The sober and sober-curious movement is growing amongst young women. Millie Gooch, founder of the Sober Girl Society, speaks about how online communities are facilitating this change.
“Millennials are sick of drinking”
“Why Gen-Zers are growing up sober curious”
“Mindful millennials put off drinking alcohol by parents”
There’s been a lot of press in the past few years exploring the growing trend of younger generations cutting back on booze. To some, abstinence is for health or religious reasons; for others, it is our of fear of increased surveillance due to social media, or they believe that being drunk is no longer as cool as it once was. Whatever their reasons are for drinking less, alcohol doesn’t have the allure to younger generations as it did on those before.
In 2021, 20.4% of surveyed 18 to 24-year-olds were teetotal, a rise of 4% from the previous year. What’s more is, according to the Drinkaware survey, the youngest people in this demographic are more likely to pursue sobriety than their older counterparts.
Of those who don’t drink, around half had previously drunk alcohol before giving up for reasons such as disliking alcohol’s inebriating effects, to improving general health, and for a lifestyle overhaul. Abstinence was also split unequally between genders; taking the whole survey into account, of the 4,605 women asked, 14.8% have chosen to completely avoid alcohol, whereas for men that percentage is lower at 13.2%.
But these changing habits are not just evident in surveys such as this. Social media gives an insight into the younger generation’s changing relationship with alcohol.
Type sober, sober curious, or mindful drinking into Instagram’s search bar and you’ll be algorithmically served a host of posts covering everything from motivational quotes to tips and tricks on how to pursue these practices; to mocktail recipes and reviews on the best AF (that’s alcohol-free by the way) wines.
One such account leading the trend for sober curiosity and mindful drinking practices is @SoberGirlSociety, “the community for sober + sober curious women” which boasts an impressive 193,000 followers. Sober Girl Society, or SGS for short, was founded in 2017 by Millie Gooch, a journalist, author, and public speaker who herself celebrated five years sober on February 11, 2023.
What is Sober Girl Society?
“I was just out drinking and partying all the time and really just noticed how miserable I was, how anxious I was all the time, and thought I you know I can’t continue living this way, so I stopped drinking.”
Despite Millie’s resolve and best intentions, she found the initial stages of sobriety a difficult and isolating time. Turning to social media, she began to engage with niche online communities centred around collective ideas and found herself inspired to start her own page for “the everyday young woman binge drinker who was getting paralytic every weekend”, going through similar experiences to herself of early sobriety.
Sober Girl Society was an instant hit that “escalated so quickly and has never slowed down”. From the initial online community, a thriving social calendar based around London and Manchester has appeared. The community organically progressed from an online space into real life events over time, with the first meet-ups organised on an old-school email thread.
“We just started doing them and then the more we kind of posted about them the more people were like oh can you bring one here; people kind of suggested activities that they want, problems they were facing, so we just started running them further and wider.”
And, whilst this was never a goal of Millie’s to start off with (she didn’t initially think anyone would turn up to a social sober event), she now confidently believes that the real-life meet-ups are what makes Sober Girl Society such a special community.
“You get girls who turn up and are you know terrified, nervous, they don’t know any other sober people, and then they become best friends. There are people that come to our meetings three years later having met each other at a meet-up three years ago!” Their Eventbrite page now has 1,900 followers and they regularly host online and in-person events.
What Sober Girl Society does:
One recent IRL event was Sober Girl Society’s London Mixer at Immersive Gamebox in April, 2023. Megan Roberts, a 21 year-old content creator, was there – it was her first time at a sober mixer, and her rationale for attending was simple: “I told myself that I was going to push myself out of my comfort zone this year and do more things that scared me. Going sober as well would show myself that I do not need alcohol to ‘have fun’ and that I am enough as I am.”
Megan explained that she was nervous at first: “I was so scared of being judged, not being able to make conversation with anyone, and feeling really self-conscious.” But as the evening events progressed, she quickly settled into the experience and in the end “literally had the best time! I have never laughed so much with strangers, and I felt comfortable so quickly. I truly came out of the event and was smiling the whole way home.”
Megan’s experience is not unique. Sober Girl Society’s Instagram page is populated with pictures of smiling young women out living their best lives, and the comments sections under these pictures are flooded with positive sentiments and encouragement; from exclamations of the fun they had to grateful thanks for organising such unique events, followers and attendees express their gratitude in likes and emojis by the thousands.
“It was so nice to remember everything that happened in the evening and understand how you can have a good time without the need for alcohol. It made me rethink why I drink when I go out and how much of a good time I can have without it. It was also super refreshing to wake up the next morning and not feel fuzzy headed or hungover!”
Other IRL events have included mixers at the Sipsmith Distillery, signature Boozeless Brunches, Boozeless Burlesque classes, and Sober Sweat sessions. For many young people activities such as dancing and clubbing are closely associated with drinking, and so Millie explained that she felt it was important to incorporate events that challenge these associations, such as their sober dance classes.
“It sounds really silly and superficial but so many people will be like ‘oh I can never get on the dance floor sober, and actually that’s one of the things holding me back from changing my relationship with alcohol’, so we started putting on these dance workshops.”
Events are currently hosted in London, Leeds, Edinburgh, Birmingham, and Manchester – Tickets for Sober Girl Society’s IRL events start from £22.38 and can be found on their Eventbrite page.
In addition to these IRL events, every Saturday at 9.30am, the group hosts an online club for sober and sober-curious women that is described on their Instagram page as “an informal space to chat about all things alcohol free”.
Attending one of these events myself, I was instantly struck by the sanctity and inclusivity of the space; I had never met these women before, never heard their experiences of drinking and sobriety, but instantly I related with their stories and struggles, seeing facets of my own journey to abstinence in each of theirs.
The space was open to any topic and loosely moderated by the Zoom host who invited people to speak, in addition to giving useful feedback, advice, tips and techniques for weathering the emotional storm that so often accompanies early sobriety.
Covering topics such as ‘hangxiety’, the lack of mocktail options offered by bars, the stress of navigating boozy work events, and grieving for your past (drunk) self, the subtle nuances of navigating life alcohol-free were demystified and normalised.
Tickets for Sober Girl Society’s online events start from £5 and can be found on their Eventbrite page.
In addition to the Sober Girl Society events and online community, in 2021, Millie authored and published her first book, The Sober Girl Society Handbook: An Empowering Guide to Living Hangover Free.
Filled with “tips and advice to stay sober in a world that practically revolves around drinking [Millie] shares essential information to empower you to transform your relationship with alcohol so you can lead your most fulfilling life”.
There has been in a growth in ‘quit-lit’ in recent years, with authors like Holly Whitaker (Quit Like a Woman), Laura McKowen (We are the Luckiest) and Catherine Gray (The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober) all having published their life stories as sober women since 2017.
The Sober Girl Society Handbook: An Empowering Guide to Living Hangover Free is available on Amazon for £14.99
Sober vs Sober-curious: What’s the difference?
One of the main differences between Sober Girl Society and traditional abstinence routes like Alcoholics Anonymous is that the former isn’t a recovery programme. Because of this, Sober Girl Society describe themselves as “a group of like-minded women who want to meet up and want to do fun stuff that doesn’t revolve around drinking; it’s not a caveat that anyone is completely sober and there’s no kind of recovery path”. By comparison, Alcoholic Anonymous and other recovery programs often advise complete sobriety, or at least a willingness to attempt such a way of life.
Another way to understand this difference is to look at the separate characteristics of being sober versus sober-curious; the former refers to complete abstinence due to alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, and the latter is a term coined by the author Ruby Warrington, who describes it as “to choose to question, or get curious about, every impulse, invitation, and expectation to drink, versus mindlessly going along with the dominant drinking culture.”
Sober curiosity (or ‘mindful drinking’ as it is termed in the UK) is an inclusive movement that allows individuals to set their own drinking boundaries. Millie explains that it’s “a forever state that you don’t necessarily declare yourself teetotal, but you are someone who [drinks in] moderation, and is constantly reassessing and questioning and refining their relationship with alcohol,” meaning that it commonly includes people who are still on the fence with regards to their drinking habits.
Megan for example describes herself as sober-curious, saying that she has drunk alcohol in the past and will “occasionally drink here and there, typically at large events or when I go clubbing,” but she has recently majorly cut back on drinking due to study commitments, living at home again, and wanting to“live a healthy, fun life, but one I can remember.”
Getting sober – how and why
One of Millie’s motivations for setting up Sober Girl Society was that in her early sobriety all advice seemed to be “rooted in not drinking and why drinking is bad, rather than why sobriety was good.” Sober Girl Society therefore aims to emphasise positive messaging around sobriety by showing that it can be hugely beneficial for mental health and wellbeing.
“I felt happier, I felt calmer, I got my weekends back, I had more money. For me these were just so many positives of sobriety rather than looking at why I shouldn’t drink, actually why should I be attracted to this way of living?” Millie said.
Inspired by Professor David Nutt, author of books such as Drink? The New Science of Alcohol and Your Health, Millie recommends a two-fold approach to experimenting with sobriety: by increasing your pleasure by discovering fun activities that don’t centre around alcohol, and decreasing pain by addressing the underlying issues that lead to drinking in the first place.
Sober Girl Society is there to help with the first of these factors — increasing pleasure. Their online and IRL events are there to offer a sense of community and inspiration for engaging in fun activities that ditch alcohol completely, to help members “pick up new hobbies and passions that [they] might’ve discarded because alcohol has become the default for fun.”
When it comes to decreasing pain, however, Millie recommends turning to outside sources for guidance; “things like therapy, learning to manage stress, and learning how to build confidence and how to be less insecure are really important for changing your relationship with alcohol.”
There are so many freely available resources nowadays to help individuals navigate the journey through sobriety: podcasts, books, websites, blogs, social media pages, just to name a few, can help you if you so wish to explore this way of life.
For Millie, changing your relationship with alcohol means having to first look inwards to understand your relationship with alcohol: “why is it that you drink all this? What things trigger you to drink? Are there are people that you end up drinking more around? Do you drink more because you’re stressed? Are you drinking because you’re really anxious?
“I think understanding why you drink can help you tackle it. If you’re drinking because you have zero confidence what you need to work on actually is building your confidence and naturally that’s going to help you drink less because you’ll feel more confident you won’t feel like you need to drink so much.”
Not just for Dry January?
Alcoholism, binge drinking, and alcohol abuse are nothing new, but there seems to have been a turning point in recent times as people are more openly discussing these serious issues, both online and in real life.
Millie tells the story of when she started dating in her early sobriety, saying “when I used to tell people five years ago that I didn’t drink it was like I had three heads – it was just kind of unheard of,” whereas now “there seems to be a lot more acceptance around it. It’s almost like six degrees of separation where everyone knows someone who doesn’t drink.”
The benefits of quitting booze are bountiful: socially, economically, physically, and mentally, and with communities like Sober Girl Society leading the way for female alcohol-free empowerment it’s easy to see why more and more young women are embracing ways to have fun without drinking.
So, whether you’re sober, sober-curious, or simply looking for a great mocktail recipe to ensure your AF friends are catered to, there is now a wealth of information, tips, tricks and resources available for everyone interested in cutting back on their alcohol intake.
* Sober Girl Society is a support network and not a recovery programme. If you need to seek help or support for any of the issues raised in this article please take a look at the DrinkAware or NHS websites for help and advice.
All images courtesy of Millie Gooch and Sober Girl Society