Binge drinking in the UK is out of control and apparently sexually promiscuous, un-lady-like young women are at fault. The rise of “ladette” culture is splashed across the papers and women’s magazines are full of images of celebrities ‘exposed’ as drunk with their underwear showing as they climb out of a limo. At the same time, ITV’s hit show Ladette to Lady “transforms some of Britain’s most extreme binge drinking, sexually shameless, anti-social rebels into respectable ladies”.
Trying to combat the focus on young women drinking, the BBC helpfully points out that “it’s not just young women at risk — the ‘typical housewife’, who shares a bottle of wine with her husband every night, will equally run into trouble...’.
Worse still, groups campaigning around drinking problems and even the National Union of Students are playing into this stereotype. The Drug and Alcohol Service of London recently launched a poster campaign with the slogan “If you drink like a man you might end up looking like one”. This caption appears under a photo that is seemingly intended to show an older man wearing “women’s” clothing and heavy make-up.
This campaign plays on and reinforces puritanical attitudes regarding young women’s use of alcohol, as well as the gender norms that assume “real men” drink, whilst women don’t. It polices the crossing of established gender norms and female beauty standards. Not only is this sexist in its appeal to such norms of beauty and behaviour, but it is hugely trans-phobic in using the concept/image of cross-dressing or transgressing gender as one to be avoided and as a supposedly unpleasant consequence of women drinking.
At the same time, The Women’s Campaign at Heriot Watt University has piloted an anti-drinking scheme aimed at women students. “Boozy Betty” is described as “the stereotypical party girl... But with weight problems, poor grades and a raft of sexually transmitted diseases, Boozy Betty is hardly a good role model”. The campaign suggests that women drink too much, should drink less, or else they'll put on weight (“developing a muffin top”), be less attractive and end up having sex (perhaps even with someone embarrassing).
NUS Scotland Women’s annual conference agreed to roll out this campaign across Scotland (despite it having conveniently been passed in advance by NUS Scotland) where one of the “workshops” was a presentation in favour of the campaign. Supporters of the campaign failed to identify why this was a “women’s issue”, or why health issues they’d related to drinking such as STDs couldn’t be addressed through more positive, less moralistic health-related campaigning or services such as sexual health awareness and provision on campuses and in schools (sex education in Scotland’s Catholic schools, for example!).
What the proposers did say, however, was that this wasn’t “their” campaign but “the students’” — a prime example of democracy in action resulting from focus groups held on the subject with women students. So some focus groups (problematic in themselves) discovered that women students are insecure about their weight and their looks, are under pressure to conform to societal norms and moralistic anti-sex attitudes and are broke... no way.
And what was the conclusion from this ground-breaking discovery? Let’s play on these insecurities, pressures and problems to get women students to conform to the puritanical attitudes prevailant in mainstream feminism and the sexist media... and let’s re-enforce these sexist ideas while we’re at it.
Of course, problematic drug use is an issue for many — women and students included. However, if these campaigns were really interested in the health of women they’d spend more time worrying about decent healthcare provision and education that didn’t require alcohol as an answer to boredom, disillusion or stress. They would spend less time engaging with the conservative, moralistic and sexist mainstream media.