More than drunkenness and disorderly bodies: the gendered pleasures of drinking cultures

Post by Gordon Waitt and Susannah Clement

Australian drinking culture is facing increasing public scrutiny in relation to health, conduct and cultural legitimacy. Australian media is flooded with reports of the crises of alcohol fuelled violence in the night time economy of cities, and statistics that suggest that younger women living in metropolitan centres are drinking as much as their male counterparts.The attention given to young metropolitan people’s binge drinking has reveal one shadier side of Australian cultures of alcohol and the quest for drunkenness and disorderly bodies. But what of rural drinking cultures?

Australian public health data illustrates that alcohol consumption is differentiated along the lines of age, gender and spatiality. Despite the media and academic attention on the night time economy, the statistics point to how far larger volumes of alcohol are drunk in rural locations (AIHW 2011). In particular young men aged between 18 and 29 years of age, living in locations categorised as ‘rural’ drink on more occasions and consume alcohol in higher quantities in comparison to their metropolitan counterparts. And, men living in ‘rural’ locations were more likely than women to experience alcohol-related harm (AIHW 2011).  We thought this a key moment to ask country women of different ages, rather than men, about the cultures of drinking in a country town. What role does drinking take in normalising gender differences?  Are cultures of drinking narrated and experienced differently between women of different age cohorts? What are women’s narratives of drinking in a country town?

A rural Victorian town

A rural Victorian town

To answer these questions Susannah spoke to country women living in a Victorian country town for her honours project in 2013. This case study was selected as representative of inland country towns fashioned by settler colonialism. Established in the late 1800s, today this country town has a total population of 1400 people, two pubs, one hybrid-bar restaurant, one sports bar, and two country AFL football clubs. The 17 women with Anglo-Celtic ancestry who participated in the project spoke about their own drinking experiences when going out and staying at home. Particular attention was given to not demonise drinking cultures. Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly, many of the drinking stories we heard from our participants were about men. The women we spoke to shared stories of their brothers, sons and husbands escalades and misdemeanours.

In our article published online in Gender, Place and Culture we explore how drinking is experienced by three women of different ages living in a country town in regional Victoria. Across participants, alcohol was narrated as central to the contemporary social life of the town. Not only was alcohol consumption necessary to fit in, for many drinking alcohol was understood as a necessary way to unwind, deal with problems, and celebrate occasions. Vignettes were employed to explore the role of alcohol in how these three women negotiate their gendered identities across a life-course as mothers, wives, and grandmothers in different contexts. These narratives provide insights to gender differences through accounts of the pleasures of drinking, or not.

For the youngest married women aged in their 20s with young children, alcohol consumption is closely tied to gendered ideas of parenting, with women drinking less due to their care responsibilities as mothers. The pleasure of drinking were derived from the infrequent possibilities of challenging the gendered norms of the pub and parenting, by dressing-up to emphasise their femininity and participating in a ‘girls-night out’.

A rural pub

The gendered space of the rural pub

The middle-age women aged in their 40s told us of the gendered dynamics of entering pubs as young women, and how they would never enter this pub space alone. They narrated stories of how drinking was the natural thing to for young single men to do. Equally, one of the expected roles of farmer’s wives was to constrain alcohol consumption of their partners. Yet, as mothers and farmer’s wives they often justified their sons’ and husbands’ consumption of alcohol at home and in public as integral to the process of male bonding, relaxation and belonging to the town.

For the mature-age women aged in their 60s alcohol was narrated as secondary to attending dances at community halls and generating social spaces as teenagers.  As a farmer’s wife alcohol was narrated as a remedy for hard work, and integral to socialising with friends at the weekends at home or in restaurants. The pleasures of alcohol consumption were also derived from socialising in the afternoon with mature-age women in the hybrid-bar restaurants to share stories of grief and joy.

Through turning our attention to the gendered dynamics of drinking we find a rich array of narratives in which we can better understand alcohol-related pleasures and risks. We conclude that standard drink unit measures are too narrowly instrumental policy strategy to delimit understanding of how much alcohol is ‘too little’ or ‘too much’ in different places. Drinking programs could do well to pay to attention to how gendered subjectivities emerge in particular contexts that in turn mediate understandings of alcohol related pleasure and risk.

 

References:

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2011) 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey Report, Cat: PHE 145. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Waitt & Clement (2015) Women drinking alcohol: assembling a perspective from a Victorian country town, Australia. Gender, Place and Culture, pp. 1-14

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