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SB Voices: Alcohol, gender and not drinking

In this week’s SB Voices opinion column, Kristiane Sherry explores whether the industry is doing enough to tackle stereotypes associated with not drinking – especially for women and gender variant people.

The Spirits Business editor, Kristiane Sherry

Earlier this week a friend sent across a link to an article by Kristi Coulter: “Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink”. The piece is not new – published last year and widely circulated – but, as one might expect from such a title, it continues to stir up emotive debate about why and how women drink.

First up: as a white, cisgender woman who works in and writes about the alcohol industry, I can only comment from a very narrow viewpoint. Also, I don’t want to discuss here the feminist theory of the “24-hour woman” and the pressure to “have it all”, as frequently raised in the article. But what I do want to address, and what the piece continues to highlight for me, is how we as an industry treat people – especially women and gender variant people – who don’t drink. And from some initial evaluations, there are some major red flags.

Think back to the last event you went to – networking, tasting, trade show, dinner… is it actually possible to schmooze without the booze? There are myriad reasons to hold back on the liquor in the short- or long term. I’m not a doctor but I hear that dry days are good for the body, and in my experience they can be pretty good for the soul, too. But the way we as industry professionals treat people who don’t drink can be cause for alarm – and it leads on to the question of why we drink at all.

I can think of a number of occasions when I’ve expressed surprise when friends and associates – of all genders – have told me they’re not drinking. Reasons vary – training for marathons, not liking alcohol, just wanting to take a break. I’m not talking “dry January” type-challenges here, but lifestyle decisions. And looking back I’m appalled at myself that I expressed such astonishment and pushed for those “reasons”. How dare someone not want to enjoy this exquisite cocktail?! Drinking alcohol should not be the “norm” that abstainers somehow deviate from, and I’m increasingly convinced as an industry we should be taking that stance, too. What someone chooses to put in their body is their prerogative alone. Addressing this needs to go beyond merely tacking token alcohol-free serves on at the end of cocktail menus. Flavour enjoyment, socialising, networking, relaxing, dating, having fun – none of these should be alcohol-centric as standard practice. Yet they are.

So why should this conclusion be examined through the lens of gender? Re-calibrating what’s “normal” is applicable to everyone, right? Absolutely. But this is where Coulter’s piece comes in. We all drink for many reasons – but I would argue that men’s drinking habits rarely come under the same scrutiny of those of women and people of other genders.

We live in an age – politics *claxon* warning – where women’s bodies and what they do to them are increasingly public property. Abortion, reproductive rights and even how a woman should dress come up with alarming frequency – just look to the White House. Taverns and bars have long been the dominion of men – so in many ways, a man choosing not to drink is strikingly counter culture. Yet even today, in 2017, and in some notable bars, I’ve been the subject of surprise for ordering a straight whisky or a particularly boozy serve. When out with non-drinking friends, I’ve witnessed painfully intrusive interrogations from random bystanders in the bar who simply do not understand why this young woman doesn’t drink. Do you not know how to have fun? Are you boring? Pregnant? Yawn. Except it’s only boring on paper. In real life, it can be frightening, intimidating. What are you doing here? It says. How dare you come here and drink that – alcoholic or non-alcoholic – serve. This occasion is not for you.

The point of this piece? To attempt to highlight that as an industry we need to go significantly further for those who fall outside of the “normal” drinking spectrum, especially for women and gender variant people. Bars must be accessible for non-drinkers, of course. But the bigger issue is challenging attitudes to what people should or shouldn’t be drinking – and if they are drinking at all. And that will take a good deal more legwork from all corners of the trade for consumer attitudes to begin to finally shift, too. Let people drink what they want to drink – and if that happens to be not alcohol, that’s fine, too.

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