During my early college years, I became a feminist out of necessity. On a foundation of pain wrought by those teenage years of girlhood, I was ready to believe that something else was possible. To make sense of the world as a newly independent being, without being crippled by fear, meant having to find another way to explain my experience. And there it was: FEMINISM. At last I could challenge my internalized beliefs and feelings that told me I was less valuable than a boy.
My feminism at that time was simply defined: girls and boys are the SAME. I dug the social construction argument and I rallied behind it. I read articles that challenged gender-based assumptions about women’s “natural” state and used them to validate my new understanding of reality: women were just as physically strong as men (when reviewed for exceptions to the rule), women were equally sexually motivated and rewarded, women were just as gifted in mathematics when not shunned by their teachers for being unfeminine, women were not inherently more nurturing than men (especially when cross-culturally reviewed), AH HA!!! There was so much empowerment in this learning and to this day I remain grateful for it.
As my grown-up life developed, I found myself completing a Certificate in Substance Abuse Studies during my Master of Social Work (MSW) training. My passion for women’s studies reignited when exposed to the theory of “Gender Specific Treatment” and the work of Dr. Stephanie Covington and other women like her. I heard something in their approach that many other psychological and developmental theories were missing: recognition that gender matters. Although personal and professional experiences had kept me closely tied to women’s issues and experiences, I assumed feminism was largely behind me. No longer playing at cerebral games to make sense of the world and my place in it, I was moving on up to a J-O-B. Three months after graduation, I landed my “dream job” as a psychotherapist-in-training at an outpatient gender-specific substance abuse treatment program at a large and renowned medical hospital. I completed my training, got licensed as a Clinical Social Worker and Addictions Specialist and spent five years working to help women (specifically: pregnant, parenting, or trying to regain custody of kids) with substance use disorders (and other mental health issues) sort through piles of crap.
In the meantime, I continued to study “Gender Specific/Responsive Treatment” and developed a bit of a specialty. I’ve had the opportunity to consolidate my knowledge and experience into trainings for other medical professionals, and shared these trainings throughout the great state of North Carolina. In the process, I’ve noticed something in my message that has been confusing for me: girls and boys are DIFFERENT. Wait a minute?! What?! What kind of a FEMINIST goes around touting THAT message?! Well me, I guess.
You see, as I’ve pulled away from my politics and considered that I may not have it all figured out, I have been exposed to new ideas and new evidence. A great deal of research confirms that female bodies (and likely, brains) are different from male bodies when it comes to the impacts of substance use. Take alcohol for example. Because women have higher body fat, lower average body water content, and a slower metabolism of alcohol (this is due to stomach enzymes), they will experience higher blood alcohol levels. Yes, yes, there are other reasons for any human to have a distinct physiological response to alcohol intake – BUT this gender based distinction MATTERS. It means that women who drink the same amount of alcohol as men tend to experience a “telescoping effect,” a rapid progression from initiation of use to development of substance use disorder. This also means that the physical consequences associated with alcohol use are more severe for women than men, including: liver and other gastrointestinal disorders, cardiac related conditions, nutritional deficiencies, reproductive consequences, breast and other cancers, cognitive and other neurological effects, and increased risk of death via accidents, violence, medical illness, etc. Now consider for a moment, whether this information about the greater risks associated with female alcohol use are common knowledge in our alcohol advertising (hello, magazines!), alcohol promoting (hello, movies!), alcohol drinking (hello, college kids!) American world? Not so much.
So here is where I get to remember that I AM A FEMINIST. Patriarchy and sexism have always included minimizing the value of women, and how best to do that than to allow them to drink themselves away under the guise of being “the same” as men? No, I am not suggesting that there was some intentional cover-up created by men to keep us all drunk and paying the consequences. What I am suggesting is that our veil of denial about the use and impact of alcohol (other substances too) among women IS one of patriarchy’s effects on our society. We are reacting to patriarchy when we avoid or ignore evidence that there are biological distinctions between men and women.
Luckily time has provided opportunities for research to catch up with reality. New understandings of women’s biological, psychological, and social experiences of substance use, addiction, and treatment are available today. In this attention to the ways in which women are DIFFERENT from men, we get to be FEMINISTS. We get to assert the VALUE of women by asserting their self-awareness, safety, health, comfort, and healing.
Now go let your (average) female friend know that she shouldn’t try to match her (average) male friend in a drinking game!
About the Author: Andrea Winkler’s interest in gender and trauma-related issues began as an undergraduate at James Madison University, where she received her Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Social Science in 2003. She moved to North Carolina in 2005 to work with adolescent females in a wilderness setting and was inspired to pursue her M.S.W. at UNC – Chapel Hill. She now works as a clinical social worker and addictions specialist at a hospital-based outpatient psychiatry clinic.