Wine, Women, and Hand-Wringing

Gabrielle Glaser's new book about women and alcohol use misses the mark.

When it comes to binge drinking, there’s always been a wide gender gap. In 2012, more than twice as many men reported going on booze benders as women did — about 24 percent of men compared with 11 percent of women. But steadily, year after year, U.S. women have been raising their glasses ever higher. In fact, women now account for the majority of wine purchased (and consumed) in the U.S. Between 1992 and 2012, Gallup found, the number of white women who said they drank regularly rose from 32 percent to 70 percent. Nonwhite women went from about 20 percent to 57 percent.

In response to this, in early 2013, the CDC released a report on women and binge drinking, stating that one in eight adult women now reported indulging in the behavior; it also outlined the unique risk factors women face when it comes to drinking. Mostly, unsurprisingly, we face the same health risks men do (high blood pressure and liver disease), but do face a special set of concerns. To wit: Women can’t drink as many fluid ounces of alcohol. They can’t drink while they’re pregnant. And, I quote: “Binge drinking can lead to unintended pregnancies.”

While volume tolerance and the risks of drinking with unborn children aren’t exactly groundbreaking medical news, the CDC report has inspired a few alarmists to wring their hands over women and their special vulnerability in the face of the drinking culture. In her new, buzzy book, Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — And How They Can Regain Control, journalist Gabrielle Glaser explores, in scrutinizing detail, the dark underbelly of the female drinking culture. She adapted the contents of the book for The Wall Street Journal in a recent piece called “Why She Drinks: Women and Alcohol Abuse”:

“Some social scientists link the rise in female alcohol consumption to the changing role of women in society. Rick Grucza, [an epidemiologist] who studies alcohol-use disorders, correlates women’s drinking to the rise in female college attendance. Others suggest that many women continue unhealthy postcollege drinking patterns in male-dominated industries such as finance and technology. Still others find a link among women who step away from their careers to be at home.”

(One of the things that inspired Glaser to write the book in the first place was the strong wine-swilling culture among moms and empty-nesters).

Now that women are partaking in behavior men have always indulged in (drinking while attending college, while having demanding careers, and dealing with parenthood), though still at a much lower rate than men, it seems the time has come to panic about it. Glaser writes that, “in one sense, the rising rates of alcohol consumption by women are a sign of parity. But this is one arena in which equal treatment yields unequal outcomes.”

Indeed not: Men are still kicking women’s butts when it comes to really bad drinking behavior. There are still more men getting in drunk driving accidents. Men go to the hospital and die more because of alcohol consumption. Men are twice as likely to be alcoholics as women. Yet, according to Glaser, it’s women we really need to worry about. She is, in Best-Kept Secret, dead set on proving that women are particularly ill-equipped to deal with the risks that come with their initiation into drinking culture.

For one, Glaser points out, women’s motivations for drinking are very different from those of men:

“Women are twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety as men — and are far more likely to medicate those conditions with alcohol. Many women who drink heavily are also the victims of sexual abuse and have had eating disorders. The idea of being powerless can underscore a woman’s sense of vulnerability, researchers say … Studies show that after drinking, men report feeling more powerful … while women say that it makes them feel more affectionate, sexy, and feminine.”

What she’s trying to say is that women’s drinking comes from a place of vulnerability, while men drink for a power trip. But all she proves is that women have the potential to drink for the wrong reasons: to cope. To deter stress. For an ego boost. For a sense of control. For all the exact same reasons everyone sometimes drinks for the wrong reasons, both men and women.

Plus, she says, many women have a problem “learning how to moderate their drinking rather than stopping completely.” They do, of course. This is generally a problem for people with alcohol-dependency issues, regardless of gender. While she makes an intriguing point that the AA model may be less effective (and even riskier) for women, it’s still fairly speculative, and there’s not much to suggest men fare better in such programs.

Glaser’s right to say that we should all think about how much we drink and why. But to paint women as especially vulnerable sorts of drinkers who don’t know what they’re getting into, and whose very fragility puts them at unique risk, is unfair to the vast majority of women who drink sensibly (and who, when they don’t drink sensibly, have the good sense to know it). Glaser’s public service announcement about risky behaviors has its merits, but is, in this instance, aimed at the wrong target.