Women, Booze, and the Glaring Gender Disparity in AA’s Philosophy

By virtue of the fact that it’s an essay in the Saturday Wall Street Journal (a mixed bag of insightful cultural commentary, impossibly palatial real estate listings, and thinly-veiled conservative ravings about America’s social decadence), and because its second paragraph begins with the vaguely-judgmental sentence, “In Portland, Ore., where I lived for six years, I would watch most Sunday nights as a neighbor deposited two giant Merlot bottles in my recycling bin,” you might be prepared to execute a massive eye roll in the early goings of the excerpt from Gabrielle Glaser’s new book, Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink—And How They Can Regain Control.

Ugh, are we in for a moralizing tale about how laaydeez be drinking too much, and that sort of slatternly behavior is eroding America’s moral fiber of apple pie and sky-jism fireworks exhibitions on the Fourth of July? Nope, just a well-researched look into the differences between how men and women drink, what their motivations are for drinking, and how they should cope with drinking problems (hint: for women, AA might not be the best resource available).

Glaser isn’t the first to notice the trend of more women (starting with nightly binges in colleges) drinking than ever before, and she certainly isn’t the first to point out the risible trend of moms drinking oodles of wine at the end of (or during, if you’re Kelly or Christi from Dance Moms) a long day working, tending your children, and generally fulfilling all the unreasonable promises you implicitly made to society when you were born in the modern era with a vagina. With that, we arrive at one of the possible forces that is literally driving women in America to their cups — an impossible, stifling amount of pressure from pretty much everywhere.

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Attending college? You’re really signing up for an academic bacchanal. Working in a male-dominated industry like finance? You’re more likely to lean on those boozy habits you acquired in college to deal with the unrelenting awfulness of institutionalized sexism. Taking time off your career to be with your kids? That’s fine and all, but you’re not trying to have it all, now are you, and, somewhere in society, someone is wagging a finger at you. According to Mary Ellen Barnes, a psychologist in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., who treats many female heavy drinkers, that latter group of women may develop unhealthy drinking habits because, “The baby's crying, they're not getting paid, they're bored and anxious—and feel guilty that they're bored and anxious.”

Glaser mentions some Facebook trends and a character in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom to help illustrate the emerging modern archetype of Drunk Mom, but this isn’t, depending on how many soap operas you watch (do you watch soap operas? how’s that going for you?), a particularly shocking cultural phenomenon. It may not even be particularly shocking that more women are drinking now that at any time in recent history (colonial history is a totally different story, mostly because booze was the only sure-thing beverage if you didn’t want to get dysentery). Still, the statistics are a little jarring. According to Glaser,

Indeed, more women are drinking now than at any time in recent history, according to health surveys. In the nine years between 1998 and 2007, the number of women arrested for drunken driving rose 30%, while male arrests dropped more than 7%. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of young women who showed up in emergency rooms for being dangerously intoxicated rose by 52%. The rate for young men, though higher, rose just 9%.

And although college-educated women are more likely to drink than non-college-educated women (and white women from privileged backgrounds are much more likely to drink than women from other racial backgrounds), drinking is up, writes Glaser, “across the board”:

An analysis of the drinking habits of 85,000 Americans in 2002 found that 47% of white women reported being regular drinkers, up from 37% in 1992. The percentage of black women who said they drank regularly rose from 21% to 30%, and the percentage of Hispanic women who said the same grew from 24% to 32%. (American Indian and Asian-American women were not included in the study.)

This is where Glaser’s ruminations on drinking start to get seriously interesting, because, on the one hand, women boozing more could be interpreted, in some ways, quite positively: more female drinkers is a sign, she suggests, of social “parity.” Peggy Olson drinking in the office with all the male copywriters is a signal that Peggy has crossed from the secretarial (and, in Mad Men’s world, largely female) world, to the male world. She’s no longer outside the patriarchy — she’s (in some ways) a part of it. Then again, women’s bodies carry more fat, and fat retains alcohol. Not only does that mean that women generally get drunk faster than men, but also, that alcohol-related liver and brain damage manifest themselves faster in women than in men.

What’s more, even though American women are drinking more, they’re still drinking less than women in France, Italy, and Spain, where alcohol consumption limits are set a little higher and life expectancy for women is generally higher. The so-called “drinking problem” facing women — about which countless articles have been written with varying levels of social censure — is more complicated than just “more womenz be drinking.” It’s a just as much a cultural quirk that Americans have to finger-wag behavior — especially female behavior — that deviates from an abstract standard of social comportment.

Fine, but the statistics at least show that an increasing number of women are developing fairly serious drinking problems. They should all probably go to AA, right? Eh, probably not, according to Glaser, who reminds us that AA was founded waaaaay back in 1935 by two dudes who believed group meetings could curb alcohol dependence. Hooray for teamwork! Except that, AA’s philosophy may do more to undermine some women’s sense of self-control than bolster it. Writes Glaser:

[AA’s] doctrine calls for members to tame their egos, abstain from all drinking and acknowledge they are in the grip of a force they can combat only with help from a "higher power.''

It doesn't take an advanced degree in gender studies to realize that this approach—which has worked well for millions of people—may not be perfect for women whose biggest problem is not an excess of ego but a lack of it. Women are twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety as men—and are far more likely to medicate those conditions with alcohol.

Researchers argue that AA may prove less effective for women because the idea of being powerless, i.e. that you have to corral that pesky ego of yours, can “underscore a woman’s sense of vulnerability.” This, according to reports from AA, can pose a bit of a problem, since there is a disconcerting amount of anecdotal evidence on the tendency of AA veterans to take sexual advantage of emotionally wrung-out newbies (people in AA call this the “Thirteenth Step”). You’ve seen 28 Days, obviously, so you get it. Of course, sexual predation can cut both ways across the gender lines, but Glaser goes on to point out that AA’s abstemious approach to alcohol independence might be too draconian for some women whose heavy drinking is unrelated to ego issues. For those women, learning moderation — a reliably dull and ubiquitous solution to all of life’s many problems — might be a better option.

Why She Drinks: Women and Alcohol Abuse [WSJ]

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