How Society Makes Women Regret Drinking More Than Men

Photo by Poppy Thorpe.
"As a woman, you grow up being taught to be polite and respectful. To behave a particular way, listen as much as you talk and act a certain way in conversation. But alcohol does not abide by those rules. It totally uproots those norms."

Emma Tilley is a 25-year-old student and hospitality worker from Brighton. We’re chatting on Messenger about recent research released by Global Drug Survey which found that women 'regret' drunkenness around a third more than men. Thirty-nine percent of female respondents rued getting drunk over the last year, compared to 29.6% of males. Women also reported 39% more regret over an alcohol-induced sexual episode and 17% more next-day anxiety.

"Blame is the name of the game," says Emma of her bleary hangover horrors. "I blame myself for every interaction I had. I blame myself as I think that’s what other people expect of me."

2016 research published in the online journal BMJ Open found that women, globally, now drink nearly the same amount as men. But why are they more vulnerable to shame and regret after a night of drinking alcohol?

According to historian David W. Gutzke, 70% of British women claimed to abstain from alcohol in 1960. It wasn’t until the 1990s that – with the rise of dance music and the UK embracing what the Institute of Alcohol Studies calls the "clear feminisation of alcohol products, drinking spaces and drinking culture" – women really started going round-for-round with the guys. A shiny new pejorative term was coined – the 'ladette' – which counted the likes of Sara Cox and Zoe Ball among its tabloid-anointed icons.

"I grew up in the '90s and 2000s – female culture was about drinking and fucking as much as the lads. It was The Girlie Show, Loaded magazine, paps snapping pictures under young starlets' dresses," says comedian Eleanor Conway, whose debut show Walk Of Shame detailed her years of partying and excess.

Back in the early '00s, Eleanor was what we admiringly defined as this nu British female hedonist: funny, filthy and headstrong. Now, nearly seven years sober, she offers an alternate view.

As a culture in the Western world, we blame women. We tend to see drunk women as 'sloppy'. We see a man who drinks a lot as a bon vivant... Generally speaking, we're a lot more forgiving when it comes to men.

Ann Dowsett Johnston
"I often did crazy, unsafe stuff when I was drunk. But it came from a place of sensitivity – I did not feel comfortable in my own skin and was seeking connection," she says. "The next-day regret and shame of an out-of-body blackout could then feel like a punishment for a solution I was seeking for my anxiety. The outlandish behaviour I sometimes displayed during blackout was in vast contrast to the sensitive needs of someone that drinks to combat anxiousness."

Ann Dowsett Johnston is the author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women And Alcohol. Over Zoom from her home just north of Toronto, she tells me that "as a culture in the Western world, we blame women. We tend to see drunk women as 'sloppy'. We see a man who drinks a lot as a bon vivant – you know, a larger-than-life character. Generally speaking, we’re a lot more forgiving when it comes to men."

A 2011 study from the University of Sussex offers evidence that gendered double standards – which women already deal with in almost every other area of their lives – also exist regarding alcohol use. Speaking to university students, the study found that traits like 'public drunkenness' were perceived as more 'masculine' and that participants often modified their drinking style to tally with their gender identity. Another quirk of alcohol-based research is that, according to a number of academic papers, before the 1990s it almost exclusively focused on men.
Perhaps because of how society makes women feel about drinking too much, women are also much less likely than men to enter rehab or seek assistance for alcohol dependency – another symptom of gendered drinking stigma. "It’s very hard to get women to unhook themselves from their responsibilities – especially mothers. It’s because of our cultural notions of the roles women should play," Ann adds.

"Women tend to drink for different reasons like stress, burnout and anxiety," she continues. "Men tend to drink because they want to have more fun." The latter viewpoint is broadly shared by Dr Emma Davies, who led the Global Drug Survey research and thinks that the male pack stereotype helps protect them from regret towards the kind of banterous drunken behaviour that even a mother would struggle to find endearing.

"One of our studies found that the embarrassing stuff was more of a badge of honour for men – whereas for women it provoked concerns about safety," says Davies. "It’s the feeling of vulnerability – waking up the next morning and thinking that something could have happened to you," she adds. "Every woman has a story: a friend who had a drink spiked, or got followed home, or had someone acting weird in a club."

We've got the message drummed in from a very young age that we need to be careful – and somehow blame ourselves for getting pissed even though it's not our fault.

Dr Emma Davies
Events of recent months have brought up already raw feelings around female safety – from the death of Sarah Everard to the release of Promising Young Woman. According to 2021 statistics, 39% of rape victims reported being under the influence of alcohol at the time of assault; the percentage of assailants who were reported to be under the influence of alcohol at the time of assault was exactly the same. Yet it is the victims who are forced to answer questions about 'drinking too much'. With already dismally low rape convictions continuing to fall this year, is it any wonder that the majority of rape victims in one 2015 study blamed themselves?

We could posit, therefore, that the feelings of blame, shame and regret that women feel about drinking too much are largely symptoms of actions exhibited by dreadful men. "Women take the blame and think that if they hadn’t got drunk then it wouldn’t have happened," says Davies. "We’ve got the message drummed in from a very young age that we need to be careful – and somehow blame ourselves for getting pissed even though it’s not our fault. Women have the right to get drunk too!"

So what lies ahead for the future of women and drinking regrets? Perhaps with Generation Z drinking less (though 16 to 24-year-olds are taking record levels of ketamine and have increased their cocaine use by 73% since 2013), it may be less of a worry in coming years. But for those who do still drink, and with the world opening up again, it continues to be a concern. Pragmatically, Ann says that women should continue to count their drinks and drink in moderation but, at a root level, it seems that the dissolving of drinking shame and stigma rests – as ever – in educating hearts, minds and men.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999. If you are struggling with substance abuse, please visit FRANK or call 0300 123 6600 for friendly, confidential advice. Lines are open 24 hours a day.

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