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The Complications of Gender and Booze: Men Drink Much More Than Women, But Still Enjoy Sexist Privileges

It’s a sexist culture that wrings its collective hands over female “bad behavior” and uses the specter of sexual assault to keep women fearful

I like to drink. I usually have a glass of wine (or two) with dinner, or to unwind after a long day. I like a good bourbon, an interesting amaro, a creative cocktail. Most of my favorite hangouts are bars. I drink to celebrate and to socialize. I even work for a vermouth company. Drinking, for me, is one of life’s fundamental pleasures. So I was fascinated by Ann Dowsett Johnston’s “Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol,” a combination alcoholism memoir and investigation into the female world of boozing. Dowsett Johnston uses her own dawning realization that she has an alcohol problem to look at female alcoholics, and what she believes to be an under-recognized epidemic of women drinking to excess. She’s correct that female alcoholism doesn’t get the public health and media recognition it deserves, and that female problem drinkers face a different set of challenges and circumstances than men. She’s correct that the alcoholic gender gap is closing.

The overarching problem with women and alcohol, though, doesn’t seem to be an epidemic of female alcoholism. The problem is a drinking culture that increasingly looks like American food culture: prioritizing excess over enjoyment, mass-marketing cheap processed products, blaming consumers for the bad outcomes of products pushed on them by large companies, and promoting over-consumption as a substitute for pleasure. And it’s a sexist culture that wrings its collective hands over female “bad behavior” and uses the specter of sexual assault to keep women fearful, while simultaneously applauding recklessness and aggression in men.

Dowsett Johnston is Canadian and focuses many of her interviews on Canadian women, but she’s right that  more women in the United States are problem drinkers than ever before. That said, “more women than ever before” doesn’t translate into “as many women as men.” Men still drink much more in volume and more often than women, and are more likely to be binge drinkers and alcoholics. Nearly half of American men — 42 percent — have at least three drinks per day. Only one in five women drink that much. Of course, women tend to weigh less than men, and our bodies metabolize alcohol differently, meaning that on average, it takes fewer drinks to get us drunk. But only about  half of Americans are even regular drinkers, and 35 percent don’t drink at all. As far as epidemics go, I’m not sure women drinking heavily is one of them.

That said, alcoholism is a real problem, accounting for  2.5 million deaths annually across the globe. Even where alcoholism doesn’t kill,  it damages — alcohol abuse has a litany of potential consequences, including cirrhosis of the liver, early death, increased risk of suicide, alcoholic hepatitis, gastrointestinal problems, increased vulnerability to other addictions, and a long list of others. The problems stemming from alcohol abuse shouldn’t be whitewashed or downplayed, and much of the conversation and imaging of alcoholism revolves around men. That Dowsett Johnston is trying to turn our collective gaze toward women is commendable.

But the lines between use, abuse and addiction are not always totally clear, and there’s a marked lack of nuance (not to mention honesty) in discussions of alcohol use. Admit to having three or four drinks on one particular night, and some who have been through the hell of alcoholism will insist that you have A Problem. Push back against frat boy drinking culture and you’re a Puritan. Recognize that nearly all of us will get a little too liquored up a handful of times in our lives and, if you’re a woman, expect someone to wag their finger at you and insist that by getting drunk you’re going to get yourself raped.

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