Women and AA Don’t Mix

As Alcoholism in Women Becomes More Visible, Targeted Solutions Are Needed

  • Graphic Jennifer Aedy

If a woman was caught drinking wine in early Rome, that was enough cause for her husband to kill her—that’s how disparate the notions of womanhood and the use of alcohol were. In Memorable Deeds and Sayings, written in the first century AD, the author recounts the story of Egnatius Metellus beating his wife to death with a cudgel for having a glass of wine.

“Not only did no one charge him with a crime, but no one even blamed him. Everyone considered this an excellent example of one who had justly paid the penalty for violating the laws of sobriety,” the author wrote.

Metellus’ story seems hardly relatable today. The idea of denying women the right to enjoy alcohol comes off as totally strange and archaic to most of us modern Westerners. It’s difficult to imagine that not even a century ago women were prohibited from drinking in most public spaces without a male chaperon.

Of course, much of the taboo surrounding females and alcohol seems to have faded with women being able to elevate their status in society. The entry of women into the workforce, women’s suffrage, the feminism of the ‘60s and ‘70s—all this progress has changed the cultural landscape of North America, and as such changed the cultural norms surrounding alcohol.

Now there are Skinny Girl cocktails, Pinky Vodka, Real Housewives wine and (ahem) Bitch Juice—it would appear marketing executives have woken up to the fact that women drink the lion’s share of the nearly 800 million gallons of wine sold in the U.S. annually. However, whether society has woken up to fact that rates of alcohol abuse among young women are growing at an exponential rate is another question.

By most every quantitative measure, women appear to be drinking more. An analysis for alcohol overdose found that the number of women hospitalized with alcohol poisoning has ballooned in recent years. The hospitalization rate of women aged 18 to 24 jumped 50 per cent from 1999 to 2008, while rising only 8 per cent among young men.

The FBI revealed that the number of women arrested for DUI rose by 30 per cent between 1998 and 2007, while male arrests dropped by 7.5 per cent. In 2010, Gallup polls reported that two thirds of all American women drank regularly, and that the most likely to imbibe were those with a high degree of education and in good socioeconomic standing.

The gender gap in alcohol dependence has seemingly been shrinking for years. In the 1980s it was accepted that women accounted for about one tenth of the entire alcoholic population; in 2002 Harvard estimated that number to be roughly one fifth.
While these numbers seem incontrovertible, it’s important to take them in context.

In her book Fallen Angel, Professor Florence Ridlon writes, “It is certainly true that most statistics do show a large growth in the number of female alcoholics. Whether this is due to an actual expansion in the numbers or a greater willingness of people to deal with the problem of female alcoholics is questionable.”

Also important to note is that the number of female drinkers has been growing at a considerable rate since the 1970s. It seems unlikely, however, that so few female alcoholics existed before then and that they weren’t worthy of study.

What might be more telling is that between 1970 and 1980 the number of women graduating with PhDs rose exponentially, especially in the field of sociology. There exists a definite correlation between the amount of research given to the topic—as well as most issues of importance to women—and the number of female researchers out and about in the world.

That being said, the statistics are still alarming enough to elicit some serious attention. When you do look closer you’ll find available research on the topic of women and alcohol represents a very small amount of the overall work on alcoholism and does not proportionally reflect the female segment of the alcoholic population.

As doctor and Concordia sociology professor Silvia Kairouz explains, women alcoholics are more likely to self-soothe, to use alcohol as a means to alleviate stress or to compensate for emotional states, whereas men drink more for sensation-seeking and social bonding.
Women are more likely than men to take prescription drugs to treat their mood disorders, which leaves room for cross-addictions to flourish.

“Treatment for women is harder,” says Kairouz. “Clinical features make the problem much more complex. We cannot address the issue of alcoholism without also working on this co-morbidity. It’s not one problem that is present; we have multiple problems and they interact together.”

What this means is that traditional models of treatment, like Alcoholics Anonymous, which focus solely on the issue of alcoholism but ignore other dimensions, are not as effective in treating women.

The philosophy espoused by AA—which involves ego taming and recognizing a measure of powerlessness—can actually be counter-productive for some women who are particularly vulnerable and suffer from anything but excess ego.

Karen Hamm, a 51-year-old mother and wife, spent a year in AA before joining Women For Sobriety, which uses a cognitive behavioural approach to the treatment of addiction. Hamm felt like she was chasing her tail in AA and that her existence was hollow before finding the program. Now almost eight years sober and a moderator for the group, Hamm recognizes that women often respond better to programs specifically tailored for them.

“When I found Women For Sobriety I felt like I was coming home,” said Hamm.

While Hamm recognizes the huge success of the WFS and programs like it, she also warns that there are still not enough resources specifically for women who struggle with addiction. The stigma surrounding female drinkers is far from gone.

“Many women I work with are very worried about how they’ll be perceived, that they are judged more harshly for being a woman, that people will think they are bad mothers or wives,” said Hamm. “It’s a huge concern, and it keeps many women in the dark.”

So maybe there’s a lesson for us contemporaries hidden in the stodgy, awful Metellus—that while undoubtedly no one would beat a woman to death for drinking today, we still cannot pretend that even our modern world exists without double standards of morality or restrictive social norms.

Metellus killed his wife for drinking because it was believed that if woman drank wine it would prompt her to commit adultery. The roman poet Juvenal wrote in his Satires, “when she is drunk, what matters to the Goddess of Love? She cannot tell her groin from her head.”

This tie between sexual laxity and female drinkers persists today—along with many other prescribed notions about women and drinking—and has no doubt abetted rape culture and victim blaming.

While there’s no denying that enormous advancements have been made on this front in the last 50 years, we can’t negate the inequalities, stereotypes and stigmas that have survived.

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