Is alcohol really a feminist issue?

The hysteria over women and alcohol is flawed feminism, argues Victoria Dutchman-Smith. Women don't need to be protected from equality - they should be free to make their own choices, just like men.

Victoria Dutchman-Smith, 18 September 2004

Writing in The Independent a couple of years ago, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown pointed out that "cirrhosis of the liver now kills more women than cervical cancer"[1] This may or may not be bad news - it could just mean that deaths from cervical cancer have gone down, but in Statistics Against Women Land, we'll never know. What we can all agree on is that cirrhosis is often preventable, and since excessive drinking is a likely cause, we should look at why some women drink too much. Is it because they like the taste? Because it helps them to relax? Or is it, as Alibhai-Brown would have it, because such women "believe feminism was about the right to behave as wickedly as men"?

The latter view is the popular one to take these days. In June this year, the self-proclaimed feminist academic Angela McRobbie wrote in The Guardian that "hard-drinking culture... marks the corrosion of feminist values".[2] Apparently, women are all drinking too much because they think it makes them equal to men, but it doesn't. They're vomiting in the gutter while true equality passes them by. They're matching men, drink for drink, oblivious to the fact that their bodies can't handle it. The silly mares! That's what happens if you give 'em an inch...

Equal rights are not conditional upon such rights being used responsibly.

Now, call me a crazy radical, but I believe that feminism, amongst other things, was about the right of women to behave as wickedly (or as virtuously) as men. It's what we call equality, and it's non-negotiable. The rewarding of equal rights is not conditional upon such rights being used responsibly. All-round benefit is not the standard, nor should it be. Equality is an absolute good in its own right. Feminism has allowed women to have more money of their own, to spend it on whatever they like, and to socialise outside the home without the need to be ladylike at all times. Feminism has allowed women to adopt what were once typically male vices, but the problem is not with feminism - it is with the prevailing standards for how liberated people should behave, regardless of gender. Liberation can elevate and it can denigrate, but instead of questioning equality, we must question what it is that we are equal to. If we claim that equality is less important in cases where people could lose out by being equal, then we destroy the principle that all people are equal at all times. It's a terrible precedent to set.

Such a precedent leads people such as Mike Walker, director of the Employer's Association for local government, to argue that women should not ask for equal pay because instead of increasing their pay, "you can reduce the men's pay down to the women's pay".[3] Walker believes women must choose between being discriminated against and everyone being underpaid, just as Alibhai-Brown believes they must choose between being meeting different behavioural standards to men and dying of cirrhosis. There is no such choice. If men's pay is downgraded, there can be equality, and if women have been being paid too little in absolute as well as in comparative terms, both men and women can campaign together for a pay rise. If men and women are both able to drink in public, there can be equality, and if the amount they drink is too much, both can work together to undermine the prevailing drinking culture instead of undermining the prevailing gender equality. Well-being and equality are not mutually exclusive; we can indeed "have it all".

If the amount people drink is too much, both genders can work together on the problem

One fact that is often overlooked is that men are still more likely than women to drink to excess, despite the fact that they are allowed 21 units per week, compared to 14 for women.[4] It is therefore particularly bizarre that binge drinking is now seen as a female problem, with "so-called "feminists", The Daily Mail, The Guardian and Tonight with Trevor McDonald all united in their hysteria. A minority of breast cancer sufferers are male, yet we would find it ridiculous if breast cancer were portrayed mostly as a male disease. The media obsession with women who binge-drink represents not a medical panic, but a moral one.

One revealing example of this appeared in the Guardian money supplement on 27 March this year.[5] The article examined the ways in which insurance companies deal with claims in which alcohol abuse has been a contributory factor. It had nothing to do with gender politics, but the caption to the accompanying picture pointed out that increasing numbers of binge-drinkers were female. This is true, but rather irrelevant, particularly as the picture featured a man lying on the pavement, grinning, and four giggling women walking past him. If anyone in that picture had been binge-drinking, I'd guess it was the man. But never mind - the women were out on the town! Without a chaperone! Wearing short skirts! Having fun! We can't possibly allow for that sort of behaviour, so if it's not politically correct to condemn them for anything else, let's say it was "drinking". It even makes it look like we care. Don't give them money to spend on Bacardi Breezers - it's for their own good, you see.

Of course, there are differences between pseudo-feminist and sexist approaches to female binge-drinking, even if the condemnation is equally unjust. Sexists believe nice women just shouldn't be drinking; pseudo-feminists believe that women are above all this drinking malarkey, whereas men aren't. McRobbie points to "a recent study" which "showed that binge drinking is enjoyed by young women because, only when they are 'out of it', can they overcome the anxieties of not having the perfect body". Well, that's possible, but if so, it just proves two things: people drink to overcome anxieties, and women suffer from anxiety because they are under undue pressure to have the perfect body.

However laddish and manly it may be, excessive drinking is bad for men, too.

I don't see a problem with feminism here, but I do see a problem with how we cope with anxiety and what causes it. McRobbie connects women's drinking to women's problems, yet she never asks why men drink and what might be causing them anxiety. She is under no obligation to care, but if she wants to make drinking a feminist issue, such questions must be asked otherwise no gender-based comparison can be made. She accepts that drinking is a male birthright, observing that such freedoms as being drunk and disorderly "have long been enjoyed by young males", even adding that "few would argue for a return to the days when women were expected to embody higher standards in order to guard their reputations". Alas, if the latter were true, her comments about "the corrosion of feminist values" would never have seen the light of day.

McRobbie understands that drinking to excess is unhealthy, yet her offhand dismissal of the excessive drinking of young males suggests that to her, this is not the most important thing at stake - the most important thing is reputation and men needn't worry about that too much. Yet men are not immortals; it is pathetic and ironic that the only people who try to make political capital out of the lower life expectancy of men are the so-called "men's rights" campaigners, who, like McRobbie, have no interest in reforming male behaviour, but wish to make sure that women cannot follow. Unlike McRobbie, however, such campaigners also wish to show that the situation is an instance of bias against men ("We die first! Women don't and that's not fair! Feminism is to blame! If women died first, feminism would be to blame! Or something!"[6]). Both "feminists" and anti-feminists would never question a man's right to drink himself into an early grave. I would, though. However laddish and manly it may be, excessive drinking is bad for men, too. I'm sorry if this makes me an evil feminist who is out to emasculate men by taking their lager away. It's just true. Biology is destiny and all that.

Maybe the justification for the attitudes of women such as McRobbie and Alibhai-Brown is that deep down, men know what they're doing. Men are rational and therefore life-threatening behaviour must have been rationalised beforehand. You know men and their statistical skills - they've no doubt added up hours drunk versus hours sober, worked out how many years on average alcoholism takes off your life, deducted average effect from potential future hours alive overall, compared quality of life over quantity etc. Nick Hornby's probably written a book on it. Women, on the other hand, they haven't a clue! Staggering off to A&E in their Jimmy Choos! What are they like? Like children, apparently. They shouldn't have money and freedom because they don't know how to use them.

There is an ongoing discomfort with women being adults and doing adult things.

The outrage over women's drinking habits represents an ongoing discomfort with women being adults and doing adult things. This discomfort masquerades as a concern for women's health and well-being. Alibhai-Brown and McRobbie reduce feminist activism to whatever may benefit passive women within a permanent patriarchal framework, even though this tramples over what benefits women overall, which is to be regarded as fully grown human beings. Taking this to its logical extreme, one may well ask why, if children are still to be protected from sex and booze, have we allowed feminism to deny women this protected china doll status? Because women grow up and think and choose, and because women get drunk, enjoy being drunk and enjoy good sex. Children need protecting from themselves and others, but grown women should not be waiting for a surreptitious sherry under the stairs and a quickie only when their more experienced husband is in the mood. Frankly, there's more to life, especially given the chances of cirrhosis and cervical cancer getting you in the end.

Women need protecting from sexism because a disproportionate amount of power is currently in the hands of people who need not view women as human beings. Women do not need protecting from liberation because liberation allows them to think, breathe and behave like the human beings they are.

In a recent BBC4 documentary, a man called Mike Phillips questioned the values of sixties sexual liberation because the pill made women "not free, just more available".[7] This is an utterly ridiculous, not to say dehumanising, view to have of women. Unless Mr Phillips is talking about rape (in which case, references to availability are even more offensive), the pill did not make women "more available" to men. It made consenting women more able to have sex with men without worrying about the consequences (they may have had sex for the wrong reasons, but that is an issue of their own self-worth, which feminists have tried to address by showing that women are people who can say no, too).

Whether or not women use contraception, they can enjoy sex, just as men enjoy sex and just as men and women enjoy alcohol. Female sexual dysfunction is not so widespread as to put a question mark over every woman's choice to sleep with a man; most women can, and do, experience orgasms. But then, who are we to know what's going on in our own bodies? Maybe we don't really like sex. Maybe being happy and not pregnant is unnatural. Maybe we need to be reminded we're still only women. We're not free, just "more available". And everything we do revolves around men. We drink because men do. We have sex because men ask us to. We have parts of our bodies that respond to sexual stimulation and intoxicants but we cannot possibly be acting in accordance with them. It all depends upon men, and our own passivity. To some people, nothing - intoxication, pleasure, protest - will ever be enough to show that we have our own desires and can think for ourselves.

Everything we do is seen to revolve around men.

This infantilisation of women and their relationship with their own bodies extends into areas such as reproductive rights. On the one hand, pro-choicers such as myself are frequently accused of being dishonest about the reality of the foetus, even though, by and large, we're not (we accept that foetuses are human, alive and cute, we just don't think unhappily pregnant women should be forced to make the massive psychological and physical sacrifice of being an unwilling incubator for the human, alive and cute). On the other hand, anti-choice organisations are incredibly dishonest about the reality of the rational, decision-making woman. For instance, while the Pro-Life Alliance is quick to condemn politicians for "refusing to defend and proclaim the right to life", they view the women who choose to have abortions not as murderers, but as victims whose "dignity and integrity" has being violated, "leaving a trail of anger, guilt, resentment, depression and loss of self-respect".[8]

Rather than address the fundamental issue of whether these women have a right to put their needs first where the independent status of their own bodies is concerned, the Pro-Life Alliance finds it easy to cast these women as confused children who mistakenly believe they're free but are actually giving in to "that male irresponsibility which feminists rightly condemn". As a feminist, I would at least respect the right of the Pro-Life Alliance to criticise women who have abortions on the basis that those who oppose abortion see the foetus as the woman's equal whereas I don't. They won't do this because they don't need to in the current climate. I have feminist male friends who are uneasy about joining pro-choice groups lest their contribution be used against the cause, with anti-abortion groups exploiting them as examples of evil, rational men out to force unthinking, helpless little women into ending much-wanted pregnancies. Yet women do choose to have abortions, just as they choose to drink and to have sex. That's because every woman has a sense of herself as an independent person, just as she also has alcohol receptors and a clitoris. Women are not naturally muddled and inconsequent, and they will only do everything men tell them to do if they are coerced into it. Such coercion will only come about, however, if we accept the line that there should be no equality for women because we just can't handle it, therefore it'd be better if all our choices were taken away from us. Let's never accept that.

Women are drinking for the same reasons that men are

Obviously, whatever our beliefs, and however much our choices are our own, each of us only gets one body and should endeavour not to abuse it. The best way to encourage people to look after their bodies is not, however, to tell them lies. Women will not stop drinking simply because we accuse them of misunderstanding feminism by trying to keep up with the boys. Women will carry on drinking because they are doing it for the same reasons that men are: to relax, and to get drunk. Even if we are too lazy to argue the case for finding new ways to unwind, we are not going to get very far by patronising people.

I used to be a heavy smoker and many people seemed to think I would stop if only they took the trouble to enlighten me as to the "real" reason for my habit: I was, apparently, trying to look cool, even though smoking just wasn't fashionable any more. This tactic might have worked, had it borne any relationship to the reality of why I was smoking. I smoked first because it helped me to lose weight, then because cigarette breaks became part of my work routine, and finally because I was physically addicted to it. I gave up smoking because I didn't want to die prematurely of cancer or heart disease. "Looking cool" was never a motivating factor in any of the decisions I made regarding smoking, just as feminism is not a motivating factor in any of the decisions I make regarding drinking.

Although restoring a straightjacket of pseudo-legitimacy to "feminist values" is not one of them, I can see plenty of reasons for not drinking to excess: it is unhealthy, expensive, often depressing, and it interferes with a person's ability to think clearly, work efficiently and maintain good social relations. For that reason, I try not to drink excessively, as do most people I know. But I am not perfect, and would not wish to have my choices restricted just so that lifeless perfection could be forced upon me. Sometimes I drink too much and if this means I'm letting down the sisterhood, well, I'm sorry, but I don't see why it should. Any true belief in equality should mean that non-gender-specific behaviour is not gendered in retrospect to fit in with whatever ideology one might wish to exploit. I may be drunk, but I'm not stupid. After several drinks I do not think, "that'll show the patriarchy". I think, "I'd like some chips and is there a quiz machine in here?"

References

  1. www.obv.org.uk/reports/2002/rpt20020812i.html
  2. www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1232749,00.html
  3. society.guardian.co.uk/publicfinances/story/0,,1264571,00.html
  4. "The number of women who binge-drink is indeed on the rise: 15% knock back more than the recommended 14 units a week, up from 12% in 1992. But the percentage of men exceeding their allowance of 21 units stands at 27%, as it has done for a decade." Claire Phipps, www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1142045,00.html
  5. No picture accompanies online edition, so check library archive for said annoying illustration.
  6. A rough but fair characterisation of www.angryharry.com
  7. www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1234324,00.html
  8. www.prolife.org.uk/about/manifesto.htm

About the author

Victoria Dutchman-Smith

Victoria Dutchman-Smith and her male, teetotal partner live next door to a pub. Unable to cope with such political correctness gone mad, bar staff still get the drinks the wrong way round, so she would like to point out that she does not like blackcurrant cordial and never will.

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