SHUT UP ABOUT WOMEN’S DRINKING: Being a woman sucks, but so does prescriptive feminism

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In August of 2016, a Medium article on women’s alcohol consumption went viral: “Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink.” In it, Kristi Coulter explains that “to be a modern, urbane woman means to be a serious drinker.” Crucially, Coulter argues, women drink more now because they are overwhelmed by the sexism they face at work and at home.

Before women could “have it all,” they weren’t necessarily required to be “on” all the time. While the old days are far from enviable, women like Coulter work long hours in offices where many men don’t believe sexism exists anymore. Then they come home and spend a disproportionate amount of time tending to the house or the children. They are, Coulter writes, “24-hour women.”

Of course, drinking has also become more socially acceptable for women than it once was. Coulter doesn’t think the “right to get trashed,” or women’s tendency to exert that right, is very positive. She equates it with “the right to be as useless [as men].”

The real problem, as Coulter sees it, is that women’s binge-drinking may mollify their particular anger about structural inequities. In this way, alcohol may hinder feminist progress:

I round up some girlfriends and we spend hundreds of dollars in a hipster bar, drinking rye Manhattans and eating tapas and talking about the latest crappy, non-gender-blind things that have happened to us in meetings and on business trips and at performance review time. They toast me for taking one for the team. And when we are good and numb we Uber home, thinking Look at all we’ve earned! That bar with the twinkly lights. That miniature food. This chauffeured black car. We are tough enough to put up with being ignored and interrupted and underestimated every day and laugh it off together. We’ve made it. This is the good life. Nothing needs to change.

To Coulter, alcohol is the newest opiate for the female masses. She adopts a paternalistic tone in framing women who overdrink as both products of and servants of the patriarchy. As is enumerated below, this attitude echoes anti-Millenial op-eds that aim to “fix” the problems of youth today. Feminists are sometimes particularly guilty of telling other women what they’re doing wrong and what they’re doing right; this kind of reporting is the bread and butter of everydayfeminism.com. But if heavy drinking can impede feminism, so, too, can telling other women what to do with their bodies.

Other writers have worked to refine or rebut Coulter’s argument, though few argue as passionately as she does. Nora Caplan-Bricker points out that while Coulter purports to identify the essential vice of her gender, she is only discussing a small subset of women: young binge-drinkers with deep pockets. Caplan-Bricker writes for Slate:

Not all modern, urbane women are women like Coulter—well-remunerated professionals who like high heels and farmers’ markets and Ubering home from the tapas bar—and even within that subculture, she could surely find some nondrinkers

Surely there are nondrinkers and light drinkers among Coulter’s peers. Still, alcohol is ubiquitous in young professionals’ everyday lives. This demographic is imbibing in high quantities and companies are devising new ways to sell to them. Pervasive in most cities are events that pair alcohol with activities already popular among the “work hard, play hard” crowd, like yoga. Coulter quips: “[K]nives and booze, yoga and booze, 13 mile runs and booze? What’s next to be liquored up: CPR training? Puppy ballet class?”

Research confirms that binge-drinking has increased among young women and men in the past two decades. Women in particular are drinking a lot more in a single sitting than they used to. One study in the American Journal of Public Health found that women’s binge-drinking increased far more than men’s increased during the decade between 2002 and 2012—about seven times more.

Women’s overall rates of consumption haven’t yet caught up with men’s. Men drink an average of six alcoholic beverages a week as compared to women’s two. So when journalists report that women’s drinking is on the rise, the increase is specific to the sort of splurging Coulter describes, and those women who are likely to splurge.

So, we know the drinking part of Coulter’s story is true. But is sexism really the reason women binge-drink?

Women’s increasing participation in the workforce may offer an easier, though not unrelated, explanation for their alcohol intake. Executives have always made connections and sealed deals while drinking. Women looking to ascend the professional ladder may have little choice but to join in on the schmoozing. Olga Khazan of Self interviewed women about the issue in 2015:

“If I want to be treated as an equal, I need to act like an equal to the men in my industry,” says Anne S., 34, founder of a tech startup, who lives in Washington, D.C. “And so when they talk about craft beer or want to go out and have some whiskey, I might not say yes every time, but I’m not going to say no every time.”

Alcohol is a central part of many workplace cultures. Silicon Valley startups seem to boast even more social hours and free in-office alcohol sources than other companies. Khazan reports, “drinking is hard to avoid in the startup scene, where nearly every demo session seems to end with programmers pounding craft beers.” The party-like atmosphere may fall out of the technology industry’s general cult of coolness.

Go-getters’ binge-drinking could result from an increasingly seamless integration of work and the rest of life—that is, what little remains of it. Office perks like beer taps and catered lunches are not just good fun. They’re clever tools for squeezing more labor hours out of employees. Since Google’s notorious Mountain View campus offers fine dining, top-notch fitness centers, hair cuts, laundry services, and more, employees may find few reasons to go home.

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Creative Commons License – PHOTO CREDIT: a4gpa

Creative Commons License – PHOTO CREDIT: TOM ROELEVELD

A mutually reinforcing relationship develops between worker productivity and booze at such high-value, fast-paced businesses. Surveys show that the more hours people work per week, the more likely they are to drink heavily. One study found that those who work 49 hours or more per week are 12 percent more likely to drink in a “risky” way than those who work 35 to 40 hours per week. Research also shows that higher-income professionals drink significantly more than people with lower incomes. Women who make $60,000 per year or more, for example, drink 24 percent more than those who make between $40,000 and $60,000 a year. While it’s tempting to assume high-earners drink more simply because they can afford to, most research has indicated otherwise.

Caplan-Brickler believes women’s drinking habits fall out of this workaholism:

[A]s the most overworked and overstressed denizens of the developed world, trapped in a cycle of expectations that requires us to take less vacation with every passing year, Americans have resorted to making our free-time feel artificially longer and more liberating, and to pretending that Monday is farther away than we, sadly, know it to be. In lieu of a time-turner, we drink.

But do generalizations about the difficulties of American employment tell the whole story? Maybe not. Yes, women’s binge-drinking has increased. Yes, opportunists are taking advantage of this phenomenon by pairing booze with everything else wealthy young adults enjoy. The real question is: why do people care so much?

Coulter’s article is part of a recent wave of public interest in women’s alcohol use. It comes on the heels of other high-traction stories dealing with women’s binge-drinking, from journalist Sarah Hepola’s addiction memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, to comedian Amy Schumer’s movie, Trainwreck. Cultural commentators, comics, and the general public alike are showing a rabid interest in women’s drinking habits. But why?

To answer this question, one could turn to a different generalization about what drives people to drink heavily, and to complaints commonly leveled at Millienials (Coulter’s ilk). As Coulter concedes, heavy alcohol use is not solely a necessity for the modern woman. Rather, it’s a necessity for anyone who’s looking to mediate emotionally challenging experiences. After she quits drinking, she starts feeling more:

It is so nice on this side of the pool, where the book I’m reading is a letdown and my legs look too white and the ice has long since melted in my glass and work is hard and there’s still no good way to be a girl and I don’t know what to do with my life and I have to actually deal with all of that.

This passage cuts a bit closer to what Coulter is so mad about, and only one of those things is the patriarchy. Sarah Hepola, a now-recovering alcoholic, writes of a similar issue in Blackout:

Addiction was the inverse of honest work. It was everything, right now. I drank away nervousness, I drank away boredom, and I needed to build a new tolerance. Yes to discomfort, yes to frustration, yes to failure, because it meant I was getting stronger. I refused to be the person who only played games she could win.

Hepola’s account is more broadly sympathetic than Coulter’s in that she names individual immaturity as the root-cause of her addiction, rather than structural inequities. In her memoir, Hepola recounts that she used to get drinks with the boys from her newspaper after work, and this routine fed her addiction. But she still frames her struggles with alcohol in terms of self-harm and self-actualization.

Taken together, Coulter’s and Hepola’s perspectives provide one way of understanding the current obsession with women’s consumption. It is alarming when adults feel they must drink away everyday negative feelings: boredom, discomfort, frustration. Even, perhaps, righteous anger. People who lead more difficult lives, for structural and personal reasons, must learn to process more of these feelings—even while they fight sexism, racism, etc. first-hand.

Coulter points to the specific need of her female colleagues to “dissolve the day” off of them, but what she may actually be calling out is her peers’ refusal to grow up. Having a few drinks a week to de-stress isn’t the same as always turning to alcohol when under duress. Many cultural critics have claimed that this inability to cope with basic setbacks is the hallmark of the Millenial generation.

In this light, Coulter’s article may be understood as yet another anti-Millenial think piece, though she is part of this demographic herself. When Coulter asks, “Is there nothing so inherently absorbing or high-stakes or pleasurable that we won’t try to alter our natural response to it?” she sounds strikingly like the NYT’s Maureen Dowd. What she’s really asking, with an admitted hint of (anti-feminist) condescension, is: “What’s wrong with these women?”

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Hating on Millienials is trendy, so the attitude she adopts towards her still-imbibing peers undoubtedly boosted the article’s performance on social media platforms. After all, it is always en mode to say that the latest generation of adults falls shockingly short of the prior. Many journalists have bemoaned that we’ve forgotten how to be truly alone or truly together because we are always tethered to our iPhones. In prior decades, the caterwauling concern was over televisions in every family’s living room. Then, parents and journalists were crying, “What will become of dinner conversation once the talking box has taken over?”

These op-eds all boil down to the notion that what’s new is threatening to existing norms: evolving technologies, growing consumer industries, the differing social and political beliefs of the young. What’s ultimately “best” is usually determined by taking a longer view of history.

Coulter attributes her paternalistic attitude toward her contemporaries to sobriety, stating, “Newly sober women have a lot of wonderful qualities, but lack of judginess is not one of them.” Still, her stance can be interpreted as, “I am doing feminism right, and you are doing feminism wrong.” She explains:

I start to get angry at women, too. Not for being born wrong, or for failing to dismantle a thousand years of patriarchy on my personal timetable. And not for enjoying a glass of wine, alone or with their girlfriends — cheers to that, if you can stop at one or two. (I could, until I couldn’t.) But for being so easily mollified by overdrinking.

Surely plenty of feminist icons overindulge sometimes and complete their activist work, too. Many artists across the decades have managed it; after all, the right to get wasted comes free to most.

But is this right nothing more than a right to be useless, or can drinking be a feminist act? Is imbibing alcohol at the same time as being a woman ever, in and of itself, an act of rebellion? These questions are difficult to answer, especially because women’s drinking is often mentioned alongside sex.

Controversy over the relationship between women’s drinking habits, sexual consent, and rape has been raging in the blogosphere, on university campuses, and among lawmakers. Many questions arise, including: What we should we, and shouldn’t we, advise women to do concerning alcohol? How do our feelings about women’s consumption relate to the cultural messages men receive in a world more built for them?

Even though Coulter never mentions it in her piece, the ongoing public discussions around sex and rape proffer another reason it struck a nerve. Her article seems to ask, “What’s so high-stakes about female intoxication?” And the world responds: everything.

News outlets have been following the Brock Turner rape case as it continues to unfold. In reaction to this hubbub, Stanford University briefly updated its health website with advice targeting women who drink on campus, warning that they “may be perceived to be more sexually available than they may actually be.” The article continued:

Individuals who are even a little intoxicated are more likely to be victimized than those who are not drinking. Other research studies have shown that men who think they have been drinking alcohol…feel sexually aroused and are more responsive to erotic stimuli, including rape scenarios.

The website was quickly updated to replace this text with an apology, calling the previous advice “outdated and insensitive.” But a flurry of op-eds continue to ruminate on the interconnectedness between alcohol and sexual assault, and whether alcohol should be a part of the discussion at all. One viral meme framed focusing on changing women’s behavior to prevent rape as equivalent to telling women, “Make sure he rapes the other girl.

Specific, implementable recommendation about how to best make women safer is hard to come by. However, Coulter’s article reads as yet another way of telling women to sober up, lest they be caught unawares in the grip of the patriarchy. Only her words have been reshared by Quartz and feminist bloggers across the internet, and they are potentially more dangerous for it. Coulter’s stance is incompatible with a “feminism of choice,” in which women are empowered to and empowered by their own choices, whatever they may be. (The dominant criticism of this brand of feminism is that women’s actions are constrained by sexist institutions and cultural expectations.)

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Creative Commons License – PHOTO CREDIT: TOM ROELEVELD

Historically, men’s drinking symbolized “their freedom to disregard responsibilities at work or at home.” In other words, men’s use of alcohol was a resounding middle finger. It was the privilege to say, “no.” “No, I’d rather take a three-hour lunch and drink martinis than return to work.” “No, I’d rather go out with the boys after work than see my children to bed.”

Perhaps this right—or privilege—to say “no” is similarly important to some women. Young urbanites today are caught in a miasma of suggestions as to how they should and shouldn’t act in order to be good feminists. Not every prescription can be a good one.

Alcohol will always be a symbol of this more “primitive and hostile” side of one’s self. That side may be more apt to complain about one’s lot in life than to change it, as Coulter suggests. But drunken complaints still surface what our conscious minds may otherwise suppress: deep-seated impulses and beliefs, which reflect the broader ideological wars of our times. Perhaps Coulter’s views on alcohol work best to reveal how embattled women living in a patriarchy are about their “chosen” lifestyles.

Most women will gladly consent to being overworked if it means they’ve “made it,” even though they may have to drink away their sorrows at the end of the day. But they are largely at a loss as to how to behave when it comes to sex. Drunk women in a patriarchy must often confront the fact that men and women are taught to approach sex differently. To be a woman, to know this, and to drink a lot anyway, is an act of defiance—for better and for worse.

Hepola writes in Blackout:

In my life, alcohol often made the issue of consent very murky. More like an ink spill and nothing close to a clear line.

I knew why the women writing on these issues didn’t want to acknowledge gray zones; gray zones were what the other side pounced on to gain ground. But I kept longing for a secret conversation, away from the pitchforks of the Internet, about how hard it was to match the clarity of political talking points to the complexity of life lived at last call. […]  

I drank to drown [the nuances], because I wanted the bravado of a sexually liberated woman. I wanted the same freedom from internal conflict my male friends seemed to enjoy. So I drank myself to a place where I didn’t care, but I woke up a person who cared enormously. Many yeses on Friday nights would have been nos on Saturday morning. My consent battle was in me.

Coulter is wrong; overdrinking is not dangerous to the feminist movement. Alcohol is only what it always was: a substance that may surface societal ills in individual actors.

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