Feminist Anti-Addiction Discourse: Towards a Research Agenda

Devoted Points readers may recall that over the last year contributing editor Michelle McClellan and myself have mused on the odd relationship—or lack thereof—between addiction studies and women’s studies. Given the high correlation between alcohol/drug abuse and a variety of forms of violence against women, as well as the demonstrated role that alcohol and drugs play in a hypersexualized consumer culture that enforces “hegemonic masculine and emphasized feminine” roles, we have puzzled over the relative lack of interest in alcohol and drug history and activism on the part of feminist researchers.

A Women's History Month Post

Where, we have wondered, is the feminist anti-drug-and-alcohol abuse discourse in the contemporary academy, on our campuses, and in the larger public health milieu? And, on a more traditionally scholarly note, where is it in the history of feminism—particularly in Second Wave feminism or in, as its radical offshoot is sometimes known, “women’s liberation”? In honor of Women’s History Month, it’s to this last question that this post is devoted.

Lest it be thought that only squares were concerned with the problems of alcohol and drugs back in the good ol’ days of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I direct your attention to anti-drug messages from the heart of the revolution: the Diggers’ “Uncle Tim’$ Children” and writings by the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords. Both outline the risks—personal and political—of the drug cultures that overlapped with, informed, and in some cases seemed to power the counterculture. The women’s liberation movement existed at the same time; participants in it were often also participants in other radical movements, and shared many of the same anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist frames of reference. Moreover, the women’s liberationist slogan “the personal is political” would seem to invite consideration of the motivations behind and ramifications of drug and alcohol use/abuse—more so even than the more performative and action-oriented philosophies of liberation rooted in masculinist struggles for public space, voice, and power.

Any Track Marks on that Arm?

It seems logical that the women’s liberation movement should be at least if not more concerned as its contemporaries about the toll exacted on its constituents by alcohol and drugs. Given that another similarity across these movements was a commitment to grassroots based print culture, it also seems reasonable to expect that we should be able to locate writings about the issue, which could form both an archive for historical research and, more practically, a usable past for contemporary activism.  With these logics in mind, I set out to cherchez les femmes des drogues.

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Addiction, History and Historians: David Courtwright replies

Editor’s Note:  We’ve been very pleased to post a series of responses to David’s Courtwright’s essay on addiction, history and historians.  Now that Nancy Campbell, Alex Mold, Daniel Bradburd, and Samuel Roberts have all had their say, it seems fitting for David Courtwright to offer a brief reply to their thoughtful responses.  For Points readers not familiar with David, he is currently Presidential Professor of History at the University of North Florida.  He’s also the author of several books, including Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America (updated edition, Harvard University Press, 2001), Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World (Harvard University Press, 2001), and No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Addiction Neuroscience, the Progressive Implosion of Pathology, and Historical Explanation.

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) claims to support “over 85 percent of the world’s research on the health aspects of drug abuse and addiction.” The figure may be a stretch, as it is unclear which health aspects, which drugs, and which addictions the research covers. As Alex Mold notes, NIDA has no monopoly on scientific investigation. Yet I do not doubt that NIDA’s current brain disease paradigm commands the high ground of funding, prestige, and publicity. Should NIDA and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism merge to form a new National Institute of Substance Use and Addiction Disorders, the unifying brain-disease model will become even more dominant. NIDA Director Nora Volkow puts the Grand Unifying Theory succinctly: “Addictions tend to move together, sharing many triggers and a great deal of biology.”

Historians and social scientists do not necessarily regard these developments with equanimity, as the Points responses and other comments on my work make clear. Dan Bradburd captures the worried mood by likening the brain disease paradigm to a head on the aroused Hydra of reductionism, and by suggesting that, in their own ways, Charles Murray and Nora Volkow are bent over the ancient oars of naturalized and problematized difference. Why, then, do I remain guardedly hopeful that there is something positive for historians in addiction neuroscience?

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