Illustrations: Sammy Stein

What’s Behind the Elective-Sobriety Trend

Why people are giving up drinking, even when they don’t have a problem

Virginia Sole-Smith
Published in
12 min readApr 10, 2019


OnOn a warmer-than-average Thursday evening in February, 40 women gathered in Philadelphia’s industrial-chic Front Street Cafe for happy hour — but instead of ordering rosé or craft beer, they sipped artisanal mocktails and locally brewed kombucha. Billed as an event for “sober, sober-sometimes, or sober-curious women,” the first 15 minutes or so were stilted. People were nervous, conversations got stuck in small talk mode, and nobody could order a round of shots to fast-track things to insta-party. But before too long, the room was buzzing with conversation and laughter. And yet, nobody was getting buzzed. “I used to think I lost my social anxiety after I had the first drink,” says Joy Manning, one of the party’s co-hosts. “Now I realize, the first 15 minutes of anything is just awkward. Once I adjust to the environment and start chatting with someone, I relax. And it’s amazing to see that happen across a whole room of people who aren’t drinking. We’ve been giving alcohol a power it doesn’t really have.”

Manning, who is also a writer and the deputy editor of Edible Communities, runs the Instagram feed @betterwithoutbooze and has been sober since embarking on a Dry January experiment in 2017. “I was mostly a picture-perfect moderate drinker before that,” she says. “But I have alcoholism in my family, and I didn’t like how much work it was to stay in the moderate camp. It took a lot of mental energy and deprivation.” She would start obsessing as soon as she got to a restaurant: “If there was a wait for the table, everyone would want to get a drink at the bar. So do I get water at the bar so I can have wine with dinner? Or a cocktail now, but then everyone will think it’s weird if I don’t drink at the table? I didn’t even realize how exhausting that mental chatter was until I stopped.”

When her sister asked her to join her in not drinking for a month, Manning agreed, but saw it mostly as a way to be supportive. Midway through, she went out to dinner with friends, decided she’d shown enough restraint, and ordered two glasses of wine. She woke up in the middle of the night with her mouth dry and her heart pounding. “I thought, this is dumb and I’m never feeling like this again,” Manning…