The Rise of the ‘Sober-Curious’ Movement

Angelo Franco


About three years ago, author Ruby Warrington founded Club Soda NYC. It was a series of events for the young working professionals who were wondering what it would be like to live life free of alcohol. These events were not for alcoholics or addicts, but rather for those who still drank kind-of-sometimes and who could still hold their liquor but wanted to get better sleep or get better skin or just straight-up hated hangovers, and doing away with alcohol seemed like a good way to start.


Soon after, Warrington went on to write the book “Sober Curious,” which more or less finally gave a name to this new trend that people were trying, labeling this new inquisitiveness and questioning the way in which we consume alcohol. It’s what gave rise to the sober-curious movement in which people work to reframe their relationship with alcohol, either by consuming it less or not at all (but still being able to).


Disclosure: My partner is in recovery. He has been in recovery for some time now, and his sobriety is a necessary one. For him, living in an environment saturated with alcohol while remaining sober had become a compulsory part of life. At the beginning of our relationship, I didn’t know how to behave around his sobriety. Very soon into our courtship, I had to ask if there was anything I needed to do to… I don’t know, help his recovery along? With a patience bordering on polite resignation, he explained there was nothing I could or needed to do. He was ill and it was an illness only he could deal with, and being constantly surrounded by alcohol because of the mere act of living in a social world was just part of the package: to have to be perpetually vigilant but mindful that he was going to encounter alcohol in virtually every social setting. He was the one with a substance abuse problem and, for him, being fully conscious of that was an integral part of his recovery journey. “Just don’t ask me to hold your drink,” he explained sardonically.



There are things to be said about being in a sober/non-sober relationship. On my part, my behavior has not really changed one bit. I was never one to binge-drink, or drink to the point of blacking out or getting sick. My relationship with alcohol extended to Pinots with dinner and margaritas on Taco Tuesdays. So I have not seen my weekend shenanigans affected, least of all because I count brunch and a matinee as a successful Saturday. When we go to a house party, my partner even offers to pick up a bottle of wine on his way from work to take with us as a gift for our host (his choice of alcohol had been beer and he had no predilection for wine).


But that doesn’t mean we are not aware that his sobriety is a thing that exists and must always be kept in check. We recently had to figure out plans for our New Year’s Eve celebration, both of us preferring a more low-key late dinner with some entertainment and a midnight toast rather than an all-night rager. And in New York City, there is no shortage of New Year’s Eve celebrations happening on every corner on every type of club on every restaurant of any fare. But every one of those celebrations also come with a wine or champagne pairing or premium open bar or any sort of food/alcohol combination.


What is a New Year’s Eve celebration without some bubbly, after all? But having paid New York City prices for alcohol that my partner was neither going to consume nor wanted in the first place seemed like a dour prospect. It took days of scouting the internet, numerous phone calls to a myriad reservation lines, and several email chains to find a place that optioned alcohol as an added premium instead of part of an all-or-nothing package. Even then, when the venue insisted that our entire party had to purchase the same meal/alcohol option, we had to reveal that at least one person in our party was in sobriety—and not in a fun-trendy kind of way—for them to finally allow us the choice to not purchase an open bar for my sober partner.


I certainly understand how we associate alcohol with an exalted way of being, sort to speak; from being an essential element in any given cultural celebration around the world to also being a symbol of status, adulthood, and success. Even as I sit here writing this up, there is a glass of wine within reach. It is, rather sardonically, one of my versions of honest-to-God sophistication: getting to write on my desk while sipping on a cheekily-named California red while Alexa booms out my usual playlist—which, by the way, is fittingly yet unintendedly named “The Hemingway” for no other reason that he was a known writer and because it is laughably on the nose (which I swear was the intention!).  



And I suppose that is the point. The movement, at least for some, seems to be more than just a thing to try between kombucha and the next Peloton ride; it is instead a radical undertaking to truly redefine our relationship with alcohol. And coming up with new spaces in which people with different needs can explore the many different paths to sobriety is commendable. Where we may have to start paying attention is if/when being sober-curious begins to be capitalized for all the wrong reasons. After all, as my partner commented off-the-cuff when I told him what I was writing about, being sober and being in recovery are two different things.


It seems that, for the most part, proponents of this movement (the ones in recovery and the ones who have adopted sobriety fully) hope that being sober-curious will gain enough traction and enough converts that sobriety will eventually not be a trend, but simply another common lifestyle, like being vegetarian. This in itself seems like a worthy cause, especially because it’s partly responsible for the emergence of more safe and sober spaces for marginalized groups or those who cannot find a neat space in traditional 12-step programs. Alcoholics Anonymous was, after all, founded by two white guys with deep roots in ceremonial traditions and the Christian faith. AA, certainly, has a history of being welcoming to others from all walks of life and adaptable to any faith and also the faithless.


But just like any other focused group, there may be a need for a more specialized assembly focused on, for example, the journey of women through recovery, or young adults struggling with alcohol addiction.


For queer persons of color, for example, alcoholism may not only be a facet of having a social life, but with it comes the associated behaviors of partying and queer culture like promiscuity and narcotics abuse. Finding a safe space where queer men and women can share their journeys with others who have had similar experiences with alcohol abuse can be nonexistent outside a focused substance abuse group. In large urban centers, it may be less difficult to find AA groups that target a specific demographic (my partner attends a few AA meetings made up of gay men, for example), but that may not be the case in less populated areas. And, of course, the 12-step program is not for everyone. Many other alternatives to the 12-step program exist to help curb or control addiction, and if this movement is fostering the emergence of more alternatives to addiction control, then that can only be a good thing.



Also, making sobriety mainstream is pretty great. When AA groups are used to meeting in church attics or the local city hall basement, seeing a meaningful rise of people and influencers purposefully being more vocal and public about their sobriety is awesome. Anonymity and the stigma of being an alcoholic, after all, are ubiquitous issues that prevent many from seeking the help they need, or even identifying the problem to begin with.


Yet addiction, just like any other illness, can be a complex issue for anyone, and the way that each individual handles their own recovery journey is, of course, specific to that person. But this is exactly why being sober “curious” and exacting that choice as being more than trend can get rocky. A sober bar where libations are funky mocktails carefully crafted for consumption sounds like a fun idea in theory, and a wonderful social alternative for those who refrain from drinking so they are not stuck going to the movies yet again or feeling weird for ordering a Shirley Temple, while everyone else partakes in consuming spirits.


But simply being in a bar-like environment can be triggering for someone in recovery who associates socializing in a bar with drinking. In fact, for some, just holding a drink can be triggering, even if the whole point of the drink is that it’s non-alcoholic. For some in recovery, suddenly seeing peers who are sober only most of the time can raise questions about their own relationship with their addiction. Or the entire meaning of the word “sober” can be redefined if your brunch group is suddenly rejecting bottomless mimosas but still popping a bottle of champagne to ring in the new year.



It is perhaps this distinction or, more appropriately, lack thereof, of what being sober-curious means to an individual that bogs down the movement’s most commendable goals. Again, wanting to consume less or no alcohol for health reasons is generally a terrific idea. But being curious about alcohol is a narrow road between going to a trendy dry bar and someone’s life being literally on the line if they consume even one drink, as it is the case for many people in recovery.


It’s the difference between not consuming alcohol in order to get more sleep and get more fit but still having a sip of sacramental wine on Sundays, and not being able to partake in the eucharist at all because of an addiction. But we can have both things; there is no reason that we cannot make a clearer distinction between treatment for addiction and making a choice of drinking less. Indeed, it may be essential to do so if we hope to lessen the stigma of being in recovery while fostering a healthier lifestyle that redefines our relationship with alcohol.      


Author Bio:


Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.


For Highbrow Magazine



Image Sources:


--Bruce Mars (Pexels, Creative Commons)


--SocialButterflyMMG (Pixabay, Creative Commons)


--U.S. Air Force Graphic (Creative Commons)

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