The Scary Truth About Women's Bodies & Alcohol That Is Being Ignored

Photo: Courtesy of Jenny Valentish
I spent a ridiculous amount of time picking the location for my interview with Jenny Valentish. I was nervous, because I’m the type of person who likes to spend their weekend at the pub, and she’s a recovering alcoholic who just wrote a book about her path to sobriety. I perused Google for somewhere unthreatening and settled on an airy café in King’s Cross. Turns out, I needn’t have bothered. When we finally meet, she tells me straight up that after eight years of sobriety, she’s happily drinking again. Not really what you’d expect from someone who’s just released a book about alcohol addiction.

She tells me straight up that after eight years of sobriety, she’s happily drinking again

Valentish was raised in the famously dreary town of Slough, and abused as a child by a family friend who would sneak into her bedroom after everyone had gone to sleep. At 13, she broke into her parents' liquor cabinet and got drunk for the first time. She grew up to become a music journalist and drank her way through her 20s and 30s, doing all the drugs she could get her hands on, until finally, in her 40s, she decided that her body had had enough. In Woman of Substances she shares her story, but the book is much more than that. It’s a deep dive into the way drugs and alcohol affect women – and the path we often take on the road to addiction.
Until she started writing, Valentish didn’t realise how political the book was going to be. But the alcohol industry is rife with sexism, and it didn’t take long for it to rear its head. For example, when she was investigating the reasons why she may have developed an alcohol addiction, one of the first things she realised was that most of the research on substance abuse is based entirely on men.
Scientists, using male rats to test how the human body responds to alcohol withdrawal, have come to conclusions that totally disregard the female experience of alcohol, assuming our bodies will act in the same way. But our hormones, and menstrual cycle, make us much more sensitive to the effects of drugs and alcohol - meaning the results of these studies won’t apply to us at all. "Drinking and taking drugs during your menstrual cycle can have a bigger effect on you than you might have been aware," she says. “When you’re ovulating, you’re in party mode – you smoke more, you’re horny and you desire more drugs and alcohol.” That explains why a glass of wine has no effect one week, but the next week sends you to the bathroom with your head in your hands. This kind of information is little known, even in the medical industry. This knowledge is particularly important for women who are trying to kick the habit of drinking to excess.
In her research, Valentish discovered that this is the time when women are most likely to relapse – simply because your body wants to go wild. That’s really something doctors should know about and be telling women who are trying to quit. But most don’t, because there's so little research on the female experience of alcohol.
So why doesn’t anyone want to study the ladies? Valentish says the simple answer is the patriarchy, of course. "Research tends to be a really patriarchal field, and the people at the top are usually men. They see drinking as a male issue, but it’s not at all." Because they can’t be bothered dealing with the complexities of the menstrual cycle, and think alcoholism is a male issue (even though men and women are drinking equally now, and women born after 1981 are drinking more than men), researchers Valentish interviewed said that male scientists at the top of their game were actively discouraging them from conducting studies on women.
"The more and more research I did, the clearer it became," Valentish says. "I didn’t realise the book was going to be quite so political."
In a particularly infuriating chapter, Valentish writes about alcopops, those colourful drinks clearly marketed at teenage girls. It turns out they’re designed to get us drunk, fast. Alcohol companies know that women absorb alcohol faster than men (Valentish says it’s down to the particular enzymes in our stomach) and, as you would expect with the advertising industry, they take advantage of it. The alcohol content in a standard alcopop is much higher than in drinks that are marketed to men. If you think that’s not the patriarchy at play, in the '80s, an Australian wine brand called Wolf Blass released its "René Pogel" sparkling wine with a similar alcohol content, "which sounds classy, until you read it backwards," Valentish writes. "I can’t help picturing snickering marketing execs bandying around potential slogans: 'goes down easy'; 'doesn’t taste as bad as you think'."

The stigma surrounding women who drink is huge – so much so that many women can’t bring themselves to ask for help

When she decided to go sober, Valentish realised that even the treatment pathways for substance abuse aren’t designed with women in mind. The stigma surrounding women who drink is huge – so much so that many women can’t bring themselves to ask for help. Often, they’re scared of being branded a "bad mum" or, worse, worried about losing their kids entirely. Additionally, many women can’t check into rehab because they can’t find, or afford, childcare. That’s generally not something men have to think about, says Valentish, and it seriously limits a mother’s ability to seek help when she desperately needs it.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, Valentish found more problems with the way women are treated. She tells me the fundamental philosophy behind the programme is "handing over your personal power to a higher power" but if you’re a victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse – as many women in the programme are – it’s likely your personal power was taken away a long time ago.
"Women actually need to be empowered," says Valentish, "not forced to give what little power they still have away." They especially shouldn’t be placed in recovery groups with men who are perpetrators of domestic violence. This happens a lot, because men with substance abuse issues tend to lash out at the people around them when they’re stressed, whereas women internalise and turn to things like eating disorders and self-harm. Mixing these two very different responses doesn’t exactly create a safe environment for either party to open up about their issues.
For anyone considering cutting down their alcohol intake, or anyone who likes to drink at all, Woman of Substances is an enlightening, sometimes frightening read. Valentish is a natural storyteller; she’s somehow managed to make a neurological research project about a very serious issue entertaining, funny and difficult to put down. Now, like Jenny, every time I have a drink before I meet a friend, I think about why I’m doing it. If that sort of enlightenment is what happens when you quit drinking, maybe more of us will think about following the same path.
Woman of Substances by Jenny Valentish is available in the UK from Friday 18th May, published by Head of Zeus.

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series