Gender bender: Normalising, moralising and a shot of reality


The worst part about not drinking alcohol is having to tell people why you don’t drink. It’s difficult because drinking usually occurs at a time when it’s expected for everyone to imbibe — at dinner, at a party or after work when we’re unwinding.

Why don’t I drink? Is it a religious issue? Am I pregnant? Nope. I don’t drink because it is my thing. In the brief time I did drink, I took to it a little too well, and it scared me. Being unable to remember the time, let alone the good time, was worse than the hangovers or the loss of control.

The frightening thing was realising how easily I could lose myself and, by extension, everything, for the love of a piss-up. The cutesy tongue-in-cheek names for booze and knocking it back don’t change the fact that more women in their late 20s are seeking addiction treatment.

Women’s predilection for wine has an underlying dark side — and the only way to deal with it is to acknowledge the profound differences between how women and men abuse alcohol. For men it appears to be the result of excess; for women, a habit gone haywire.

Alcohol use and alcohol disorders have historically been viewed as a male phenomenon.

Alcohol abuse is rising and, in many countries, young female drinkers are driving that growth.

The evidence is right before our eyes in inescapable alcohol marketing and the feminisation of drinking culture. Alcohol consumption among women is socially acceptable. Women are independent, making their own money and decisions, and so they deserve a break.

And if drinking is escapism on tap, it is also liquid entitlement and empowerment. There’s this feeling of, “I’m doing it all — why shouldn’t I have something for myself?”

If you’re sophisticated, you know your wines, right? If you’re an adult, you can hold your liquor. That’s what we are led to believe. If women can go toe-to-toe with men in the boardroom and surpass them educationally, why shouldn’t they have their own drinking culture?

Those in high-status occupations, working in male-dominated environments and having higher levels of education are almost twice as likely to drink daily as those without such stature.

The alcohol industry, well aware of this reality, is now battling for our happiest hours and our feminism. Alcohol is being marketed as women’s liberation. A woman exerting her choice by making herself incapacitated does not read as a problem. Control — and the decision of when and how to lose it — is the point.

We know that in the mid-1990s the spirit and wine industries were struggling, compared to the old boys’ club of breweries. So, they invented alco-pop — sugar-laden alcohol drinks in pretty packaging to get women to drink — and it paid off beautifully.

If we’re going to be honest, alcohol dependency is, unfortunately, a respectable ill, especially when most of us learned how to drink and got familiar with the culture that goes with it, at university or when we became gainfully employed. Antidepressants like Xanax are costly, belong in the realm of bored housewives and involve too much admin to get. Street drugs are infra dig and shameful.

For the bulk of history, women have been the teetotallers for cultural or social reasons. The emergence of women who drank alcohol outside of socially acceptable bounds coincided with second-wave feminism and a general impulse to close the gender gap in all social strata.

As women found themselves exploring a culture that was once unique to men, they picked up a lot of the same attitudes and behaviours about what is socially acceptable that men had previously held exclusively.

This acculturation means women adopted the drinking attitude and behaviours of the dominant male culture. This may explain why women in the demographic closest to being dominant (young, white, middle-class, educated) are the leaders in raising the bar in terms of increased alcohol consumption.

The phrase “white-girl wasted” didn’t happen by accident, and her black counterparts are fast catching up.

No matter the explanation, it’s easy to use alcohol as a way of coping in a complex, ever-changing world. Whatever our relationship with booze, now’s a good time to pop the cork on an honest conversation about our habits.

Kiri Rupiah is the social media editor of the Mail & Guardian

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Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.

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