Alcohol abuse can be destructive for people of any identity, and it certainly doesn’t discriminate in harming health and livelihoods—but thanks to the way in which gender impacts our lives, there are certain acute ways in which it’s specifically harmful for men.
As a man who lived under alcoholism’s power for almost a decade of my youth, I’ve experienced some of them firsthand, and I’d like to share some of these risks.
Generally speaking, women have a lower body mass and a smaller percentage of their body consisting of water than men do on average, which means that alcohol is processed more quickly by their bodies. This results in men drinking more to get drunk, as they have to spread their alcohol throughout a larger proportion of body and have it last longer.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism), the “safe” drinking limits are different by gender: seven drinks per week for women, but fourteen drinks per week for men. Using a tool such as the Alcohol Spending Calculator, along with some statistics on average drink consumption for men and women, the impact could be several thousand dollars a year harder on the wallet to be an alcoholic as a man. That’s if you don’t get a DUI along the way—a particular danger for men, as three out of four drunk drivers are men, and the average cost of a DUI nationwide is $6,500 (but can often be as high as $10,000).
Alcohol and Toxic Masculinity
Salon defines toxic masculinity as a “specific model of manhood, geared towards dominance and control,” that is often a cause of anguish and pain in the lives of men who ascribe to it even as they believe it is from where they derive their social standing. According to the Geek Feminism Wiki, it includes many elements, and some of those have a particularly nasty relationship with alcohol:
“The expectation that Real Men are strong, and that showing emotion is incompatible with being strong.”
Unfortunately, even men trying to adhere to the strict demands of unfeeling, stoic masculinity have feelings—feelings that can stay bottled up, only to come up with the bottle. Anger is often seen as an exception to the rule or is not framed as an emotion
“The idea that Real Men should be prepared to be violent, even when it is not called for.”
When alcohol removes the user from societal pressures (such as the consequences of being arrested for assault), the likelihood that masculinity’s tough-guy messages will have their say is heightened.
“The idea that a Real Man cannot be a victim, or a victim of abuse.”
This extends to the idea that Real Men can control everything around them, including handling their liquor. A Real Man would never let anything else control him, and therefore is also unwilling to be a “weak” person who is caught admitting that there is a liquid that he can’t dominate.
While I’ve always been effeminate and shied away from tough-guy masculinity, that doesn’t mean I didn’t still suffer from these socializations throughout my years of alcoholism. I had been taught that as a man, I was in charge of things and unaffected by irrational emotion—but the entire time, I was feeling emotions, real legitimate pain about things that are okay to be hurt by, and I would only feel in touch with those emotions when I drank.
I didn’t realize then that alcohol was a cheat, helping me temporarily overcome my safeguards against feeling sensitive so that I could let painful things affect me. The true solution came after I got sober and learned how to deal with those feelings at face value rather than hiding them behind a stoic facade.
It’s no secret that in American popular culture, access to sexual activity is understood to be “gated” by alcohol consumption. The fine print footnote of the “please drink responsibly” is buried at the end of every advertisement, while the much larger image screams, “the sexual partners are where the alcohol is.”
In high school, the lesson society had taught me about my attractiveness level was that I was a nerd and a geek and therefore undesirable. But college taught me a different lesson: that everyone is more sexually available around alcohol and with its inhibition-loosening effects freeing me from my own self-loathing, I might be able to find the confidence to seem attractive to a partner. The invisible lesson I didn’t realize I was learning, though, was that sober me wasn’t worth having sex with.
I didn’t realize I was suffering from cripplingly low self-esteem; I thought that was just the way the world worked, that a nerd was inherently undesirable except maybe in a fun party atmosphere, where he could fake it for a few hours with a drink to give him courage. But it turns out that research shows that the difference in self-esteem that comes from romantic success is grossly more pronounced in men than women—particularly, there is no greater disparity in the correlation between self-esteem and the combination of gender and sexual activity than the disparity between male virgins and non-virgins. And low self-esteem is a classic personality trait of addicts, if not the essential one.
As I continued to frequent bars and house parties to meet partners, I found that I hated myself less when I approached them buzzed, but I was reinforcing our society’s misconception that getting drunk is how one finds the courage to have sex. For years, most of the sex I had, I had while drinking alcohol. Once I got sober, I realized how much work I had left to do to unlearn these harmful lessons that correlated alcohol’s loss of inhibitions with my ability to feel desirable—in other words, to conquer my low self-esteem. Other people around the Internet report a similar experience. I realized, If I could only have sex drunk, then I was only having sex with the drink.
Alcohol and Men’s Health
As you can see, there are particular risks to involving alcohol heavily in your life as a man. As always, the biological risks are still there, as they are for all human bodies— kidney and liver damage, unwanted weight gain, contributions toward later risk for stroke and diabetes— but there are unique intersections between the role masculinity plays in society and how it intersects with alcohol. Studies have shown that our society’s prescribed model for masculine behavior interacts negatively with alcohol’s ability to drain the wallet, put people behind the wheel unsafely, express themselves poorly through rage or fear, and be unable to decouple sexual expression from intoxication. So please, be aware before you raise a glass of the ways in which your gender expression might be having an unwanted interaction with the drink.
Ingraham, Christopher. “The average number of drinks men and women have at every age, charted”. Washington Post. March 10, 2015. Accessed August 22, 2016. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/03/10/charted-when-men-and-women-drink-the-most/>
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States: 2014. Accessed August 25, 2016. <https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/tables/table-33>
McCurley, John. “How Much Does A First Time DUI Cost?” Accessed August 25, 2016. <http://dui.drivinglaws.org/resources/how-much-does-a-first-offense-dui-cost.htm>
Marcotte, Amanda. “Overcompensation Nation: Time To Admit That Toxic Masculinity Drives Guin Violence”. Salon. June 13, 2016. Accessed August 25, 2016. < http://www.salon.com/2016/06/13/overcompensation_nation_its_time_to_admit_that_toxic_masculinity_drives_gun_violence/>
Walsh, Anthony. “Self-esteem and sexual behavior: Exploring gender differences”. Sex Roles Journal of Research. Springer. Oct. 1991. Accessed August 26, 2016. <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00292533>