Gender’s Influence on Substance Abuse
While it might not seem obvious, gender can play a significant role in the development of addiction. Exposure to substances, societal expectations, and stereotypes are often rooted in a person’s experience with addiction. Research suggests that gender significantly impacts all stages of addiction, from development to treatment. While men and women may be equally at risk for developing an addiction, the way substances are abused, the nature of side effects, and the effectiveness of treatment can differ.
While there are exceptions to every situation, in general, the following themes are observed.
Addiction in Men
Generally speaking, rates of addiction tend to be higher in men than in women. Although these percentages are becoming more balanced, addiction in men tends to be more prevalent. Studies show this can be attributed to factors such as earlier exposure to substances, the increased likelihood of being offered substances by any number of people (from parents and male friends to complete strangers), and more public use of substances.
Men often experience pressure due to fear of emasculation. It is not uncommon to find peer pressure and a desire to prove one’s “manhood” can influence a man’s initial substance abuse. Coupled with societal expectations and stereotypes that may encourage a man to not show signs of weakness of vulnerability, men can be reluctant to seek help. Because society often teaches men to mask their emotions and repress behaviors or thoughts that may not be perceived as “masculine”, men often find substances to be an alternative outlet for coping with difficult emotions and experiences.
Addiction in Women
Women have the same chance as men to develop an addiction to substances, but the reasons behind its development typically differ. In general, substance abuse in women tends to develop more privately. This is because societal expectations for gender performance can make substance abuse a shameful secret. Women tend to be offered substances in private from similarly-aged peers or substance-abusing partners. Because substances are often abused behind closed doors, it can be harder to detect for a longer period of time.
Women may use drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with trauma, difficult experiences, or mental and emotional health. Because women are often viewed as caregivers and expected to be nurturing and selfless, the presence of an addiction can be difficult to cope with. Women, especially those with children, may fear seeking help because of the potential consequences of admitting there is a problem. They may fear losing custody of children or being perceived poorly by others. This can cause addiction to go untreated for a significant amount of time. Unfortunately, this can lead to more considerable consequences. Even if a woman is abusing the same amount of a particular substance over the same length of time as a man, women metabolize substances differently and are affected by it more dramatically in shorter periods of time. This means that a woman will suffer more major side effects earlier on than a man.
Treatment for Addiction in Men and Women
While treatment for addiction in men and women have many similar components, gender-specific treatment is vital in making the recovery experience more effective. Many approaches to treatment utilize similar components and approaches, but incorporating unique therapies to address the unique aspects of addiction between men and women can improve outcomes.
For example, women are more likely than men to experience trauma that influences the development of addiction. Many of these traumatic experiences can be difficult to address, especially in mixed groups, because women are disproportionately affected by physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Creating a safe place to explore these topics is vital in addressing the underlying causes of addiction. Furthermore, there tend to be higher rates of relapse among women, more highly intensified experiences of stigmatization, and family components that affect a woman’s experience in treatment and her success following completion of a program.
For men, it is important to create a safe space to explore themes of gender performance, stereotypes, and the influence of toxic masculinity. Similar to the experiences of women, it can be difficult to allow oneself to become vulnerable, especially in mixed groups. Male-specific therapies can help men work together to chip away at the impact of stereotypes and allow them to explore emotionally-charged topics without fear of being criticized or emasculated by peers.
Rather than entering recovery in a cookie-cutter program that applies a “one-size-fits-all” method to addiction treatment, finding those that specialize in gender-specific treatment, i.e. drug treatment for women and drug treatment for men, can improve recovery outcomes. Although there are a broad range of symptoms, experiences, and factors that can affect people regardless of individual factors, these unique components of a person’s identity are significant and must be acknowledged in treatment in order to provide the most effective care.