Why men are anxious about women drinking

Why men are anxious about women drinking

A common strand runs through different factors behind this during different periods of history.


In a survey of alcohol cultures – which embody the ways alcohol is perceived, valued, and consumed – in many regions over hundreds and thousands of years, the one constant that appears to be present, regardless of time and place, is that alcohol was a highly contested commodity. On one hand, it was represented as good – as a beverage sometimes given by a god and often associated positively with religion, and as a beverage that had the potential to be healthy and therapeutic and support sociability and community at all levels. On the other hand, alcohol had the potential to cause individual and social calamities expressed through immorality, impiety, social disruption, poor physical and mental health, and crime.

How these various potentials were realised depended on how alcohol was consumed, and perhaps the most important dimension of the history of alcohol lies in the persistent attempts of authorities to define the point at which moderate and therefore safe drinking crossed over to the excessive and dangerous. In many cases, the point was defined only after the fact, when a drinker had passed it and become intoxicated.

Excessive drinking was manifested in speech, physical coordination, and behaviors that were associated with intoxication. At other times, specific maximum volumes have been defined, as public health authorities in many countries now offer guidelines on maximum amounts of alcohol per day. In some cases, authorities have implemented prohibition policies that were universal, as in the case of Muslims and Mormons, or targeted at particular populations, such as indigenous peoples in colonised societies.

These various policies were based on prevailing assessments of the potentials of alcohol for good and bad.

Prohibition policies were and are based on the assumption that the dangers presented by those who misuse alcohol outweigh any rights that other consumers might feel they have to be able to consume alcohol. Less rigorous regulatory policies seek to allow people to consume alcohol and derive personal or social benefits from it while trying to mitigate its dangers by restricting access to alcohol by age, gender, or ethnicity and by limiting the occasions on which it may be purchased or consumed.

The general anxieties about alcohol that we have seen expressed in contexts as diverse as ancient Mesopotamia and the British colonies in Africa, or in modern France and nineteenth-century America, were fundamentally broad-based anxieties about social order: if consuming alcohol could lead individuals to lose control of their speech and bodies, then the mass consumption of alcohol could result in loss of discipline in the social body more broadly. These anxieties appear in almost all cultures, but we should be attuned to the variations that exist within persistent themes.

One common anxiety is evident in male attitudes toward women’s drinking.

Historically, men have been anxious about women’s drinking, generally because they believed that women were sexually less restrained or inhibited under the influence of alcohol. This is a reasonable enough assumption, as one of the effects of alcohol is to lower inhibitions of all kinds.

But even though women’s bodies absorb and metabolise alcohol at a different rate from men’s, alcohol does not discriminate between genders in its effects. All things being equal, women are no more given than men to risky behaviour, sexual or otherwise, under the influence of alcohol. (It could be argued that cultural influences more often militated against women taking as many sexual risks as men.)

Opposition by drinking men to women’s drinking is, at base, an expression of the double standard of sexual morality.

Yet although it appears to be a historical constant, male anxiety about the consumption of alcohol by women took different forms at different times. In ancient Rome, the stress was on the consumption of wine by married women, quite likely because of fear than an intoxicated wife would commit adultery and conceive a child that her husband might unknowingly raise as his own. It is notable that the penalties for drinking by a woman – at some times death, at other times divorce – were the same as those imposed on women who committed adultery.

In early eighteenth-century England, in contrast, the panic about gin consumption focused on women as mothers rather than as wives. As we have seen, gin was known as Mother Gin and Mother’s Folly, and Hogarth’s famous print Gin Lane depicted a nursing mother as its focal image. Can it be a coincidence that fertility and population growth were among the great concerns of the eighteenth century and that a number of contemporary pamphlets emphasised the harmful effects of gin on children and the birthrate?

A somewhat different emphasis can be located in the anxiety over drinking by young women during and immediately after the First World War.

It was widely noted that during the war, women benefiting from new work opportunities and increased incomes began to frequent public houses. This behaviour, which until that time was largely associated with men, coincided with changes in women’s clothing and hairstyles that were considered masculine. At the end of the war, there were various attempts to refeminise women, not least by firing them from many of the industrial jobs they had performed so as to make room for demobilized soldiers.

Anxiety about women’s drinking in this period reflected a need to reestablish the gender boundaries that were thought to have been eroded by wartime conditions. In these and other cases, the fundamental objection was to the consumption of alcohol by women.

But the precise formulation of the objection in each period reflected broader cultural anxieties about some aspect of the gendered order that was perceived as threatened by alcohol consumption by women. Although the evidence is patchy and often poor… it seems that where women were permitted to consume alcohol, they generally consumed less than their male counterparts, no matter which period, region, or class we look at.

That is certainly true today, when many more women than men describe themselves as abstainers: 40 percent of women vs 30 percent of men in the United States; 25 percent vs 10 percent in Italy; and 45 percent vs 13 percent in China.

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