Barstool for One: Women and Drinking

By Tracy Morris


Women and drinking alcoholic beverages is just part of an ordinary lifestyle. There are images, though, that often play back in our mind’s eye, portrayals of caricaturized women alluded to and sometimes spelled out clearly by outdated movies, magazine articles, and commercials.

Who hasn’t seen:

  • The Workaholic Single Woman Drinking Her Miserable Personal Existence Away
  • The Wild Drunken Party Girl Who Loses Control of Her Life
  • The Broken-Down Single Mama with Her Only Friend, the Bottle

We know that the truth isn’t nearly so black and white (and ugly!) Still, alcohol – essentially a legal drug that’s part of daily American culture – impacts our lives as single women in ways that those with partners aren’t quite so vulnerable.

Kathleen A. Parks, Ph.D., a senior research scientist for the Research Institute on Addictions at State University of New York at Buffalo, has looked at two different groups of women: women, ages 18 to 35, who drink in bars, and college women. In both groups, most of the women have never married. She’s found that, “Drinking motives are fairly similar across both populations; however, drinking patterns are somewhat different.”

Why do women drink?

Dr. Parks lists the following as the most often cited reasons for drinking by the subjects of her studies:

  1. for companionship, both same and opposite sex
  2. as a diversion from the negative aspects or as an added positive to their daily life
  3. as a means of validating their self image (Parks, Miller, Collins, & Zetes-Zanatta, 1998)

Dr. Harris Stratyner, a psychologist and Vice President of Caron’s New York Recovery Center, adds regular everyday stress to the mix of why’s. “We live in a time of tremendous stress. Divorce is common. We see a lot of women who’ve taken on a huge amount of responsibility that used to be shared more with men. The numbers of women we see in rehabs is astronomically higher than before.”

“Women in metropolitan areas are experiencing what psychologists call ‘existential isolation’ more and more. They’re working long hours, coming home to an empty apartment, or being alone with children all day and night.”

As reflected in Dr. Parks’ and others’ research, Dr. Stratyner says that single women, in particular, often use alcohol to combat the challenges of dating and intimacy issues.

“The Internet is great, but it has a component of impersonality to it,” says Stratyner, “People feel free to deceive each other online, so there’s a fear factor about going to meet online matches in real life, and drinking is used to take that edge off.”

How should women drink?

It is possible to “drink responsibly,” as the saying in the advertisements goes, though policy analysts, researchers, and treatment experts tend to see that catchy phrase as a double-edged sword.

In Dr. Parks’ opinion, the phrase is highly subjective. “What constitutes ‘responsible drinking’ depends upon who is defining ‘responsible’. Legally, all drinking prior to age 21 is not responsible because it is illegal. Beyond the age of 21, the legal limit placed on drinking is .08 BAL (blood alcohol limit) if operating a motor vehicle. Clearly, drinking beyond .08 BAL is irresponsible when it endangers the life of the drinker and others.”

However, Parks goes on to explain that physical and cognitive impairment from alcohol begins at BALs substantially lower than .08, for example, as low as .02. “So, from my perspective,” she adds, “individuals need to judge their own responsible drinking level.”

pic2It’s important for all women who drink alcohol to know that given their metabolism, women’s bodies reach equivalent blood alcohol levels to those of men at lower levels of alcohol consumption. Plainly put, women feel alcohol’s effects with fewer drinks.

Problems from drinking

As Dr. Stratyner puts it, “Alcohol is not evil. Alcoholism is simply a disease.” There are differences between the terms “problem drinking” and “alcoholism.”

Generally, if someone has problems arise in any area of life – work, family relationships, parenting duties, socializing – which are connected to their use of alcohol, that could be deemed problematic drinking. Alcoholism, on the other hand, is when dependency forms, on the drinking and the alcohol itself.

The numbers of women seen in rehabilitation centers has been steadily growing, says Stratyner, who cites the experience called “blackout” as one of the strongest indicators of alcoholism.

Stratyner describes some of the stories he hears most frequently. “I have patients who tell me that the only way they can fall asleep is to drink half a bottle of wine first. Often single women will report changes in their sexual behavior, like having sex the first time she meets someone, because she was in a blackout.”

In Parks’ current study relating bar drinking to HIV risk, she reports finding links between drinking and riskier sexual behavior. “A number of studies, including my own, have found associations between alcohol use and victimization, whether that’s physical, sexual, or verbal.”

In addition to the lifestyle control problems, women have caught up with men in terms of drinking’s devastating physical health effects, such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Hangovers
  • Memory deficits
  • Hepatic encephalopathy

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