Sober and proud? On alcohol, identity and labels

Prof Isabelle Szmigin | May 2019 | 7 minutes

Some embrace the ‘sober’ label, while others hate it; in this blog our trustee Prof Isabelle Szmigin looks at the relationship between non-drinking and identity.

What does it mean to be a non-drinker? I do drink alcohol, though I also live with someone who has not had an alcoholic drink for over 30 years, so I have some vicarious understanding of one person’s view. I rarely think of someone as a ‘non-drinker’; just as I wouldn’t identify my drinking friends by their alcohol consumption, why should I do the same for those who choose not to drink? Your identity is not defined by whether you drink or not.

Yet the relationship between identity and alcohol consumption is an interesting issue. For years non-drinkers have been labelled: dry, on the wagon, teetotal, temperance advocate, sober. The temperance movement, starting in the 18th century, built an identity around abstinence as a virtue, but there were practical reasons for that, namely the need for sober machine workers at the start of the industrial revolution following a time when alcohol was freely consumed at all times of day (Blocker, 1989). Today, many wear the label of ‘sober’ with pride, with the term included in Twitter and Instagram handles galore. But do all people who don’t drink want to be labelled and identified as non-drinkers? It appears not.

Today, many wear the label of ‘sober’ with pride, with the term included in Twitter and Instagram handles galore. But do all people who don’t drink want to be labelled and identified as non-drinkers?

Having worked in universities for many years now, the drinking and carousing of the first few weeks of undergraduate life isn’t for everyone. Those that don’t want to drink alcohol in clubs and bars often feel excluded as it can feel like that is where the majority social life is going on. While some look for alcohol free spaces, others may want to socialise in clubs and bars but not consume alcohol and not be identified by their friends and others as non-drinkers. Colleagues at Manchester and Lancaster University have recently written an interesting piece on young non-drinkers distancing themselves from the identity of the non-drinker (Banister and Piacentini, 2019). They found that some people who didn’t drink alcohol actively rejected the label of a non-drinker as lacking cultural relevance to who they are. There remains a worry that non-drinker equals no fun. That’s patently untrue – I live with one – but the idea is pervasive. It’s no wonder that many want to ditch the label.

That said, I completely understand why sober influencers and groups on social media and elsewhere continue to define themselves through sobriety. Until it is a non-issue some non-drinkers will still need to mark out an identity in order to open up spaces – whether physical or digital – where there is no judgement for not drinking, and where the positives of not drinking can be celebrated, just as the positives of drinking are celebrated (arguably excessively) throughout mainstream culture.

All of this represents a bigger problem than just what people call themselves. Until not drinking is accepted by all as an entirely valid and not particularly remarkable choice the label will continue to be shunned by some and shouted from the rooftops by others. More than that, people will continue to be pressured to drink more than they really want to.

Until not drinking is accepted by all as an entirely valid and not particularly remarkable choice the label will continue to be shunned by some and shouted from the rooftops by others.

Not everyone shares this view, but I believe that the fact that you do not drink should not necessarily place you into a particular non-drinking identity. The increasing number of venues stocking great alcohol-free options should be welcomed as offering more options for everyone: drinkers, non-drinkers and everyone in between. I look forward to a day when not drinking becomes a non-issue, and we are all defined by other aspects of our lives and personalities than whether we drink alcohol.

  • Banister, E., Piacentini, M., Grimes, A., (2019) ‘Identity Refusal: Distancing from Non-Drinking ina Drinking Culture’, Sociology
  • Blocker, J. S. (1989) American Temperance Movements: Cycles of Reform. Twayne Publishers

To hear more from Isabelle Szmigin come along to the Alcohol Change UK conference on 19 June 2019.

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