Clear-eyed … for Jill Stark, moving from flirting to a kiss without booze proved a fraught business. Photo: Getty Images (posed by a model)
I can't put it off any longer. It's been on my list from the start of the year: find love. As much as I've achieved since I gave up drinking, this definitely needs some work. But how do you meet guys if you're not rolling drunk in a bar at 2am? My usual method, falling on top of someone while plastered, is not so easy to pull off when you're in full control of your faculties. Besides, something (perhaps the fact I'm still single) tells me that this strategy isn't really working.
So I'm left with no choice. Friends tell me everyone's doing it; there's no stigma any more. It's the modern way for busy singles to meet. But there's something about internet dating that leaves me feeling flat. And more than a wee bit scared. I imagine that the process of dating complete strangers would be excruciating enough with a few drinks to smooth the ride, but the prospect of doing it sober is positively petrifying.
It's not so much that I need a drink to calm my nerves - I know that poise and self-belief are not measured by alcohol consumption – but that I worry my sobriety will be a barrier to easy conversation in what is already an awkward situation. Refusing a drink might make guys self-conscious and wary. Maybe that's just something I have to get past if I want to find out how to connect with the opposite sex without being tipsy. I can't remember one alcohol-free first kiss before my break from booze.
The idea of alcohol as an aphrodisiac is not a modern notion. Many French artists and bohemians of the late 19th century used absinthe as a way to boost their sex drive. These days, champagne has become synonymous with romance and seduction. And there's even some scientific evidence that drinking might help the sparks to fly: a 1994 study in the international journal Nature showed that even small amounts of alcohol can enhance a woman's libido, boosting the release of the male sex hormone testosterone in the brain. The same effect was not found in men, and was more pronounced in women who were taking the pill – probably because they had lower testosterone levels than those not taking oestrogen-based drugs.
It's perhaps not surprising the two should be linked: both alcohol and sex stimulate the release of the chemical dopamine into the brain's reward pathway – essentially, its pleasure centre – sending the signal that the action is pleasurable and worth repeating.
If our sexual desire is physiologically altered by alcohol, it might go some way to explaining the thousands of regrettable sexual unions taking place every Friday and Saturday night across the country. But for me, it's rarely about craving the act of sex, and more about satisfying an emotional need.
If I drink too much and I'm not in the right head space to start with, I can really feel the depressive effects of alcohol. It can make me maudlin and sentimental, and will bring any underlying sense of loneliness to the surface. Suddenly, I'm a slave to the urge to be held, or to feel a warm body next to me as I sleep. Add to that the fact that inhibitions and logic usually vanish after about the fourth vodka and soda, turning every knuckle-dragging moron in the room into Brad Pitt, and you have the perfect storm.
With all that in mind, it's probably a good thing my first crack at internet dating is to be a sober one. I sit down to set up my online profile, which, I quickly discover, is a unique form of torture. The photo-selection process involves finding a picture that conveys the delicate balance of friendly but not desperate, serious but not stern, kooky but not weird, and sexy but not slutty. I need help.
I invite my friends Nat and Mel over, to give me the benefit of their dating wisdom. Nat vetoes one picture because I'm showing too much cleavage. I argue that, given I'm spruiking myself like a house on a real-estate website, this might be the "appealing north-facing aspect" that gets buyers through the door. "You don't want those kinds of guys," she says, deleting the picture, and I'm reminded of just how bad I am at this stuff.
The "about me" section is another exercise in self-flagellation. How to sell yourself and sound interesting, without coming across as a self-involved twit? We joke that I should write it all in tabloid headlines: "Scottish Chick in Still-Single Shocker" or "Melbourne's Once-Drunkest Hack on Hunt for Love". In the end, I settle for what is hopefully a vaguely amusing and informative précis of my passions, hobbies and life goals.
The part that takes the longest to resolve is the section on drinking habits. There are three options: non-drinker, occasionally/socially, and often. I wonder, much like I do at airport check-ins when they ask if you're carrying any flammable liquids, lighters or weapons, what kind of person thinks it's a good idea to say yes to the last option, even if it's true.
I describe myself as a social drinker, figuring that it's partially correct, given it wasn't that long ago I was the most sociable of drinkers, and I can't see myself ever again drinking in a fashion that could be described as antisocial.
I just can't bring myself to tick the non-drinker box. Even after all I've learnt from 10 largely fulfilling months without alcohol, I still don't want to be labelled as a teetotaller; the stigma of that is almost worse than the stigma of internet dating. And if I tick the non-drinking box, I worry that I'll attract clean-living fitness freaks, mummy's boys or Jesus enthusiasts.
There is, of course, the chance that I could attract men who, like me, are taking a break from binge drinking and are interested in self-improvement and a relationship that runs deeper than the bottom of their glass, but I'm not willing to take the risk. The world of online dating is massively superficial without adding additional reasons for men to discount you.
I contact John Aiken, a "dating expert" who is also the relationship psychologist for a leading matchmaking website. I tell him about my year without alcohol, and that I want to know how big a part drinking plays in the way singles interact and couples relate. I don't fess up that I'm looking for advice personally. He says having a couple of drinks can put people at ease when they're dating, but there's a fine line between relaxing and losing control. But how much of a negative can alcohol really be in the dating game?
Aiken tells me that the people he counsels (male and female) are usually in their 30s, and had thought that by this point in their life they'd be married and have kids, or at least have met their future partner. They're baffled as to why they're having no success. When he questions them, it's often clear that they've been engaging in what he calls "problem dating behaviours". These include having sex on the first night or going out with people who are unavailable – those who are married, attached, commitment-shy or damaged from previous relationships.
They also try to push things along too fast by texting or ringing too soon and, too often, writing long emails - generally, showing too much intensity early on. The trigger for these behaviours is frequently alcohol. "You might start talking about sexually explicit stuff when you're drunk. You might try to get physical with them there at the bar. You could start discussing feelings, or the future, or get too far ahead of yourself, wanting to plan the next date, or to meet their friends," Aiken explains. "You can get caught up in it all, and because alcohol's on board, you lose that filter and you move it far too fast."
It's as if he's just described the last 15 years of my romantic life. Those things he listed – the text messaging, the physical contact, the clinginess – I've done all of that after a few too many drinks. My alcoholic truth serum has removed my filter and made me act in a way I never would while sober. Sobriety has certainly helped weed out the players. They're so easy to spot they might as well be twirling a pack of Durex round their head and dry-humping the furniture.
By my fourth date, I'm growing weary: it takes a lot of effort to meet strangers sober. But this guy is great. We hit it off at once, and he shares a love of all the things that make me tick – politics, media, literature and football. He's passionate and smart and has a great smile. And he makes me laugh.
We talk for nearly four hours – two or three times longer than any of my other dates. There's a definite spark. He understands what I'm trying to achieve with my year without booze and the book that will flow from it; he took his own three-month break from drinking recently and gained a lot from it.
After having one beer, he tells me I've inspired him, and he starts ordering water. I think this is a good sign. But I'm confused; how do I move the evening on from great conversation and subtle flirting to a kiss? If I were a bit drunk, I'd have my hand on his leg by now, or would perhaps employ a light touch of the hand in the small of his back.
Eventually, he tells me he has to go, and as we're standing on the street I'm as nervous as an awkward teenager, wondering what's going to happen next. He leans over and gives me a peck on the cheek, telling me that he'd like to see me again if I'd like to. "That would be lovely," I say, meaning it this time.
We agree to speak again in a few weeks, when he has returned from a work trip. And we part. I walk away feeling that something's not quite right. On the tram home, I realise why: this is completely alien to me because I've never done it before. But this is what grown-up dating is like. You go out, you chat, you get to know each other, and over several dates you gradually build up a connection based on mutual respect, trust and attraction.
Until now, I've been unwilling to wait; I've tried to hurry that spark into a six-foot-tall flame of passion by dousing it in alcohol. I thought if I could initiate physical contact - a kiss, a grope or a shag - I'd know that the guy was interested. Now I can see that all it meant was he was pissed and horny. Even if I never hear from this guy again, tonight will have been worth it for that revelation alone.
Edited extract from High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze by Jill Stark (Scribe).