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Wine being poured from a bottle into a glass. There are a couple of bottles and glasses, blurred in the background.

How does gender shape our national relationship with alcohol?

11 Apr 2012 | Jemma Lennox

Alcohol is back in the headlines through the proposed policy of minimum pricing. While such steps aim to tackle the country’s relationship with alcohol at a population level, the evidence suggests that relationships with alcohol are not a uniform experience. The latest Glasgow Centre for Population Health seminar ‘Understanding the Role of Gender in Scotland’s Drinking Culture’ provided an opportunity to look at some of the differences in relationships to alcohol underlying our national relationship.  I have a personal interest in the research presented: as an undergraduate student I worked in bars to supplement my income and it was during this time that I first became interested in the different ways men and women drink and socialise together.   I am currently undertaking my own research towards a PhD exploring a more recent trend; how social media influences drinking cultures.  Younger drinkers are increasingly moving on-line as sites such as Facebook are used to plan and document nights out, to share where they are going in real time through status updates and on-line sharing of images. I am also interested in the role gendered identities play in the consumption of alcohol. The morning provided an excellent opportunity to hear from researchers, policy makers and practitioners with an interest in these issues from varied perspectives.

Andrew McAuley of NHS Health Scotland began the event with an overview of current trends in alcohol consumption by gender. The gender gap in alcohol consumption appears to have narrowed in Scotland in recent years as men abstain or drink less and women drink more. While reported consumption levels are declining, those of both sexes exceeding recommended guidelines remain high.

Such epidemiological data is useful in assessing population level trends in consumption, however I was interested in underlying views and experiences of relationships with drink. Focusing on young adults, Pete Seaman and Fiona Edgar discussed their report ‘Creating Better Stories: Alcohol and Gendered Transitions to Adulthood’. 

Examples from the arts based methods employed in this project provided an excellent visual backdrop to the results. While on the surface drinking styles showed similarity, clear gender differences were present. Of particular interest was how young women viewed alcohol consumption as a group activity, emphasising the importance of maintaining the group (‘no female left behind’) and the implementation of an  ‘ethic of concern’ as a safety strategy when out drinking. In contrast to this, men’s accounts placed more emphasis on the act of drinking rather than a concern over group welfare, which may have implications for how men manage alcohol associated risk. Their results also showed how young adults viewed their alcohol consumption as temporary youthful behaviour, suggesting that personal identity growth has a much stronger influence on moderation than health concerns.

But is it the case that we grow out of our relationship with alcohol as we age? Looking specifically at men, Carol Emslie reported on work conducted at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit investigating drinking in mid-life.  Results from interviews with mid-life men imply that alcohol continues to play an important role in friendship maintenance. A point which particularly encouraged discussion was the way in which the men in this study viewed alcohol as beneficial for their mental health, warding off feelings of isolation and depression through socialising with friends.  However, they also highlighted other ways to maintain friendships and masculinity without the use of alcohol. Alternative diversionary practices, such as sports, showed how understandings of what it means’ to be a man’ and the idea of ‘trading masculine competence’ could be used to change the traditional relationship between masculinity and drink.

Pauline McGough provided a perspective from the front-line of services, focussing on alcohol use by young women attending a sexual health clinic in Glasgow. She reported on experiences of delivering an alcohol brief intervention for risky drinking in young people (the BIRDY project) and emphasised some of the issues surrounding working with this population, including adapting standard tools in order to accurately measure consumption. This is of particular importance when working with a group who may drink in less conventional ways than some test instruments allow; a problem summarised as ‘how do you measure the units of some vodka poured into a Coke bottle?’

In the lively round table discussions, two issues were continually raised as worthy of further research - the need to look at drinking outside of the bar and pub environment, especially home drinking and street drinking and to social media. As drinking cultures move online through the use of social networking sites such as Facebook in arranging and documenting nights out, the alcohol industry is following, sometimes leading. It is important that researchers and practitioners are in these on-line spaces too.  The boundaries between on-line and off-line drinking cultures are increasingly being blurred as social media becomes integral to youth culture, identity construction and the promotion of alcohol. However, there is little work investigating the meanings young adults attach to the alcohol related content they share on-line nor the potential impact such practices may have on their real life drinking practices.  A gap in the literature which I hope my PhD work will address.

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