Alcohol and Women

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Alcohol and Women

Alcohol and Women
Throughout history, discussions of and concern about women's drinking have commonly been characterized by distortion, myth, prejudice and stereotyping. Until relatively recently, many studies were male-oriented, and excluded women. Other studies included both genders but often failed to examine possible gender differences in alcohol consumption, alcohol-related behaviours and experiences. "The issue", in this context, is what the evidence really shows in relation to drinking and its consequences among women. There is now an impressive body of evidence related to alcohol consumption by women. In spite of this, some issues remain controversial and some of the recent debate continues to be influenced not only by scientific findings, but also by ideology, sexism and prejudice.

A number of issues have periodically emerged as being controversial. These include whether or not female drinking patterns have converged with those of males; whether women are more susceptible than men to alcohol-related problems; whether or not even light drinking by pregnant women harms the development of the fetus; and whether or not women problem drinkers in treatment have different outcomes from men.

The subject of alcohol consumption and its associated consequences among women is extremely wide-ranging. As noted above, past research has sometimes neglected this issue. Fortunately, research into gender issues in general and into the possible effects of maternal drinking in particular has been increasing. An exciting example of this is provided by the Gender and Alcohol Comparative Alcohol Study (GENACIS). The latter involves researchers from several countries working together to devise survey questions suitable for use in studies that are concerned with gender differences. This will gather a considerable amount of new information. The latter will be both comparable and from widely varied social/national contexts (Plant and Plant 2001). It is important that both qualitative and quantitative studies be carried out. This allows information collected in qualitative work to inform the larger scale quantitative surveys. Funding bodies such as charities, government agencies and other organizations should generally give a high/higher priority to research that is sensitive to gender issues. Policy initiatives (such as prevention, treatment, harm minimisation and research) should be based on relevant evidence related to possible gender differences and the needs of both genders in relation to heavy or inappropriate drinking.

Available evidence has long shown that, in general and in all societies, women are less likely than men to drink or to consume alcohol heavily, inappropriately or with adverse consequences (Pittman and White 1991, Plant 1997, Wilsnack and Wilsnack 1997, Grant 1998, Hibell et al. 2001,). For example, a meta-analysis of cross-cultural studies (Pittman and White, 1991) finds that in all countries and historical periods studied, men have consumed more alcohol and reported more alcohol -related problems than women. Moreover, a recent international European study showed that, contrary to popular belief, males were more likely than females to report at least one alcohol-related problem at all levels of consumption (Plant et al. 2000). But although men drink more than women, men's and women's drinking patterns vary similarly according to age – in that frequency of drinking per month rises sharply before age 20, declines during the 20s, and then levels off. Grant and Litvak, (1998) found that although drinking increases overall as income goes up, women drink less than men. However, between 1984 and 1990, the differences decreased in the rates of men's and women's drinking. Both men's and women's alcohol use varies by ethnicity; however, women drink less than men within the African American, Asian American, Latino, American Indian, and white ethnic groups (Caetano...
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