Gender representations are a determining factor in women’s greater vulnerability to addiction
With the exception of eating disorders, the balance is clearly in favour of men when it comes to the prevalence of addictive behaviours.
However, research shows that while women are much less likely to use alcohol or other drugs or to be engaged in compulsive gambling, they are more likely to develop problematic use, dependence or other serious substance-related problems.
This may be linked to the presence of mood disorders and diagnoses of anxiety and depression prior to addiction in women, whereas men develop these problems as a result of their substance use. As Grégory Lambrette, psychologist and psychotherapist, points out:
“While men take drugs and then develop associated disorders, women seem more predisposed to developing problems that lead to addiction as part of a self-medication process “.
However, there is one element that plays a major role in the vulnerability of women with substance use problems, and which contributes to reinforcing their stigmatization: gender representations. Like all human behaviour, addictive behaviour is influenced by these representations. But what is ‘gender’? It’s a concept that distinguishes between what corresponds to nature (biological sex) and what depends on culture and sexual identity.
The woman who takes care
Such gender representations or stereotypes assign a number of different functions, tasks and skills to people starting at birth, depending on whether they are male or female. This assignment (or labelling) encompasses all the cultural behaviours perceived as appropriate to a person’s sex, and fuels the expectations, choices, beliefs and preferences that accompany them throughout their lives. Of course, the transgressive and risk-taking roles (two fundamental aspects of addictive behaviour) are an integral part of this social labelling.
Even nowadays, women are judged on their ability to take care of their children, their husbands, their bodies, their faces and of other people in general. In this context, drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs is seen as incompatible with femininity as we see it.
Women who use drugs or drink ‘too much’ are seen as bad mothers, bad wives and, generally speaking, incompetent people. For society, women who use drugs are not “real women”, but fallen women in the truest, almost biblical sense of the word.
Social representations and expectations
Physiologically speaking, men and women are not equal when it comes to substance use. Various studies show that for the same amount of alcohol use, age and weight, blood alcohol levels are higher in women than in men. Nor are they equal in terms of social representations and expectations: while men use substances more frequently than women, women are more likely to be perceived as excessive users.
Men and women are not equal in terms of social representation and expectations: although men use substances more frequently than women, the perception of excessive use is more common among women.
In other words, when it comes to addiction, social tolerance is greater for men than for women, and a difference in treatment is perceived at all levels of society. As the online magazine Pitchfork points out, some media outlets, for example, used to portray Kurt Cobain and his likes as tortured geniuses, while referring to Amy Winehouse as a semi-demented alcoholic, even though they both had a similar addiction problem. Double standards.
Women who struggle with addiction tend to perpetuate these gender representations. The more difficulties they have, the more they see themselves as ‘bad’, to the point of developing feelings of guilt and shame, and hiding their consumption. Lastly, even healthcare professionals are not immune: unless they have received specific training, many find it difficult to discuss substance use issues with their female patients without taking a moral high ground; similarly, they find it harder to accept behaviour deemed excessive when it comes from a woman.
Lastly, one cannot help but mention the particular attention paid to women who use alcohol or other drugs when they are pregnant or of childbearing age, i.e. situations where these women are perceived as a potential danger to their child.
All healthcare professionals should be able to provide women presenting addictive behaviours with efficient care. They should all be trained on the issue of gender representations and their implications so that they can recognize them and address them in a manner that is appropriate.
Lastly, even if they have received appropriate training, addiction professionals can also be faced with complex situations that can put them in difficulty, which is why they should not hesitate to share with partner organizations or institutions with a view to setting up specific support initiatives for women whose life histories can be traumatic.