Alcohol is a Feminist Issue Too. By Ivy Helman

Sex sells.  The sexual objectification of women is used in advertising to sell anything from auto parts to cologne to alcohol.  Despite the myriads of feminist critiques of women’s sexual objectification to sell products, it still exists.  Open a Vogue Magazine or walk into an Abercrombie and Fitch store.  Women are posed half, to almost totally, nude in sexually suggestive ways trying to entice the generic person in patriarchal society, the “average” male (usually white, middle-class and heterosexual) to buy the product. Sometimes that same sexually suggestive pose is meant to also sell a product to the “average” woman as well with the mistaken notion that she will look as attractive and satisfied as the model if only she own the product too.

One of my part-time jobs is as a clerk at a liquor store where there are a good number of sexually explicit ads for alcohol.  I also have three other part-time jobs teaching in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Boston College, in the Religious and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and in my shul’s religious school.  My combined income from the four jobs barely covers rent, food and bills and some months when I don’t get paid from teaching I use the little savings I have to make ends meet.

Recently I have noticed how silenced my feminist voice has become in the liquor store because of my precarious financial situation.  I am hesitant to speak up about the sexist ads for fear of losing my job.  This muted feminist voice is a class issue within feminism.  Specifically, classism affects one’s ability to stand up for one’s self when one’s livelihood is on the line.  Often, I find myself thinking about this as I sell customers vodka or beer.

But I also spend a lot of time at the liquor store thinking about religion.  Alcohol is one of the most regulated items in many religions.  Some religions prohibit it outright like Islam, Mormonism and some evangelical Christian groups.  Other religions like Judaism and some denominations within Christianity have found places within ritual and celebration for its consumption.  Go to any Roman Catholic Church and there will be wine at communion or a Shabbat meal in a Jewish home will have wine as well.  Wine is also part of many neo-pagan festivals and alcohol or another drug is used in many shamanic rites and indigenous practices.

Yet, most religions do not sanction drinking to excess.  There are a few exceptions.  Purim is the Jewish Festival where one should drink to the point where they cannot tell the difference between cursing Haemon and blessing Mordechai (few really follow through with it).  Many shamanic rites and other religious rituals use drugs or alcohol consumption to invoke trance-like states or movement to another plane of existence.  Even so, most religions, even those that build alcohol into ritual and celebration, would not support wanton drunkenness or alcoholism in general seeing it as not good for the soul.

Alcohol affects us and our lives in so many ways that really are not good for the soul.  When one drinks, the alcohol lessens inhibitions. One say things one may not have with clear heads. A drunken individual may fight people she or he would never consider hurting without its influence. One may cry pitifully about stuff that seems insignificant the next day.  Sometimes, people get so drunk, they fall and hurt themselves badly or wake up the next day and can’t remember what they did.  When people choose to drive under the influence, people are killed and lives are forever changed.  Drinking also damages the liver and destroys brain cells.  Yet, many people often turn to alcohol to help them cope with their less-than-perfect lives brought on by the patriarchal society we all inhabit.

Yes, many people use a glass of wine to unwind after a long day at work, others a cold refreshing beer.  I often do the same.  Yet, I often wonder (as I have already mentioned in this post) if religions that prohibit alcohol use in its entirety may have caught onto something we know but often deny: we may not be our best selves when we drink to excess.  We fail ourselves and could potentially hurt others when we are drunk.

Nonetheless selling alcohol also helps me buy food and pay my rent and other bills.  Yet, I do not agree with sexist advertisements to sell liquor.  I’m frustrated with myself that I am more concerned about keeping my job so I can pay my bills than I am about speaking up when I see blatant sexism.  I hate the way alcohol ruins social relationships and damages human bodies and human lives.  In so many ways, our societal dependence on alcohol helps us cope with patriarchy.  But, often our “comforter” hurts more than it helps.  Religions that regulate or prohibit alcohol consumption may be onto something when we look at the damage alcohol does to people and the degradation done to women through the sexist ads used to sell it.  All that being said, alcohol is a feminist issue too.

Categories: consumerism, Feminism, General

Tags: , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Very thoughtful post. Thank you! I find use of alcohol or abstinence to be the horns of a dilemma. Interesting for me to ponder the religious, patriarchal dimensions. My father, an episcopal priest, was an alcoholic or at any rate a heavy drinker who often lost control especially in my childhood. Thanks for this post. Good luck dancing on the horns of your dilemma about right livelihood.


  2. I am like my wine with good company. But I am quite sympatheitic to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union which understood that far too many men drank away the family paycheck on a Friday or Saturday night and then came home and beat their wives and kids. In lesbian communities up until recently alcholism was also a major problem as lesbian bars were the only place to meet other lesbians or failing that to drink your sorrows away. Some parts of the Goddess feminist/Neopagan/Wiccan movement consider wine a part of the celebration, while others ban it in consideration of recovering alcholics. …


  3. I think alcohol is like anything really…. it can be good or bad. I personally like to drink with women, and I avoid drinking at any events men are at. Religions are very divergent in their attitudes towards drinking. Who knows what would be best?

    I feel for your delimma with selling alcohol to pay the bills, and three jobs is a heavy load. One wonders what gender and women’s studies departments would do it they really paid their teachers higher wages, so that no feminist scholar would ever have to do this.

    I often wonder why feminism is so badly paid, and why more feminist books on business and money aren’t really seriously out there compared to the hundreds coming out of women’s studies departments. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

    On the alcohol and lesbian front, it is interesting that health studies reveal that lesbians are way more likely to abuse alcohol at bars than are hetero women, according to a major lesbian health study done around 2003 (over 3000 such studies were done on gay men and only one study done on lesbians at the time). The professor said that hetero women face more danger from men in hetero bars, while in lesbian bars we have no fear of rape. Interesting. In vino veritas.


  4. Thank you for your post! As a feminist, women’s spirituality scholar and addiction/recovery professional with 25 years experience of supporting women with healing from addiction, I am always thrilled to see someone making connections between substance use, spirituality and feminism.Virtually 100 percent of women who develop addictions to drugs and alcohol are survivors of a continuum of gendered trauma who have used/abused substances as part of complex survival strategies that can also include unhealthy relationships, overwork, multiple pregnancies, eating problems, excess exercise, and extreme religiosity, among numerous other dissociative tactics. Of course all of these issues are embedded within the context of intersecting social realities of race, class, age, ability, sexuality, religion, etc.

    In other words, our patriarchal/addictive society creates the conditions in which millions of women and children are victimized, which impairs their development of relational health (with self and others), which, in turn, leads to the survival strategies described above, which leads to reduced or nonexistent empowerment, political awareness or agency, which dis-empowers not only individuals and families, but also communities, and leads to replication of the conditions which allow patriarchy to flourish.

    Certainly, not all women who have experienced trauma develop addictions to alcohol and drugs; their paths lead elsewhere. But all women who do develop addictions are struggling with psychological trauma rooted in patriarchy. It is not for feminism to draw arbitrary, generalized conclusions about individual women’s use of alcohol and other substances, either socially or in a context of spiritual practice. However, in my view we could do a lot more to engage questions of substance use/addiction in terms of race, class, age, ability, sexuality, religion as Ivy does in her post. I have long held that connecting the dots between patriarchy, trauma and addiction is an area of feminist thinking that needs a great deal of attention.


  5. Ann’s comments make a lot of sense. I was really shocked when I went to a lesbian health conference quite awhile ago, to hear a speech by a professor of statistics talk about a lesbian health study. As I said above, there was only one study that conformed to statistical analysis that focused purely on lesbian health concerns, compared to thousands dealing with gay men.

    So lesbians really literally have almost no statistical information about our group, and the implications of this are horrifying. Seeing the graphs and tables and the reasons for the rather dramatic differences between hetero women and lesbians was fascinating.

    So feminism, lesbian communities and addiction are germaine, as is the cause of these addictions. We have to really focus on healing AND overthrowing patriarchal and heteronormative systems to get at the truth. I think we need to know why men sell so much alcohol to begin with, and what the overt sexual objectification of women in alcohol advertising really means. It’s scary to go to the local market, and see blond women serving up beer in sexy outfits in a big poster covering half the wall of the market, for example.

    And we all know that men use alcohol to rape women, and that laws governing consent are completely male centric.

    Addiction is rampant in advanced capitalism, it was once rampant in the lesbian community, although I see this less than I used to. As lesbians have aggressively carved out lesbian spaces outside bars, we have become healthier. And young lesbians constantly talk about the need for safe lesbian only space; this is a health issue for us.


  6. I do agree sex does sell products,it does so in every county in the world. It is not right or wrong but an acceptable means to achieve the utimate goal – selling products.
    I am very proud of my daughter for voicing her beliefs, I am even more proud that she realizes that you can have beliefs, share them, and still work in an imperfect society. Your insights are my inspirations, keep on living your life and keep on sharing.



  1. Egypt or Evangelical?; Alcohol and Feminism; « Poems, Prayers, Promises & Politics

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