily become a part of until, on one occasion after an event at the Student’s Union, I woke up on my next door neighbour’s sofa, bleary-eyed and with little memory of how I’d even come to be there. Enter the most extreme case of “hangxiety” I’ve ever experienced. I’d be willing to bet that most people my age have a similar story (if not many).

But, as with much in the world right now, the cultural tide is beginning to change. For some time, somethin’s been a brewin’ across the UK – and that somethin’ is less than 0.5% ABV. 

Though studies show that binge-drinking is still an issue (and in fact may be on the rise amongst older adults according to a recent article in TIME magazine), data from the Office For National Statistics shows that young people aged 16-24 in Great Britain, “are less likely to drink than any other age group” – and millennials in particular, are right there with them. 

“As millennials continue to reject the alcohol-centric culture of our forefathers, sobriety is having a moment,” declared Esquire magazine recently. “Millennials are sick of drinking,” echoed The Atlantic. Turns out, they’re onto something – and lez/bi women are very much at the forefront of this sober movement.

SOBERING TIMES

The last time I had an alcoholic drink was on New Year’s Day 2019, nine months ago now. I’d flirted with the idea of taking a break from drinking before and – as someone who hasn’t experienced alcohol addiction – it was something that I felt able to do. Still, it always seemed far too much a part of my social life to completely cut it out. 

Even though I’d long put my more adventurous (read: careless but all-too-common) drinking habits to bed, most social events still revolved around alcohol. Birthdays, catch-ups, work socials, queer club nights – the lot. 

“We’ve got a very alcohol-centric culture,” Laura Willoughby MBE, founder of Mindful Drinking organisation Club Soda, tells me. “We have an automatic, unconscious bias that if anyone ever says, ‘Do you want to go out?’ your automatic assumption is that this involves alcohol. That means that some people will automatically say no because they don’t want to drink.”

With Club Soda, Laura – who describes her own sober journey as “a hundred little epiphanies” – initially set out to create a community “that felt like a club” – something she’s done both with Club Soda and their LGBTQI-specific branch, Queers Without Beers. However, she also spends a great deal of her time talking to pubs, bars, restaurants and the UK government about how to create equal experiences for every customer. “It actually now feels like an equality campaign.” 

The aim? “We need people to start saying yes [to socialising] because they know there’ll be something out there for them to drink. It’s about socialising, not the strength of their drink. And that way we will begin to see our social spaces open and alive – and in the queer community, where events are often focused on alcohol, that’s even more important.”

Laura continues: “Whether you’re queer or not, today, younger people are far more conscious of their mental health and understand how alcohol fits into that. They’re more interested in what a venue has to offer than what I would call ‘vertical drinking’ – just standing there with a pint. 

“They’re also far more accepting of difference and are more likely to go and find a venue that suits their vegan or their non-drinking friend and to accept that people make choices for themselves.”

#YOURVIEW – SOBER SPACES

“Sober queer women are a community within a community that need support. Some women might feel they need alcohol to express their sexuality or to attend queer events. That’s why it’s so important for women who don’t drink to feel safe and included and like they still have spaces they can come to where they can be themselves.”

– Sandy, 38, from London recently created a sober space at lez/bi event L Fest in Llandudno, Wales

#SOBERAF

It’s true that my own decision to take a break from drinking was spurred on by both the increase in the number of (decent) alcohol-free craft beers available and, at least partially, the increasingly common use of hashtags like #soberaf and #sobercurious, and accounts like @sobergirlsociety popping up across social media, namely Instagram. 

In this same realm, sober “influencers” are also now a thing – and influencing they are. From those recovering from alcohol addiction to (very much at the other end of the sobriety spectrum) the, perhaps more common, ever-glowing wellbeing types, “a shift has begun,” as Adrienne Matei commented in the Guardian this summer. “Enter the ‘sober curious’: those who drink less or not at all, and broadcast their abstinence with pride as a part of their social media personas.”

Club Soda’s Laura Willoughby agrees that for those who want to reflect on their drinking habits, social media can, “[normalise] the idea that you might want to change your drinking for a lifestyle choice.”

On the one hand, showing young people that you can “be cool” and be sober is a good thing, smashing stereotypes of “stone cold” or “square” sobriety and encouraging more people, much like myself, to take a moment to reflect on their relationship with alcohol, á la Club Soda et al. 

But is it dangerous to lump sobriety into the “trend” pile akin to something like, say veganism, when for many, drinking alcohol can quite literally mean life or death?

NOT A TREND

“Talking about sobriety as a trend is not ok,” fellow Brit and founder of the New York City contingency of Club Soda, Ruby Warrington explains. “The point of sober curious is to differentiate between those of us who have the privilege to be sober curious and perhaps dabble [in alcohol] here and there, and those for whom drinking and alcohol is a mortal danger.”

DIVA reader Sarah, 32, has been sober for just over three years after overcoming alcohol addiction. “[Social media] has its place and, for anyone, stopping to reflect on or review their drinking is a really healthy thing to do. 

“When helping someone with dependency or addiction, however, things are a lot more complicated and perhaps some might need support from services beyond social media to help them to get and stay sober.”

Though Sarah believes seeing sober influencers on Instagram is “really cool on the one hand”, particularly as a counter-narrative to the tired image of a “shifty guy in a mack with a brown paper bag”, she’s also wary of how the “shinier” side of sobriety might affect those dealing with with alcohol dependency. 

“If you’re struggling with an addiction and what you see is that shiny, Instagram-filtered end of the spectrum, that can feel incredibly alienating and unattainable.”

For Sarah, it’s being aware of the many “nuances” between different people’s experiences with, and reasons for, becoming sober. 

“In lots of ways, [the sober curious trend] is a pretty great thing. Even if you’re not somebody who has an addiction, our relationship with alcohol as a nation has been super weird. The things that are normalised… it’s like we’ve forgotten somewhere that alcohol is, like, poison. Even the way that getting completely hammered it still seen as a bit of a laugh, you know? 

“In many ways, the fact that it is trending is a good thing. We need to sort our relationship with alcohol out as a nation because… it’s a little bit fucked up.”

ON THE ROCKS

So, perhaps Britain’s love affair with alcohol is finally on the rocks? And while there are many different shades of sobriety and being sober in and of itself should not be considered a trend, the tendency to give not-drinking a try, aka, mindful drinking or the “sober curious”, is without a doubt trend–ing. 

Though certainly not a call for all to put down their pints, stopping to reflect on our drinking habits is always going to be a healthy thing to do and, if more of us are encouraged to do so through social organisations like Club Soda, breweries like Drop Bear and social media accounts like Sober Girl Society, then that’s bloody wonderful. 

However, alongside that shifting culture, we musn’t confuse those who have the luxury of being able to “dabble” in sobriety, as Ruby Warrington wrote, with those who are working to overcome alcohol addiction. The two ends of sobriety spectrum are wildly different beasts.

As for me? Well, for the moment, my #sobercurious journey continues. Whether I keep going along this path or decide to take a detour, one thing’s for sure – my view on drinking culture won’t ever be the same again. Now that I’ve seen things from this new, previously little-known vantage point, I’m not sure I can “un-see” them… 

Besides, discovering that I can in fact enjoy dancing (like a total knob) until the early hours without needing to have a single drink? That, my friends, has been a simple, but truly worthwhile discovery. Cheers to that, folks.

Looking to drink a little more mindfully? Visit joinclubsoda.com and search Queers Without Beers. If you, a friend, or a family member needs support with alcohol addiction, consider visiting alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk or addaction.org.uk

This article first appeared in the September 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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