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Double standards on binge drinking

Women are scrutinised more than men—this hampers efforts to solve the problem

By Jessica Abrahams  

©David Jones/PA Wire/PA Images

A few days after Christmas, a study was published in BMJ Open, the open-access version of the British Medical Journal, which highlighted the problematic coverage of binge-drinking in the media. The report noted that although men are more likely to binge-drink and to suffer from drink-related health problems, the media focuses overwhelmingly on the drinking behaviour of women. This attention is more likely to be negative, to moralise their appearance and dress, and to focus on a departure from feminine ideals with language such as “haggard,” “scantily clad” and “loutish” used to describe women who are drunk in public.

This is dangerous, the authors suggest, not only because of the blatant double standard but because it distracts attention from the real issues—the health and social problems suffered by those who drink too much too often. For example, it may reinforce ideas that heavy drinking is less problematic or harmful for men, although statistically they are at greater risk. And although among both sexes it is the middle-aged who report drinking the most each week, they may fail to recognise their drinking habits as a health hazard because they differ from the “unseemly” public behaviours of the young and female.

Less than a week later, Sarah Vine at The Daily Mail launched a furious attack on binge-drinking women, in a tirade that so perfectly matches the harmful stereotypes identified by the authors of the report that I can only imagine she was inspired by them. In an article laden with images of women in short skirts and stilettos stumbling in the street during New Year’s celebrations, she chastises them for being “indecent,” “semi-naked” and trying to behave like men. The worst of it, she suggests, is that they are not even ashamed of their behaviour: “When they regain consciousness the next day… they won’t be filled with remorse or self-loathing.”

There is nothing new about this kind of moralising when it comes to women and drink. Consciously or not, Vine is echoing prejudices that go back 300 years.

Heavy drinking has been a feature of British culture for centuries, from nobles to paupers and men of the cloth to labourers. The discovery of Stone Age beer jugs suggests we had our priorities set as far back as 12,000 years. Later, the Romans introduced us to wine, though ale and mead remained the norm. By the 12th century, the historian William of Malmesbury wrote that the English “passed entire nights as well as days” in the occupation of drinking; while later texts suggest that such merriment was rarely frowned upon.

At the end of the 17th century, however, the government deregulated distillation in an attempt to stimulate the industry, meaning spirits became much cheaper. Gin, in particular, rapidly gained in popularity and by the 1750s 19m gallons of it were being drunk each year. Women, who had historically been the informal controllers of Britain’s drinking culture, holding the fort while their husbands drank themselves under the table, started drinking it too.

For the first time, binge drinking was seen as a problem that required tough government intervention. A series of Gin Acts attempted to control the trade. Gin consumption had sky-rocketed, but Hogarth’s famous 1751 etchings Gin Lane and Beer Street, which depict the crisis, are telling. The chaotic Gin Street shows a drunken and half-naked woman in an impoverished district of London accidentally dropping her screaming child over the edge of a staircase, while the more genteel Beer Street shows couples quietly going about their business and, mostly, men happily drinking from tankards as they pause for a rest from work. Clearly, there are gendered and class aspects here. Women’s newfound thirst for alcohol was seen as causing them to fail in their maternal duties and to behave in ways unfeminine and undignified.

The same concern is seen in the 19th century, when anti-drinking campaigns focused on mothers and the effect of alcohol on the unborn child; in the 1920s, when “modern” girls were chastised for imitating men and shunning domestic duties in favour of social drinking; and today, when the media focuses on the “shameful” behaviour of drunken young women, though it is men and the middle-aged who drink more and whose health is more likely to suffer from it. In the US, too, there is a renewed focus in some states on reducing and controlling drinking among women specifically through information campaigns and healthcare advice, overlooking the men who are at greater risk. As Suzanne Moore points out eloquently in The Guardian, the class dimension also remains.

Binge-drinking is a problem. In order to tackle it effectively, we need to be clear about what the problem is—the health and social risks associated with heavy drinking—and where it lies, rather than wasting our attention on “unfeminine” women and their “indecently” short skirts.

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