Illustration by Erin Taj

Sexism Isn’t Driving Women to Drink

Gender inequality is a real problem, but it’s not why women are boozing it up

I never thought I’d have to say this, but here we are: The patriarchy isn’t why women like to drink.

In a 3100-word essay originally posted on Medium, then picked up by Quartz and then again, in slightly condensed form, by Vox, writer Kristi Coulter lays out a compelling, well-written and largely off-base manifesto about the connections between pervasive gender inequality and the amount of booze that many American women drink.

“There’s no easy way to be a woman,” Coulter writes, “because, as you may have noticed, there’s no acceptable way to be a woman. And if there’s no acceptable way to be the thing you are, then maybe you drink a little. Or a lot.”

She goes on to describe an experience where she was the only woman on a four-person panel and, predictably, her three male co-panelists blew off her measured response to a question about what it’s like to be a woman working at a tech company.

Instead of telling them, or the audience member who posed the question, what she really thinks — that being a woman in tech involves working “around interruptions and invisibility and microaggressions and a scarcity of role models and a lifetime of [your] own conditioning” — Coulter goes out with her girlfriends for an evening of cocktails, tapas and “talking about the latest crappy, non-gender-blind things that have happened to us in meetings and on business trips and at performance review time.”

For many urban, white-collar women, the anecdote does indeed sound familiar: I was ignored, belittled, or out-and-out harassed by a man; there wasn’t much I could do in response, so I had a drink (or three) about it. So far, so accurate, at least for a certain relatively privileged subset of us.

But there the piece takes a turn. Coulter — who, it should be noted, has quit drinking entirely — rattles off a list of places where she sees women drinking (or being encouraged to drink) in situations that she sees as inappropriate or unhealthy: a baby shower; an afternoon showing of Magic Mike; a yoga studio offering a monthly “Vinyasa & Vino” event; a kitchen shop offering wine tastings paired with a knife-skills class. (That last, admittedly, seems ill-advised no matter how you, um, slice it.)

This is where the essay’s gendered lens starts to make no sense. Yes, many (though not so many) Americans too readily equate any pleasurable event with consuming alcohol, and yes, marketers have gotten wildly inventive with that connection — but men’s money is just as green as women’s, and if you sub in keywords like “beer,” “cigars,” “football” and “bachelor party,” you’ll find any number of comparable events aimed at men. (Pints for Prostates, anyone?)

It is perhaps too glib to counter Coulter’s entire argument with But what about the men?, but their total absence from the essay is baffling. According to Gallup, “Men who drink report consuming 6.2 drinks, on average, in the past week, compared with the 2.2 drinks consumed by women.” If women are drinking because it’s really goddamn hard to be a woman — and it is! — then why are men drinking more?

And Coulter’s gendered case against alcohol consumption grows still more incoherent. “I start to get angry at women,” she writes in the essay’s next section, “…for being so easily mollified by a bottle. For thinking that the right to get as trashed as a man means anything but the right to be as useless. …We can’t afford to live lives we have to fool our own central nervous systems into tolerating.”

The projection in her argument is infuriating. For the small minority of Americans who are actual alcoholics — as perhaps Coulter is or was; she doesn’t say it in so many words, but she does mention drinking “at least a bottle of wine a night” before she quit — then alcohol may indeed be a buffer against sexism, or at least against feeling quite so angry or depressed about it. For the rest of us, it’s hardly the opiate of the masses. I know quite a lot of feminists who drink, in moderation or otherwise, and a fair few who don’t; we’re all equally exasperated, and equally at a loss.

What is most frustrating is the implication that if only women would stop being lulled into complacency by the siren song of the bottle then we’d start finding answers to the problems that face so many white-collar women (no other type of woman appears in Coulter’s narrative): the pressure to do and be and have everything; the ever-unattainable standards of conventional attractiveness, and the unspoken but pervasive message that adhering to them is our lives’ sole purpose; the never-ending gantlet of subtle slights and direct assaults that constitute Existing While Female.

Coulter admits that, even stone-cold sober, she doesn’t have any solutions: “Work is hard and there’s still no good way to be a girl and I don’t know what to do with my life and I have to actually deal with all of that.”

Here’s the thing: All of that holds just as true whether you spend Saturday night at home with tea and a book or out getting blitzed at the Cabo Cantina. Choosing the former won’t magically eradicate gender inequality; choosing the latter won’t exacerbate it. The patriarchy could disappear tomorrow and those of us who like to drink would surely continue to do so; life is hard even for men (or so I’ve heard), and drinking is inherently pleasurable for many people.

Coulter seems to have one hammer — not drinking alcohol — and she’s decided that every damn problem she sees is a nail. It’s an understandable response to a major lifestyle change, but in this case it’s a dangerously misguided one. Feminists have a lot of battles left to fight; whether we do so clutching a G&T or a Shirley Temple, we’re on the same side.