Nice girls don't drink, do they?

A drunk woman still has the power to shock - but women no longer seem to care. A new book attempts to find out why 500,000 women are now drinking at 'very risky' levels.
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You wake with a dry mouth and a thumping headache. Despite the paracetamol, by the time you get to work you still haven't accounted for how you laddered your tights last night, and 10pm to midnight seems a bit of a blur. When Julie from accounts ignores you very pointedly, a sinking feeling in your stomach makes you realise that the last glass of white wine made you do something you shouldn't.

Your colleague Tim, meanwhile, is regaling the office with the amusing tale of how he drank 14 pints, threw up outside the restaurant and spent an hour staggering round the streets not knowing where he was. There are shouts of laughter from everyone. Including Julie.

More women are drinking - and drinking more heavily, national figures show - but the message remains "real men drink - nice girls don't", according to Elizabeth Ettore, author of Women and Alcohol: a private pleasure or a public problem? to be published next week.

Ms Ettore is a British-American research sociologist whose interest in women and drinking began 20 years ago when she was working at the Addiction Research Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. She interviewed 200 women for her study, most of them British. Women who drink to excess are still treated very differently from men, she says. Alcoholism is is still perceived as a man's problem, with treatment and services geared towards men's needs.

It was during the recession of the 1970s that drinks companies chose to expand home markets through sales of drink in supermarkets. One major consequence was that women became increasingly targeted as consumers. Exotic drinks to tempt the female palate were introduced, as were "women- friendly" cocktail bars sponsored by the industry. It worked. The number of women drinking above recommended levels rose by 50 per cent between 1984 and 1994, and a report by Alcohol Concern last month said that 500,000 women now drink at "very risky" levels - defined as more than 50 units of alcohol a week (equivalent to 25 pints of ordinary beer, six bottles of wine or one and a half bottles of spirits).

There are many reasons why women drink to excess - to avoid painful feelings, to cope with the stress of child care or unemployment - much the same things that may drive men to drink. But women who drink, says Ettore, violate "many if not all of the cherished ideals of what it means to be a woman" - ideals such as etiquette, compliance, submissiveness and purity.

"Women are supposed to be like the Virgin Mary," says Linda, one of the former alcoholics Ettore interviewed. "They are not supposed to get in trouble. They are not supposed to lose control and get drunk. A drinking man you would simply pass by. But a woman who is visibly drunk goes against the idea that women do not get drunk in public."

Faced with such attitudes women may find it difficult to seek help. "Shame is the underlying theme you see going through all my drinking," says another former alcoholic. "Shame is not just behind it but shame is going through it - all of it."

Undoubtedly women do face extra discrimination, particularly the fear of losing their children if their problem is discovered. But Ettore takes her idea to extremes, claiming that women who drink to excess may be seen not only as promiscuous but as being on the road to prostitution: "In drinking too much, a woman is seen to have sacrificed herself to the bottle. In society's eyes she has failed as a woman," she asserts. "In a real sense she has lost her womanhood. What is crucial here is that if a man drinks too much he tends to be seen in an opposite light. His masculinity can be established through the bottle. 'Real men drink' is the message directed to male ears."

Women she talked to described the pervasive influence alcohol had on their lives: "I thought the greatest lover in my life was alcohol," said Susan, a former alcoholic of 10 years. "It was like the be-all and end- all for me - just like a very close and dependent sexual relationship."

Unsurprisingly, those who are particularly at risk of alcohol abuse are those in jobs where alcohol is easily available - bartenders, cocktail waitresses, flight attendants and sex workers. But other women are also vulnerable - the housewife topping up on alcohol in private, scared that if her secret becomes known she will be seen as a bad carer. Or even nuns, who also have a large investment in keeping their habit secret.

A former nun told Ettore of two sisters in her convent who had alcohol problems: "It was quite common for Sister X and Sister Y to drink in secret during what was called their private time. They usually did this after doing the daily housework. Both Sisters had refrigerators in their private bedrooms. I remember when they showed me the contents ... they kept alcohol in them. I also remember the alcohol was spirits, either whisky or gin. I thought at the time it was a little odd. It was only when I started to hear of Sister X's falls that I made the connection between drinking and those falls."

Feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and fear emerged as key findings in these women's lives. But the idea that women who drink are "emotional cripples" is one that Ettore refutes. "When a woman is drunk or has consistently been drinking too much you may hear expressions such as 'she's in denial', 'she can't cope with her feelings', 'she can't face herself' ... These comments suggest a lack of feelings or a pushing away of feelings ... I suggest an alternative view; for any woman who drinks too much her feelings and emotions are of the utmost importance ... If her feelings and emotions were not important to her, why would she go to such extremes [ie overdrinking] to cover them up?"

Ettore wants women to have more say in the treatments they receive. "A lot of treatment is geared towards men," she says. "We need more options for women, for example, services with childcare facilities or treatments that take into account the pressures of being a woman ... We need to treat people as subjects, as individuals, rather than as objects."

But she feels there is still a long way to go before double standards are reversed - witness the attitude to pregnant women seen drinking. While stressing that pregnant women should exercise moderation Ettore says there is conflicting evidence over foetal alcohol syndrome and doctors are all too quick to forbid pregnant women to drink at all.

"A pregnant woman can fall victim to the moral crusade that says women cannot drink during pregnancy. In this context it is interesting that few doctors or scientists make it known that testicle shrinkage or atrophy occurs in men who are heavy drinkers and that this affects the potency of their sperm. What doctor would dare tell a drinking man wanting to father a child to cut out drinking altogether?"

'Women and Alcohol: A private pleasure or a public problem?' by Elizabeth Ettore is published by The Women's Press on 10 April, price pounds 8.99.