The New Epidemic: the rise of female drinking


Two weeks ago I wandered into my favourite bookshop on Brunswick Street, and walked past a pink book with the title, “Drink”, written by the journalist Ann Dowsett Johnson, I opened the book and read the first sentence,

Hang out in the brightly lit rooms of AA, or in coffee shops, talking to dozens of women who have given up drinking, and this is the conclusion you come to: for most, booze is a loan shark, someone they trusted for a while, came to count on, before it turned ugly.

I tried not to cry. That morning at around 10.30am I had downed 500ml of cider to you know, “take the edge off.” I have been drinking heavily since arriving in Australia. Moving countries is both stressful and incredibly lonely. Before this, like a lot of women I had gone through phases of episodic binge drinking, throughout my teens and twenties. I had even gone to CADS to seek help for my drinking a year earlier. But now my drinking is becoming a daily occurrence; sometimes I even drink at work.  Somehow, along the way my occasional habits of drinking a bit too much morphed into drinking on a daily basis.

I took the book up to the counter and handed over my money. I quickly tucked the book into my bag and walked out of the store. I walked into the nearest bar and downed another cider, it was 1 in the afternoon, and began to read. Ann Dowsett Johnson points to what is now believed to be a, “global epidemic of women’s drinking” as women have gained equality in “certain arenas” female binge drinking and dependence on alcohol has steadily risen, “those born between 1978 and 1983… are drinking to black out. In that age group, there is a reduction in male drinking, and a sharp increase for women.”

I have trusted alcohol since I was 14 because everyone else was drinking it whether you were in the
“cool” group or not. I kept on drinking because it made me feel invincible, pretty, capable… and eventually in my late twenties I drunk to numb the pain, disappointment and anxiety.

Johnson, in her book reflects on why so many women have picked up the bottle she wrote, “Like countless women, I lived with the tyrannical myth of perfection,” this ideal of perfection is something I deeply relate to. From an early age, I wanted to be the best at the age of 12 I wanted my PHD, I was going to do something incredible with my life; I wanted to change the world. I was going to do whatever it took, whatever it cost, to succeed in a world that so deeply favours men.

I went to University, I gained two undergraduate and two post graduate qualifications. I worked relentlessly, my mantra for over a half decade of university was, “let no one out work you today.” I would be at university from 6am till 12 at night. I would research and work until my eyes turned red. If I got a B I would vehemently criticises myself and then simply, work harder. I graduated in my final year of my BVA with an A+ average. I was exhausted. I went straight on to my first year of post graduate study finishing with an A average. It nearly killed me. I went on to my 2nd year of post graduate study graduating with, yet again, an A average. I had nothing left.

By this time my crippling pressure on myself, to be the best and to be perfect had resulted in using alcohol as a way to cope and ensued with epic binge drinking and periodically drug use, during the weekends. I was, as Ann Dowsett Johnston puts it, “[a] weekend warrior” in which she describes a trend of young females drinking to, “black out”. According to CDC Vital Signs report,

…female binge drinking is a serious, underrognized problem: almost 14 million American girls and women binge drink an average of three times each month, typically consuming six drinks per binging episode.

While at University the recession hit and the global financial collapse meant highly qualified graduates who had occurred thousands of dollars of debt had left University and either could not find work or if they did it was low paid and had little, if nothing to do with their degrees. I was one of those graduates.

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At 26 I was working 3 bar jobs (yeah, working in a bar surround by alcohol… great place to be when you have a problematic relationship with alcohol) to make enough money to buy food and pay rent. It was devastating. I moved home, unable to keep up with bills. To cope with the disappointment I started drinking more, once a week turned into 2-4 times a week averaging between 2-5 drinks in one session. I used alcohol to numb the pain of what I perceived to be my own failure and the depression which subsequently crept into the corners of my life.  Johnston asks,

Why do we drink? To celebrate, yes. Relax, reward. Of course. Ask most girls and women with a serious drinking problem, and you will get none of these answers. What you will get is this–present or past tense notwithstanding: I drink to numb. I drink to forget. I drink not to feel. I drink not to be me.

In my family, unlike many people who develop problems with drinking, there is no history of addiction, apart from one other sibling. In fact my mum rarely ever had an alcoholic drink in front of me when I was growing up.

What most people do not know is there are many other factors that can seriously impact the chances of someone, developing a serious drinking problem as Johnston cites, “…a Canadian study involving six treatment centres found that 90 percent of women interviewed reported childhood sexual abuse or adult abuse histories in relation to their problematic drinking.” In fact childhood sexual abuse “is one of the strongest predictors of Alcohol abuse”. I am a survivor of child sexual abuse.

I started drinking at 14, which escalated into binge drinking by 15 like a lot of parents my mum was just glad I wasn’t on harder drugs. But parents should be worried, Richard Grucza, an alcohol epidemiologist points out, “there is a twenty-five percent increase in risk for alcohol dependence in those who drink at an early age”.

During my teenage years I engaged in high risk behaviour (a lot of girls I was friends with did, also); hitching everywhere, binge drinking in the weekends which of course lead to more unwanted sexual assaults. I remember waking up at a party with some guy twice my size tonguing my face with his hand up my shirt. I was paralysed with fear. I managed, somehow to get him off me. I told no one – as the cultural narrative goes: drunk girls get what they deserve. I had flashbacks and anxiety over the incident and others like it, for years.

Many young girls and women use alcohol to self-medicate, they use it to forget and deal with troublesome feelings and past trauma(s). This can create a horrible feedback loop; you drink to numb the pain related to what you have survived, but the drinking puts you at a much higher risk of repeating the history which in part, lead you to abusing alcohol in the first place.

There is barely any public conversation around how women are coping with the aftermath of assault, in a world where 1 billion women have survived sexual assault, we desperately need to start acknowledging that growing numbers of women are drinking to cope with what they have survived. Sexual abuse accounts for 20% of binge drinking, and sexual harassment for 50% in under 18 year olds, as  Elizabeth Saewye a Canadian researcher says, “if we want to get a handle on problematic drinking in adolescence we have to focus on violence in our society.”

What is also disturbing is, alcohol companies are now aggressively aiming their advertising at women. Previously advertising for alcohol was mainly aimed at men. While growing numbers of young girls are being admitted to hospitals in the early mornings of Saturdays and Sundays to have their stomach pumped or to undergo rape kits, alcohol companies are selling us the idea, drinking will bring us happiness and, make you feel sexy and liberated like Moet and Chardon’s, Be Fabulous, campaign.


Alcohol is involved in 9 out of 10 rapes on university campuses, so while alcohol companies are busy selling us ideas of “freedom” and “liberation” if alcohol is ever involved in a rape it is often used to excuse it.

There are many associated risks with drinking, risks as a culture which is “soaked in alcohol” we generally like to stay blissfully unaware of. Sir Ian Gilmore, the past president of the Royal college of physicians states,

In the thirty years I have been a liver specialist, the striking difference is this: liver cirrhosis was the disease of elderly men–I have seen a girl as young as seventeen and women in their twenties with end-stage liver disease. Alcohol dependence is setting in when youngsters are still in their teens.

When I read those words, I felt my stomach fly into my mouth; no one really likes to hear the hard hitting facts about what addiction, especially alcohol addiction or just binge drinking something that has been so normalised in our culture, can do to your body.  As Johnston points out, “deaths from liver disease have risen by 20% in the last decade.” Not to mention the impact alcohol abuse can have on your mental health and wellbeing.  A psychiatric nurse I spoke to said, “…when it comes to addiction and alcohol abuse sometimes it is hard to know what came first? The chicken or the egg?” In other words it is hard to figure out if the alcohol and/or drug use caused the mental health issue or simply made it worse.

I have lied to a lot of people about how much I drink; to my boss, and of course to myself but also to my, mum. I only admitted to my mum four weeks ago I have been drinking heavily, to the point I now have major concerns about my health. Before this I had been telling her my drinking was much better that I was, “fine”. Sometimes while I held my third glass of wine in my hand, I would be on the phone reassuring her my drinking had, “honestly improved so much since coming to Australia.” I have spent most of my life telling people “I am fine,” as Kneeper, vice president at Caron treatments centres points out,

 “Women have a tendency to want to project an image of holding it all together–but they will know internally, long before others, that they have a problem. Eventually they will be outed: a DUI, showing up late for work too often, external issues.”

The spoken word poet Michael Lee who has struggled with alcohol addiction for most of his life, remembers in his poem, “Waking Up Naked” how he was asked, “Michael, do you want to die?” ever since hearing these words they resound inside my head nearly every time I pick up a drink, “Chloe, do you want to die?”.

The excessive consumption of alcohol has been normalised in our western culture, I think people believe alcohol is “safe” or you know, better than crack. What people need to realise is binge drinking, heavy drinking and drinking to self-medicate can be really damaging, “Lots of harms are coming from those who are not addicted,” says Robert Strang, Chief public officer of the providence of Nova Scotia, “periodic, episodic binge drinking leads to acute and chronic problems in society. The problem with alcohol? We don’t acknowledge it as a drug – and as such, we haven’t paid enough attention to it.”

Excessive drinking is a serious and chronic public health issue, and it has become as Johnson asserts in her book, “a women’s issue”. And she is right. Women are expected to live a certain way; to be skinny, beautiful, have successful careers, raise kids and never brake a sweat. In our alcogenic culture more and more women are picking up the bottle to cope with past traumas and/or the growing and sometimes crippling demands placed on them.

We desperately need to start speaking about how some women, are drinking – to cope, so we can lift and challenge the stigma of addiction and support women who need help.



  1. In the late 1980’s the booze industry, in the quest for more profits, targeted woman with products and marketing. They did this because woman were very unrepresented in alcohol consumption demographics and statistics.

    RTD’s were the booze pushers answer to the problem of woman not drinking enough alcohol.

    Over the following decades aided by various governments which could only be described as ‘Pro-drug’, as long as the drug was alcohol, we have seen the booze industry push their product by any and every means possible.

    Marketing was more targeted, Liquor outlets multiplied, prices dropped and they got their drug into the supermarkets.

    All this was done with the aim of selling more booze and avoiding any meaningful measures to minimize the damage caused by this drug or pay the proper costs associated with it

    The links between the booze industry and politicians is very strong and this seems to protect them from effective regulation or a proper amount of tax levied on their drug ( the excise tax should cover the extra health and crime costs caused by the booze).

    And the struggling print media seems afraid to bite the hand which feeds it and lose the substantial liquor advertising revenues they get. So booze crime and addiction gets downplayed and under-reported while ‘drug crimes’ get hyped and sensationalized. Witness the present ‘legal highs’ frenzy for instance. More of our kids will come to grief and even die because of booze, where’s the moral outrage about that?.

    It all seems a side show and distraction from our number 1 drug problem which is booze.

    The facts are that here in NZ it’s the number 1 drug for addiction,

    Its number 1 for assults, rapes and murders,

    number 1 for suicide,

    number 1 for car crashes and accidents,

    number 1 for disease and illness etc etc etc.

    Orwellian language is all around us and one of the best is “ Drugs and Alcohol”

    Because nice good people don’t take drugs …………………….

    • thanks for all of this info was a really interesting reply, I hope to do more research and start pushing for alcohol law reform as well and want to so more writing on the subject.

  2. I haven’t lived in Aotearoa since 2000, but I never saw young women and teenage girls passed out in pools of vomit in the middle of the street like I have in Brisbane. I’ve been told by friends that they see similar sights in Britain. It is a real worry and, while I know they are still not saying yes, many young, and not so young, men seem to think they are. I hope you get the help and support you want and need.

    • yeah the drinking culture is worse in oz than in nz, I think it is the amount of money in that country. The richer the country the more people drink…

  3. Excellent Post . It’s very poignant for me .

    Sir Douglas Meyers . Lion Nathan .

    Sir Ron Brierly . Progressive Enterprises .

    Racks of wine beside the yougurts and cheeses in the supermarket .

    Anxiety is the biggest consumer of alcohol .

  4. Alcohol is involved in 9 out of 10 rapes on university campuses…

    All alcohol does is lower inhibitions, it doesn’t make anyone a rapist. Having their inhibitions lowered might make rapists more likely to rape, but that isn’t the fault of alcoholic drinks manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, advertisers or consumers, it’s the fault of rapists.

    • I completely agree, in no way did I intend to insinuate alcohol is an excuse or a reason for rape, I just wanted to point out rapists often target women when they are vulnerable.

  5. Alcohol abuse has worried me for a long time, my father was an alcoholic and it eventually killed him. Because of his addiction I spent no time with my father and I last saw him when I was four. Alcohol destroys lives and whilst I don’t want prohibition I would _love_ to remove alcohol advertising and get alcohol out of supermarkets.

    Because of my father’s alcoholism and because I’m Catholic I felt called to become a Pioneer. It’s an extremely old fashioned group – the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart. It was started by Fr. James Cullen in Dublin, in 1898. The idea is that members pledge to abstain from alcohol for life, say a special prayer twice a day, and wear a pin of the Association.

    I’ve been teetotal now since September the 5th 2010. I really miss my summer G&Ts and my winter brandy & ginger ales etc. but seeing the damage that alcohol does makes me want to do something.

    I just wanted you to know that there are people out there praying for you (and everyone who suffers from alcohol abuse). I’m sorry I can’t offer you any practical help, but I wanted you to know you aren’t alone in your journey and that I’m sending you my best wishes.

    God bless and good luck.

  6. It sounds like psycho milt is defending a drug he probably enjoys ……

    And obviously he has not encountered the wild crazy drunks who can only be described as suffering from ‘alcohol psychosis’, a disease which causes a alcohol fueled crime wave every weekend. Our police force even bases its staffing levels in response to when kiwis drink … I presume the same goes for hospital ER staffing levels.

    Alcohol is a powerful and unpredictable drug which can and does do far more than ‘lower inhibitions’, shit thats only the first stage of ‘getting drunk’.

    We have these drinking myth’s which are usually benign and can be along the line of “it lowers inhibitions and it brings out your true personality”.

    And we have the drug myths about crazy violent drug users.

    But in the REAL New Zealand the “drug crazed nutter” that we or the police have to deal with is an ANGRY DRUNK …. and thats 99 times out of a 100.

    And many many rapes and sexual attacks would not have happened without alcohol. Thats a simple fact ……. go ask the roast busters.

    Booze pushers make Billions ………… rape crisis is starved for money.

    Its all linked and makes up the fabric of our society

    • It sounds like psycho milt is defending a drug he probably enjoys …

      Not quite! I’m defending a drug I definitely enjoy.

      And obviously he has not encountered the wild crazy drunks who can only be described as suffering from ‘alcohol psychosis’, a disease which causes a alcohol fueled crime wave every weekend.

      As with the rapists, alcohol doesn’t “cause” people to commit crimes. It certainly clocks up a lot of negative health effects, but making people violent isn’t one of them – it just makes the violent less inhibited about indulging. I’ve been shitfaced drunk many times with many different people, without any of it resulting in violence – because the people involved weren’t arseholes. It’s people who determine what happens, not alcohol.

      Alcohol is a powerful and unpredictable drug which can and does do far more than ‘lower inhibitions’…

      Alcohol is a thoroughly predictable drug. The effects are well known and, well, predictable. It’s human behaviour that is unpredictable.

      And many many rapes and sexual attacks would not have happened without alcohol. Thats a simple fact …

      It’s an irrelevant fact. Rapes happen because a rapist decides to rape someone – a sober rapist might be less likely to rape someone, but alcohol has no magical power to turn an otherwise consent-respecting citizen into a rapist.

      • I’m not comfortable with either/or statements like this. Yes a rapist is 100% responsible for the rape, I’d never question that, and I understand the emphasis you’re trying to make but it’s pretty obvious that alcohol is involved a lot of the time.

        I’d say it was a ‘facilitator’ and I’d hate to see it’s contribution ignored while we’re trying to change our culture to one that doesn’t produce potential rapists.

        “a sober rapist might be less likely to rape someone, but alcohol has no magical power to turn an otherwise consent-respecting citizen into a rapist”

        On reflection I don’t think I agree with this, boys are presented with a very, very distorted view of relationships and women while they’re growing up. Women are shown as being there for their benefit and for a young guy having grown up in a culture where children are routinely treated without dignity a great many of them are not going to ready for this situation.

        It took me a very long time to work out my own values around relationships and also to work out which values were inherited. If I had drunk more and also if I had been mistreated in any way as a child I probably would have been a candidate for this sort of thing (as would any guy in our culture). Unfortunately for the guys who meet the criteria trying to live with what they have done will change them forever too.

        Again I don’t want anyone to mistake this as an apology for rape – but we have a major problem here and we’re letting down our boys as well as our girls in the way we raise children.

        Have a look at Jessie’s article for another method of preventing rapes that most people haven’t yet cottoned on to

        • If I had drunk more and also if I had been mistreated in any way as a child I probably would have been a candidate for this sort of thing (as would any guy in our culture).

          I’d love to hear what crime-inducing qualities alcohol is supposed to possess, and what the chemical mechanism for its operation is supposed to be. As far as I know, it does nothing more than lower whatever facade you present to society when sober. If the facade you normally present is that you’re not a thug or a rapist, then yes other people are in serious danger when you drink. However, that’s not the fault of alcohol or its manufacturers, sellers or advertisers.

          This is in any case tangential to the actual point of the post – not many women are dangerous to others when pissed, their problem is more that many men remain a danger to them but their ability to recognise and defend against that threat is lowered. Still not alcohol’s fault, mind you.

          • My point was that young men when pissed (which yes, is getting off the main topic) are in a situation where a lot of their value systems are not fully formed and consist of a lot of stuff that has just been handed to them.

            One value that kids have reinforced every day is that people with power over you get to treat you how they like and do what they like.

            The next value is that people with power are nicer to you if other people are watching

            The story that boys get from the media is that women are there for their benefit.

            If you put all of that inside a young person, who’s frontal cortex is probably offline (and certainly will be if they’re drunk) there’s going to be problems.

            Saying that all alcohol does is lower your facade is fairly judgmental and doesn’t take into account the complexities of the situation. Pointing out that the alcohol itself isn’t responsible for the crime is a useful way to think about an issue for a moment but back in the real world it’s a simple fact that a lot of crimes wouldn’t happen if people hadn’t drunk so much.

            • You bet I’m judgmental when it comes to people who commit violent crimes – me and the criminal justice system both. And should you find one of your mates trying to rape a drunk girl, I really, really hope you will not quietly leave him to it and tell yourself “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

              It is indeed a simple fact that many crimes wouldn’t happen if people didn’t drink alcohol, just as it’s a simple fact that many injuries wouldn’t happen if people didn’t play sport and many incidents of child abuse and STDs wouldn’t happen if people didn’t have sex with people they weren’t married to. However, people aren’t going to stop doing those things, so these are not very useful facts if you’re looking for guides for action. They help us identify behaviour that involves risk, but that’s about it.

      • I don’t think that alcohol can make someone rape, but I do think that taking a drug that can affect how people perceive social behaviours can lead to problems.

        Alcohol impairs our judgement, it’s why people who drive safely sober, kill people when driving drunk. Just as the perception required for driving a car is inhibited by alcohol, so is the perception needed for interpersonal relationships. Alcohol is a powerful drug that causes cognitive function to change, it affects the central nervous system because it’s psychoactive.

        When people have a wine or whisky because they enjoy the taste, that’s fine, but when people drink to become intoxicated then they are using it as a drug. People intoxicated on drugs don’t always make good judgements. I’m not saying we should stop this kind of drug use, but let’s be honest about the harm it causes people. And let’s be honest about the money it makes big business.

        • No arguments from me against honesty – there is risk involved in drug use and the people raking in fat profits from it are not model citizens. I’d like to see drunkenness made an aggravating rather than mitigating factor when it comes to sentencing – make people actually face up to the fact that they are taking a risk when they do this.

          • One of things I’ve noticed is the amount of drinking that goes on in some tv shows, Step Dave is a perfect example. The amount of alcohol that is consumed by characters on that show would drop a horse. I’m not sure if it is blatant product placement or social commentary that when people have issues they reach for the wine.

  7. I’ve always believed that marihjuana should be legal and alcohol banned or severely restricted. But does any prohibition ever work? I don’t think so.

    We really need a massive education campaign and maybe a return to the days of making public intoxication illegal. Maybe like a “spot Fine”? I’d also like to see less alcohol advertising and discounting made illegal. This is after all a drug.

  8. Well said Chloe! It seems that when NZ de-regulated the booze industry, our wisdom to drink sensibly wasn’t equal with our abilities to promote alcohol. We are like a bunch of kids at an after school Ball piss-up and we’re all having to pay the cost.

  9. Alcohol is very predictable on society ……….. when alcohol consumption increases so does violent crime.

    It’s one of the few drugs that is ‘crimenogenic’ ………… its presence and consumption ALWAYS leads to more violent crime and disorder offences.

    Its effect on the brain apart from being neuro-toxic ( it kills brain cells ) is to dull and turn of the ‘reasoning’ part of the brain while amplifying our emotional responses ……. ie it makes you stupid and highly emotional.

    Some people suffer full blown alcohol psychosis where the drug alcohol has turned otherwise normal sane people into raving irrational lunatics.

    Those addicted to it can die from with-drawls.

    But although booze is this powerful drug which when abused can cause huge suffering including a lot of innocent victims ( drunk drivers, drunken assaults etc ), the steps to minimizing its harms are quite simple.

    Get it out of the supermarkets and control its marketing ………. it IS a drug and its pushed like no other

    And set the excise tax at a level which pays for the costs caused by its consumption.

    All those extra cops, doctors , jail cells and hospital beds needed and filled by booze should be funded by booze.

    The present state of affairs is taxpayers and society are picking up the tab for drug pushers which is exactly what the liquor industry is.

  10. Well done Chloe for being brave and admitting you have a problem, that’s a start to moving forward in a more healthy way for yourself.
    You need to stop drinking love, and you need to stop now. Yes it’s going to be painful, however the pain of avoidance is always far greater than the pain we feel once we actually face it.
    Remember that – what you are doing now to avoid pain is worse than the pain that lies beneath. You can do it, and you need to do it. Please.

    What’s fascinating about this discourse is that while it seems to me Chloe is plainly asking for support in admitting she has a problem that is getting worse, ALMOST NO ONE has acknowledged that in this thread. There’s your typical societal avoidance right there!
    I’m guilty, I’ve let go of a friend rather than express to her that I feel she is an alcoholic, we don’t like to rock the boat. Well we need to and we need to get real, we are a very repressed society, and TV etc does encourage it, of course it does.

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