Sarah Suzuki is an expert in the art and science of moderate drinking. Her work has been featured in the Good Men Project. She is the director of Chicago Compass Counseling, a group counseling practice dedicated to helping people in Chicago who struggle with the effects of alcohol abuse. As an individual counselor, she specializes in working with men who want to control their drinking. 

Women and Alcohol

Women and Alcohol

Q: Are more women becoming dependent on alcohol or is it just a social trend to drink more? For example, there are tons of memes and e-cards about how women need their daily glass/bottle of wine. Do these images influence how women drink? - Worried About Memes

A: Yes, women are drinking more, AND they are influenced by their cultural environment, AND the differences between how men and women drink are diminishing, WAM.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) published a report in 2015 showing that women have increased the frequency of their drinking, whereas men have actually decreased the frequency of their drinking. This trend is most pronounced in the younger generation of college-aged adults.

Conversely, rates of binge-drinking have increased among both men and women. And even though men continue to drink a greater quantity of alcohol than women, the number of women who binge-drink increased rapidly between 2002 and 2012 (a 17.5% increase in binge-drinking among women, compared to a mere 4.9% increase among men).

Theories as to why this is happening run the full gamut, ranging from pundits proposing that this is a consequence of women trying to compete with men in the workplace, to public dismay that women (and men) are waiting longer to get married. These theories are easily debunked, however, when we look at the FACT that married women and stay-at-home moms are actually at a higher risk for binge-drinking (whereas marriage tends to be a protective factor for men and is associated with a reduction in binge-drinking).

The concern about advertising is a bit murkier in terms of the data, at least in terms of adult women (teens, however, are notorious for being easily influenced by alcohol advertising).

And even though men continue to consume a greater quantity of alcohol than their female counterparts, overdrinking and binge-drinking present the greatest health risks to women due to their unique physiology.

Your concern about memes and e-cards only touches the tip of the iceberg for one of the biggest contributors to problem drinking for women: relationships. Whether they are relationships to their colleagues, their romantic partners, their cultural environment, their friends, or the internet, the environment has a tremendous impact on women's drinking.

I vividly recall a female client of mine who felt that it was ok to start drinking at 11AM after watching Today with Kathie Lee and Hoda - a show anchored by two powerhouse women who justify their daily drinking by asserting that it helps them to  keep the mood "festive."  This kind of toxic messaging to women - to act pleasing, positive, and fun - does a serious disservice to women who may be feeling bored, understimulated, trapped, or insecure while at home.

When I was interviewed by Fox News Chicago in 2014 about the increasing prevalence of binge-drinking among women, I could only comment on anecdotal evidence, based on my individual work with clients, in regards to what I perceived as the gender differences in problem drinking patterns. I've observed that my female clients tend to engage in isolated drinking episodes - often while at home  -  to ward off feelings of loneliness, uncertainty, and tension.  Meanwhile, my male clients tend to engage in more mindless or celebratory problem drinking. Even though my male and female clients equally feel shame about their drinking the morning after an episode of overindulgence, my female clients are overwhelmingly more likely to be riddled by shame, guilt, or fear about their drinking on an ongoing basis.

One reason that I concern myself with men and drinking is that there is a strong cultural element to alcohol consumption (think Mad Men) that glorifies drinking-as-a-male-pursuit. Because our society was founded on a cult of masculinity (read: the constitutional principles of our forefathers), women on some level feel that their embrace of binge-drinking represents a symbol of equal power in a "post-feminist" world.

The gender dichotomy of drinking, therefore, can be depicted in this analogy:

male drinking : enviable :: female drinking : shameful

Why the secret shame, then? Gabrielle Glaser does a beautiful job of delineating the history and present-day relationship of women and alcohol in the book Her Best Kept Secret: Why Women Drink - and How They Can Regain Control.

Glaser specifically indicts the all-or-nothing thinking prescribed by AA. I would add that most women are raised to believe in all-or-nothing perfectionism, and that the "solution" of AA only plays into the deep sense of insecurity developed by our national culture. She also explores the secret history of alcohol consumption among women that goes back to our puritanical roots, casting skepticism on the way we are understanding our current "epidemic" of female drinkers. When we cite research on women and drinking, we are relying on studies that only began in the 1990s due to our lack of national interest in women and drinking in the years prior. Which elicits the question - has this always been a "secret" trend?

Because the history of women and drinking has been so poorly documented, we are left wondering if it really has been there - unacknowledged - all along.

Glaser and I both share a vision that moderation is possible, and that women can learn how to have a healthy relationship with alcohol, so long as they are not physically dependent before they attempt moderation.

And it's my belief that until we change the way that we encourage men to drink (and kill themselves, in the process), we cannot change the problems that drinking currently presents to women. SS

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