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Blame It on the Alcohol: Women and the Stigma of Addiction

“Women can do anything,” is what we hear from a young age; from teachers, parents, and even Hollywood. Anything besides drink or use drugs, that is.

Even though women have more opportunities than ever these days, when it comes to alcohol and drugs; it’s the same old, same old. People still rely on old gender stereotypes when they talk about substance abuse.

According to these stereotypes, a drunk man is the life of the party, but a drunk woman is a hot mess. A man with alcohol or drug problems must be under a lot of stress because of all his responsibilities. A woman with alcohol or drug problems can’t deal with her problems and should be scorned or pitied.
We see this double standard in pop culture. The movie Animal House depicted its male party animals as lovable underdogs, while Amy Schumer refers to her own partying character as a “trainwreck” in the movie of the same name.

There is a real stigma surrounding women who have alcohol and drug problems, and this stigma is one of the many reasons that prevent women from seeking help. Compared to men, women are less likely to enter treatment facilities for their alcohol problems. However, when women do seek treatment, they often tend to visit therapists and primary care doctors.

If women don’t discuss their drug or alcohol problems, they are less likely to find help at a non 12 step rehab center or elsewhere. These programs often don’t involve a 12 step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, ones that often involve a religious undertone. If women don’t seek help, it is damaging for a number of reasons:

  • Women who receive early treatment are often more likely to end their substance abuse before it progresses further.
  • Women who seek help for substance abuse often receive help for related conditions that might be related to their substance abuse, such as depression, anxiety, or eating disorders.
  • Women who do not seek treatment for alcohol or drug problems sometimes try to treat their conditions on their own. Addiction is a complex condition that affects people physically and mentally. Treating it requires the help of trained professionals. People who treat themselves might relapse or even harm themselves.

Why is there a stigma surrounding female substance abuse in the first place? Researchers believe that it might stem from the fact that society considers women to be the nurturing gender, the gender responsible for having babies, the one still largely responsible for raising those babies. Since women are rearing children, many people expect them to have high morals that they can pass along to their kids.

Addiction wreaks havoc with these expectations. Since a lot of people still consider addiction to be a moral failing, rather than a medical issue or one of societal pressure,  women who abuse drugs or alcohol are seen as failing to do their womanly duties. After all, they’re not serving as role models for the next generation. Pregnant women who are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse face even more scorn for supposedly failing future generations. Yet did anyone actually stop to ask them how these addictions even begin?

But wait, there’s more. Did know that slut shaming, or negatively judging a woman for her sexuality, has a role in such stigmatization? It does. Of course it does. There’s a perception that drugs and alcohol abuse makes women more sexually promiscuous, although this perception doesn’t exist for men, in some views, it excuses their behaviors. There’s also the idea that intoxicated women who are the victims of sexual assault are really the ones to blame because of their conditions.

One wonders if such thoughts were behind the decision to release convicted rapist Brock Turner from jail after only serving three months for his crimes. A California judge convicted Turner for three felonies relating to the 2015 rape of an unconscious woman, although Turner and his supporters argued that Turner, too, was intoxicated and was suffering from impaired judgement. It seems that such perspectives once again equate substance abuse with morality, and add the double standard for good measure.

Given the heavy burden of such stigmas, it’s not surprising that many women try to hide their drug or alcohol problems or avoid seeking help at non 12 step rehab centers, or anywhere else. For similar reasons, women with mental illnesses also often try to hide their problems. They don’t want others to see their problems as moral failings or signs of weakness, even though their conditions (like addiction) actually have complex physical and psychological causes.

Other factors might complicate addiction. Some women struggling with their sexualities or gender identities might turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope. To address this, there are inpatient centers and outpatient programs that address the specific treatment needs of members of the LGBTQIAP+ communities.

The medical field has also acknowledged how substance abuse relates to other groups. An increasing number of medical professionals are urging health care providers to acknowledge how racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, poverty, and other factors contribute to substance abuse for African American women and women of other backgrounds. These professionals also suggest that the providers acknowledge the cultural backgrounds of these groups (such as their spirituality) when developing treatments for drug and alcohol abuse.

There are centers and programs that treat just teenage girls, or members of specific religions. Other programs and centers treat senior citizens who suffer from drug and alcohol abuse. There are also non 12 step rehab centers and other regions that treat people in luxurious facilities. On the other hand, government programs might subsidize part or of all of a woman’s treatment for alcohol abuse, so income should not determine whether she seeks treatment or not.

Given that we live in a digital age, there are now different kinds of mental health and addiction care online as well as off. To battle the stigma surrounding mental illness, a number of Internet sites have emerged. Some encourage people to sign pledges and contact their Congressional representatives. Others feature personal essays by people who have struggled with mental illness. These essays put human faces on complex, often-stigmatized conditions.

It appears that there are fewer Internet sites devoted to fighting the stigmas surrounding female substance abuse. Instead, the treatment and sobriety communities appear to be the sources addressing female substance abuse and fighting the stigmas surrounding it.

Women who seek treatment for drug or alcohol abuse can find non 12 step rehab facilities that solely treat women; Coed rehab centers also sometimes have areas or programs devoted exclusively to the care of women. Sobriety organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) also offer women-only meetings.

These female-only centers, programs, and meetings exist, once again, in part because of sex. A significant number of women who struggle with drug or alcohol problems are also the victims of sexual, physical, verbal, or emotional abuse. Single-gender addiction treatment might feel safer to such women.

These treatment options do a good job at publicizing themselves. But we need to create environments where women aren’t afraid to seek such treatments in the first place. Several women have had problems with drugs and alcohol, sought treatment, and have gone to lead successful lives. Many of us know at least one woman like that. Maybe we should highlight their stories online and in different media outlets.

Maybe we should also work to address the perception of addiction in general. Addiction is not a moral failing. It is a condition, a very complex, yet highly treatable condition. If women aren’t afraid to discuss addiction, maybe we can finally eliminate the stigmas and drug dependence once and for all.


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Written by Pam Zuber

Pam Zuber is a writer and editor who writes about emotional wellness, health and fitness, substance abuse, and recovery. You can read more of her work on substance abuse at

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