Two on Women and Drinking

On the Rocks: Straight Talk about Women and Drinking, by Susan D. Stewart

American women are swimming in a sea of alcohol, and we are letting them drown.

When I read this book a couple years ago, what I’d really been looking for in it was a book specifically about why alcohol has been so aggressively marketed to women and how it’s seeped into so many cultural aspects: from the jokey social media culture of how much wine mommies need to get by to the ubiquity of alcohol at social events.

I wasn’t wrong that women’s drinking had exponentially increased, as Susan D. Stewart, professor of sociology at Iowa State University, notes in On the Rocks: Straight Talk about Women and Drinking:

What about women’s lives has changed such that they drink more alcohol? Given the significant increase in women’s alcohol consumption, there has been surprisingly little research on this question and explanations for the rise have been for the most part anecdotal.

Exactly! Stewart sets out to find out something more about how and how much a sample set of women drink, and to hear their stories about what they think about drinking, including stereotypes, judgments, their definitions of what terms like “social drinking” constitute, as well as ideas around what defines problematic drinking and their family histories of it. She focuses on the idea of life courses, i.e., drinking being tied to where someone is in life, like when children have grown and moved away, for example. This was an interesting way to frame it and to think about the topic, and I realized it fit well into my own framework of thinking about problematic drinking.

This is structured mainly as the results of those interviews, and maybe since I minored in psychology (thank you, hold your applause) I usually don’t mind just reading straight study content. This book was mainly that, for example, and I loved it. But I found this a bit tough going, on one hand because a lot of the women are quoted verbatim which is patience-trying (likes and other verbal tics included), and on the other because there just didn’t feel like enough contextual information to understand this in a greater framework.

Stewart’s sample group is fairly small and homogenous as well, which makes the data feel somewhat limited, although she does have a point about who alcohol is especially being targeted to. I did have several pretty shocking takeaways, like that “Over a third (36 percent) of all wine is consumed by millennials” and the general impression that nearly everyone has a family member(s) who is/are heavily affected by alcohol abuse.

It’s basically an explainer of the research points she set out to investigate and some collation of the information based on conversations. It’s not all bad, because when she does extrapolate from her data and put it into a more narrative form for the reader, it’s excellent.

And this is a subject I think we need more writing and scholarship on. As Stewart overwhelmingly demonstrates, there has been a major ramp-up in the marketing of alcohol to women, which is only one of a multitude of factors that in recent years have led to a disproportionate increase in women’s alcohol consumption and consequently, death and illness from the same. The proliferation of snarky memes and cutesy wine-themed products doesn’t help the normalization of massive alcohol consumption and the ignoring of the underlying reasons for it.

Interesting topic and a decent addition to this conversation. I could see this being very useful for others doing work or research in related areas, and it’s a subject I hope continues to be explored.

published August 15, 2022 by Rowman & Littlefield. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review. Buy used or new

An excellent women and alcohol-related book that completely blew me away in how much I loved it is Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath. I’m late to the Leslie Jamison party because after reading some criticism of her work, I felt like those same points would bother me enough to significantly hamper my enjoyment so I always ignored her stuff.

The Recovering has been so widely lauded though, including coming highly recommended by Katie @DoingDewey, plus as mentioned I love women’s alcohol-related stories. Jamison styles this as a memoir around her drinking and recovery, and an emphasis on the long and torturous process of recovery itself, while looping in stories from some literary greats who also suffered drinking problems. I’m glad I gave it a try because it’s definitely one of the best things I’ve read all year.

It’s so beautifully written, almost too descriptively so — I feel like I have a very healthy relationship with alcohol now, but for years I didn’t and this could at times almost be triggering. But it’s a testament to how much Jamison captured of this experience, and I guess how scarily universal dependence and the factors around it can be.

Jamison examines the lives and demons of writers while doing the same to her own, from the thrill of her first drink through her studies and work, several relationships, and the messy business of trying to treat the problem, once she realizes that’s what it is. Worked through all of this is how alcohol defined her life, and defines theirs, and what was so unbearable — even without major trauma or inherent disadvantages, as I thought Jamison acknowledged her privilege adequately — to make a dependence on alcohol seem like the only option.

It was so compelling from start to finish, even if it did go off the rails occasionally, as most of these blends of memoir, culture, literary criticism, and some other topics mixed in tend to do. There’s just a lot going on.

I would share some quotes, but the writing was so extraordinary that I stopped taking notes (I had a library copy) and bought my own that I can mark up.

Any good books you can recommend around the topic of women and alcohol?

Used or new


15 thoughts on “Two on Women and Drinking

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  1. Really enjoyed your reviews of these. I tend to avoid memoirs about addiction, which I find quite stressful to read. I think I am quite strange in my relationship with alcohol, in that by the time I was old enough to drink, I was acutely aware (even fearful) of the risk of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. As a result, I’ve always used alcohol very cautiously, even in my teens and twenties, and it’s troubling how many problems that can cause socially. Now I don’t care, but it has caused problems at workplaces etc in the past. Over here it seems to be gin that is heavily marketed at millenial women, and I really hate the way that happens.The first of these books therefore definitely sounds interesting, even if it’s not all it could be. In terms of books about women and alcohol – I haven’t read it yet, but The Outrun by Amy Liptrot got a lot of positive press here a few years ago. I do want to read it, because also it is an addiction/recovery memoir, it’s also partly nature writing – I just haven’t got to it yet.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, I’m so glad you liked reading them! I get that, that they can be stressful to read. I avoided them for that reason and drug recovery memoirs still feel that way to me, I don’t know why I feel differently about alcohol ones now except that I went through my own bad phase with it so I like seeing how others have handled it.

      I agree with you, it’s so troubling to consider the range and extent of problems it can cause socially. This study really drove that home, I don’t think there was a single woman interviewed who didn’t have a family member or loved one who had issues that had caused or continued to cause conflicts. I can say the same for my family too and social connections too.

      How interesting that it’s gin that’s heavily marketed towards women there, at least the millennials! Here it seems to be more wine-focused, there’s been this kind of sheen of innocence over wine in this marketing, like it’s no big deal at all. There’s also been an onslaught of a very girly type of marketing, like a bunch of different sweet flavored vodkas, “Cupcake” brand wine, etc. It’s all very weird, especially considering how much more alcohol can affect women than men and how much less we need to drink of it to experience these negative effects.

      I hadn’t heard of The Outrun, but I love the connection with nature writing. Going on my list, thanks so much for that!

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  2. These are very interesting. I had a troubling relationship with alcohol a good few (over 25) years ago when I had a very stressful workplace situation and not enough of a support system. I stopped myself just before I went over the edge and was able to have a normal relationship with it afterwards. I barely drink now, though, certainly less than my friends and peers, I’m just not interested in feeling wobbly and of course I can’t hold my drink now! Your note about the quotes from participants is interesting: I have to transcribe study participants verbatim but I expect the researcher to tidy them up a bit!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you and I had a very similar experience with our alcohol use then. I was pleasantly surprised that it turned out the same for me, that I can have a normal relationship with it now. There was a point I couldn’t imagine that being the case but I’m so glad it was! It’s interesting how you describe it because it seems to fit into the framework and hypothesis this researcher was using, which is that our alcohol use and potential abuse connects to life course, so the correlation of alcohol use with especially stressful life periods.

      When I’ve edited transcriptions it’s usually the same, either I’ve been asked to tidy things up a bit or else for legal reasons it has to be verbatim, something like that. This was kind of an odd choice here, I thought!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with @louloureads that non-alcohol consumption can cause social problems for young people trying to lead a social life. My millennial children certainly found that a problem. I think with the current generation that situation is fading hopefully and it is perfectly acceptable not to drink. Nevertheless plenty still do I agree. I can highly recommend The Outrun by Amy Liptrot too.

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      1. It was like that for me when I didn’t drink. I still remember being amazed by how uncomfortable people were with it, and pushy about it. It made ME very uneasy, because I thought I don’t care if anyone else is drinking, I just don’t want to! Sorry that you have to experience that, but it’s definitely something about them and not you (not that that helps the badgering, I know).

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  4. What I find really strange and harmful is the message that it’s not _possible_ to have fun without drinking. Social pressure in that direction can be pretty decisive (when people are mocking you or excluding you for not drinking, then it is indeed hard to have fun). I hope books like these will help women to take control of their lives and not be pushed around by such false messages.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I couldn’t agree more. When I didn’t drink the pressure people would put on me was outrageous. Looking back I know it definitely had more to do with their own feelings or issues or reasons for wanting me to be drinking, but still. It’s so unnecessary and I think a message that only gets stronger when alcohol is incorporated in more and more social events.

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  5. On The Rocks sounds like it would be really interesting, but I’d definitely love something with a lot of context and statistics, in addition to anecdotes.

    When I saw the title of your post, I was immediately excited to recommend The Recovering if it wasn’t included, so I’m thrilled that my review helped convince you to pick it up and that you enjoyed it too 😀 I also loved the writing and I thought the way this was in conversation with other authors was delightful. Really just so excited you liked it!


  6. I’d like to read The Recovering but like you am a bit worried it might be triggering. When I was giving up alcohol I read I few getting sober memoirs to inspire me, the one by Caroline Knapp ?? was good

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I honestly think it’s worth reading even if it can be a bit triggering, unless you think it’d really be a problem, in which case I’d say avoid it, although of course it IS about the importance of recovery too, so it can feel therapeutic as well…but she just describes so well and vividly what the upsides of drinking were. I could remember exactly why I started using alcohol for the wrong reasons and what that felt like. It’s a testament to her writing, really.


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