Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.
The sober curious movement (or “new sobriety”—the branding comes in a variety of flavors) is less a coherent philosophy or sound medical advice and more of a marketing campaign, hawking self-help merchandise and thousand-dollar yoga retreats, along with run-of-the-mill solipsism. It is an online phenomenon, fluent in the language of Instagram, elevated by media-types who share similar well-to-do backgrounds and sensibilities. It is hash-taggable psychobabble meant to solve cosmopolitan ennui and stay-at-home malaise. Its fans are not only upper class but also ultra-fit, photogenic 30-and-40-somethings ready-made for television.
Scratching the surface, you discover that the day-to-day problems of sobriety-curious enthusiasts aren’t what most of us would classify as problems. And as for solutions, it features primarily simple adjustments like not carrying into adulthood the same level of alcohol consumption you did as an undergraduate. I can’t imagine the people quoted in these stories as real; they are much closer to Arrested Development or Schitt’s Creek characters. Even that comparison might be generous.
A reporter comparing “mindful drinking” (lots of terms for the same thing) to AA’s anonymity found, “No longer is the topic of sobriety confined to discreet meetings in church halls over Styrofoam cups of lukewarm Maxwell House. For these New Abstainers, sobriety is a thing to be, yes, toasted over $15 artisanal mocktails at alcohol-free nights at chic bars around the country, or at “sober-curious” yoga retreats, or early-morning dance parties for those with no need to sleep off the previous night’s bender.”
“An air of cool hovers around sobriety at the moment,” argues Alice O’Keefe in TheGuardian in December 2017, “just as it does over veganism and clean eating.” For O’Keefe, this is exemplified by “the proliferation of sober blogs such as Hip Sobriety (hipsobriety.com) and Girl and Tonic (girlandtonic.co.uk).” Indeed, a sense of fashionable distinction is proclaimed by the very title of Hip Sobriety, founded by Holly Glenn Whitaker. The cool appeal of such contemporary ideas about sobriety rests, in part, upon the way they distinguish themselves from older, staler accounts of its meanings; if sober living was generally understood as “hip,” of course, there would be no need for Whitaker to use the word itself. In this cultural moment, there is a determined effort to rewrite familiar narratives about alcohol and its place in our lives. The Hip Sobriety manifesto, for example, directly challenges a number of well-known ideas about alcohol, stating: “you don’t need to hit rock bottom,” “Am I an alcoholic? is the wrong question” and “It’s not incurable” because “Cured is never having to drink again.”