Also Not for the Squeamish (Or for Anybody, Apparently)– Feminist Alcohol and Drugs Scholarship

Earlier today, Points Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan used her experience in a near-empty room at a Women’s Studies conference to explore the difficulty of crossing disciplinary borders to do meaningful research on addiction.  This was a very mature thing for her to do.  Let me lower the tone of discussion a bit by drawing attention to her mention of the absurd ratio of panelists (4) to audience members (1) at her presentation.  I had a similar experience at the National Women’s Studies Association annual meeting in 2009 with a roundtable I organized on Gender and Campus Drinking Cultures.

Co-presenters Ada Gregory, Director of the Duke University Women’s Center; Elizabeth Broughton, Professor of Leadership and Counseling at Eastern Michigan University; and Patty O’Toole, Dean of Students at Hollins University; and I wanted to discuss “how and to what extent the insights of feminist scholars and activists have been incorporated into college and university administrations’ approaches to campus drinking cultures, [and to discuss] the role we as feminists can and should play in shaping campus alcohol cultures and policies” (that’s from the conference program).

You’d think that an opportunity to discuss the real effects that several decades of feminist struggle have had (or failed to have) on the environment in which we earn our livings would be warmly welcomed at a Women’s Studies conference.  We, too, however, presented to a near-empty room.  Given the high correlation between undergraduate drinking practices and ever-increasing rates of depression, body dysmorphia, and sexual violence on campus (issues that, when last I checked, feminist scholars and activists at least pretended to care about), feminist alcohol and drugs studies seems like it should be a no-brainer.  But it’s not.

It would be interesting to know what’s responsible for the near-total lack of interest in this topic within the Women’s Studies community.  In 1995, Laura Schmidt and Constance Weisner speculated that “wet” and “dry” perspectives coexisted uncomfortably within organized feminism: the wets (or libertarians) saw increased access to drink/drugs and the reduction in stigma of female drinking/drugging as signs of women’s freedom, leaving them fundamentally at odds with dry (or reformist) calls for moderation, self-care, and treatment regimes that attended to gender and sexuality.  The result was a studied lack of interest among self-proclaimed feminists in the feminist innovations in research and treatment that had begun in the late 1970s.

This clash of wet and dry cultures aligns pretty neatly, it seems to me, with the much ballyhooed “theory” vs. “activism” split in academic Women’s Studies: the former privileges performativity, transgression, and pleasure, while the latter focuses on concrete change-making and harm-reduction.  These overweening binaries, combined with an institutional mandate to non-judgementalism (Colleague 1: A student at my exam this morning came straight from a party and was drunk as a sailor.  Colleague 2: don’t you see that as a profound act of resistance to the corporate university’s mandate for docile bodies?!) make doing meaningful feminist alcohol and drugs scholarship extremely difficult.  A grudging acknowledgment by the conference program committee that, yeah, this is kind of an issue, might get your panel on the program, but feminist uneasiness with the topic of over-consumption itself, coupled with chagrin at our own impoverished tools for thinking about it, will mean that the room will be pretty empty when you come to deliver your paper.

6 thoughts on “Also Not for the Squeamish (Or for Anybody, Apparently)– Feminist Alcohol and Drugs Scholarship”

  1. In my experience there is still terrific prejudice against women who are alcoholics or drink moderately or heavily, much much more demonized and denigrated than men.

  2. I saw an AMAZING plenary session on feminist responses to women and addiction at the Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies conference (FEMMSS3) in Columbia, SC two springs ago. This particular conference has a kind of edginess that sets it apart in positive ways from other Women’s Studies conferences, in my experience. One of the speakers was Kate McCoy of SUNY New Paltz, and since the conference she developed her argument into a published journal article called “Into the Cracks: A Geology of Encounters with Addiction as Disease and Moral Failing.”

    “The author is thinking with Deleuze’s ethical practice of ‘being on the lookout’ for encounters with the cracks. Drawing on research in the USA on access to health care for people who use illicit drugs, the author works with Deleuze and Guattari, Deleuze and Foucault in a geological and genealogical mode of inquiry to investigate the preoccupation over whether addiction is a disease or a moral failing, raising questions about the modes of subjectivation produced by these designations. The author works through a series of encounters, entering into the cracks, where things are already breaking up to unhinge thinking from usual habits to consider what our explanations of addiction produce and to chart different territory, creating different possibilities for insight and action.”

    I seriously love the idea of unhinging thinking from the usual habits, a phrase that captures exactly the kind of feminist analysis I prefer and generally try to produce, especially on topics that invoke moralizing from all corners at once (e.g., drinking, sexual pleasure, stripping, adultery, etc.). But I notice it is very hard to overcome audience perceptions of a subject in order to redirect the cultural conversation. For instance, I developed a talk on “Women in the Bottle” on campus in my capacity as Director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at USC Upstate, in collaboration with the Drug and Alcohol Awareness counselor, Erin Morgan. Our goal was to talk about women and alcohol consumption in a way that would unhinge the conversation from the usual patterns of thought, to talk about the logic of substance abuse, and the ways it is embedded in and encouraged by systems of sexism that undermine women’s self-confidence. The problem was this. Pretty much no one came to the talk. And I wasn’t surprised or hurt because I realized I would not have attended such a talk as a student or even as a faculty member before I encountered materials that shake up the conversation. It sounds too goody-two-shoes. Drinking is bad for you. Blah blah blah. Defenses go up, and new ideas can’t find their way through. So I haven’t figured out how to get past that reluctance in the general population or among feminist scholars, but in the meantime I am collecting materials that do the cultural work of saying something new, unexpected, useful, and philosophically innovative about women and substance abuse.

    Overall, I think female addiction is difficult for feminist theorists in the same way that female mental illness is difficult – it feels too close to old school patriarchal demonizations/dismissals of women as bad, excessive, immoral, crazy, disgusting. I understand the feminist longing to break out of such a negative equation, but in writing about addiction in the context of my own experience of borderline personality disorder, I’ve come to realize that the feminist desire to rewrite women as good instead of bad often blocks or complicates the work of examining the lived experience of self-defeating behaviors (e.g., addiction) and psychosocial disorders (e.g., borderline personality disorder). This difficulty feels very similar to the difficulty I experienced a decade ago in trying to write about the gap between feminist politics and the lived experience of sexual and romantic desire in Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire. There are things that simply cannot be articulated within feminism without seeming on some level to undermine feminism itself in the process.

  3. I have no time to write an extensive comment today but am most happy to see this discussion because my class today is going to view the film “Spin the Bottle” about campus drinking (Jackson Katz and Jean Kilbourne, MEF). I was struck that when I watched the film with graduate T.A.’s we had the same go round between finding the film alternately “preachy” and critically compelling. How do we find the space beyond the kind of patriarchal moralism that condemns pleasure, sex, intoxication, ecstasy and the kind of commoditization, top-down organized taboo “breaking” in ways that produce conformity, pain, porn, abuse, addiction, misery and so on. I find Gloria Anzaldua and her model of mestiza consciousness helpful in thinking through all issues, including addiction and depression.

  4. A couple of years ago I edited a special issue of the journal Traumatology on the theme “History, Memory, and Trauma.” One of the pieces in the issue was by a literary theorist named Joanne Muzak, who wrote a really interesting piece titled “Trauma, Feminism, and Addiction: Cultural and Clinical Lessons from Susan Gordon Lydon’s Take the Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Survivor (Traumatology, 15(4), 24-34) – its a great piece, and I recommend it to everyone interested in this particular thread. Among other things, Muzak argues that among feminist theorists addiction is frequently understood as a response to trauma. One of the most significant contributions of feminist trauma theory, she points out, has been the effort to “depathologize” trauma by casting it as a normal response to horrible experiences. As a result, clinical efforts to treat addiction threaten to become another example of the “medicalization” of social problems that, from the perspective of much feminist theory, are properly traced to the roots of patriarchy rather than some other source (a critique of course familiar to feminist critics through the longstanding critique of both psychiatry and ob/gyn). Here’s one of the key paragraphs from the piece:

    Although women’s drug addiction may be an adaptive response that foregrounds the impact of abuse and more insidious traumas and therefore potentially recasts addiction as a social and political issue, as a symptom it still operates with the medical model of addiction and, more broadly, psychopathology. In
    this configuration, the “validation” of drug addiction as a response to or manifestation of women’s psychological pain threatens to become another therapeutic avenue by which the old idea of an inherent female vulnerability is reinforced.

    This may be part of what is going on. Addiction is clearly maladaptive, at least in most cases, but the conceptual apparatus that feminist theory has developed to understand it, and related responses to systemic, daily violence mean that efforts to help on an individual, clinical level are open to suspicion.

    Anyway, fascinating conversation.

  5. Thanks for a thoughtful post on a really interesting issue. The wet/dry binary you mention seems similar to the pleasure/danger binary in feminist perspectives on (hetero)sexuality. But with the rise of commodified raunch culture and its celebration of young women as ’empowered’ sexual agents and consumers it now seems that many of us who argued enthusiastically for the politics of pleasure were naively optimistic about its subversive potential. Or are we just getting old and worrying about the daughters we didn’t used to have to worry about?

    Angela McRobbie’s book The Aftermath of Feminism can be read as a self-critique by a feminist theorist who did much in her earlier work to champion the subversive strategies of everyday femininity. It’s a brilliant but rather bleak account of a post-feminist gender order in which young women are granted the freedom to indulge in recreational sex, excessive drinking and other forms of ‘male’ behaviour as long as they retain their heterosexual desirability and refrain from any sort of political challenge to capitalism or masculine hegemony. One chapter of the book argues that feminine pathologies such as binge-drinking, anorexia, depression and self-harm have become normalised as ‘healthy signs of unhealthy femininity’.

    Which is all to endorse your point that the issues of gender, drinking, femininity and feminism are ripe for discussion and analysis.

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