Many of us enjoy a drink at the end of a busy day. But for some, it’s not something they need on their own, but something they need to have for the evening.
While alcohol reduction campaigns are asking us to examine our relationship with alcohol, highlighting the role it can play in causing violence and disease, our research has shown that many Australian women view alcohol differently. Many do not see only harm in alcohol and have a complex of reasons for their relationship with alcohol.
We conducted 50 interviews with middle-aged women (aged 45-64) from a range of social classes living in South Australia. All women had a relationship with alcohol, but the nature of the relationship did vary according to their social class.
Our research, published in the journal Health Promotion International, suggests that the public health problem lies in the circumstances that shape women’s lives and lead to relationships with alcohol.
Alcohol harm reduction messages in public health need to be more nuanced and tailored to women’s level of disadvantage and what support they can access. A message that resonates with middle-class women will not necessarily resonate with working-class women.
Here are some of the main themes that emerged from our research.
For many middle-aged women, alcohol makes life better – or at least comfortable
All the women we spoke to believed that drinking alcohol reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation. They didn’t just drink alcohol, they had a “relationship” with alcohol.
Women often have many competing responsibilities (work, caregiving, domestic responsibilities). Many described feeling invisible and unrecognized.
One middle-class woman pointed out that alcohol can be “depressing.” Another said:
[I drink] just on your own; I don’t care. I don’t need to be sociable and I don’t necessarily drink when I’m out […] alcohol has always played a fairly large role.
However, for working-class women, alcohol can be a reliable support in the absence of anything else. As one woman said:
Loneliness is definitely a factor for me and I think it is for many women. And I think that once you start drinking, it becomes a habit […] I wish more was done in terms of loneliness because I think it’s a real thing.
Another woman noted:
I didn’t have anything – so in my life I was actually always, like, a glass of wine.
The most privileged women drank to celebrate their achievements and enjoy life in a social network of similar women. Many middle-class women described drinking as a long-standing part of their lives—drinking for recreation, empowerment, or because they felt they deserved a reward. As one said:
It seems the ladies our age, all the ones I hang out with, are the same as me. They say, “Wow, guilt.” […] I don’t need, don’t need to drink. I just choose.
Many described drinking as socially acceptable, normal, or even “expected” of them. One middle-class woman described ‘girls’ nights’ where drinking is ‘what I have to do’.
But less privileged women described drinking, often alone, to make a difficult and isolated life more livable. As one said:
It’s a relief, even for a couple of hours, to pick it up, thinking, “Where the hell am I going to get AUD 1,000?” OK, give me a drink. Calm down. Think about it. To me, to take women away from that, you’re effectively taking away their autonomy.
Many of the working-class women we interviewed saw alcohol as a reliable friend that allowed them to cope with a truly difficult and sometimes unbearable life. One remarked:
How is that not positive? […] I’m not going to give up on something that makes my life so much better.
“Growing up with alcohol” can be hard to do
All women have a complex of reasons for drinking alcohol, because of which it can be difficult to “break up” with alcohol.
Middle-class women wanted to change their drinking habits and sometimes regretted drinking by taking measures to moderate their drinking. But many working-class women felt unable to control their consumption when they already felt so constrained by life’s hardships and saw alcohol as the only way to cope.
Some working-class women felt punished when their drinking was questioned because alcohol served as a way to regain control.
Tips for public health messages
A salacious health message that tells women, “Don’t drink, it’s bad for you,” doesn’t address the structural reasons why women drink in the first place – finding connection for middle-class women and combating isolation and hardship for women from the working class.
The positive and negative roles that alcohol plays in women’s lives would need to be reversed if there were less alcohol. Our research shows that society needs to pay more attention to the wider systemic issues that underlie women’s drinking, particularly the general lack of support for women in midlife. This is especially true for working-class women who lack the resources to access support and appropriate care.
Getting the support you need to reduce your drinking can take a lot of resources (including what we have, who and what we know). And many working-class women will lose what they see as an important (and often only) coping mechanism.
The public health challenge is to make reducing alcohol consumption or becoming “sober curious” a reasonable, affordable and feasible option for all women.
Belinda Lunny is a PhD student in Public Health at the Australian University of Torrens. Kristen Foley is a PhD student at the University of Torrance, Australia. Paul Ward, Professor of Public Health at the University of Torrens, Australia. This article was originally published in The Conversation