SOLVE magazine Issue 01 2020 - Page 31

GENDER: FEMININITY PHOTO: HELEN YATES While society has spent a great deal of effort to help people moderate drinking, she found little research underway on the alternative – sobriety. That this work is now taking place at the University of Portsmouth is somewhat apt, with the campus recently making headlines for closing down its Students’ Union bar, the Waterhole, due to lack of demand. In its place are kettles, microwaves and quiet study areas. Dr Emily Nicholls: social contradictions make women walk a tightrope. ILLUSTRATION: 123RF are constantly walking a tightrope,” Dr Nicholls says. “Respectable femininity is always a narrow category and women who strive to embody it feel they are constantly failing, being judged or being policed for doing it wrong.” Wanting to get away from such uncompromising strictures may seem appealing. In fact, in more recent work Dr Nicholls has identified a strong desire for sobriety, particularly among women in their 40s. While society has spent a great deal of effort to help people moderate drinking, she found little research underway on the alternative – sobriety. That this work is now taking place at the University of Portsmouth is somewhat apt, with the campus recently making headlines for closing down its Students’ Union bar, the Waterhole, due to lack of demand. In its place are kettles, microwaves and quiet study areas. “There are some interesting changes happening,” Dr Nicholls says. “Alcohol consumption rates are in decline, particularly among young people.” In a bid to understand some of the social drivers, she has just completed data collection with ichange21, a support and coaching organisation that helps people rethink their relationship with alcohol. In search of the real me The project is called Sobriety Stories and has involved interviewing women who have recently quit drinking alcohol. A recurring theme that emerges from the interviews is authenticity. Giving up alcohol is perceived as removing a mask and allowing a person’s true self to be seen. This is in stark contrast to the idea of alcohol as the liberator of a more uninhibited self – an idea that has strongly prevailed in Western drinking cultures. Authenticity is then seen to lead to a renewed sense of agency and an ability to make positive change, in contrast to feeling powerless and ineffectual. Where once sobriety was viewed as a stigma, often associated with past alcohol addiction, a new idea of sobriety is emerging, couched in terms of a more positive lifestyle choice. Promoting this new zeitgeist are communities and organisations such as Dry January, Club Soda and a wider positive sobriety movement, and women in particular are increasingly active on social media celebrating sobriety. Dr Nicholls believes that experiences of sobriety – and the stigma around it – are shaped by gender. For example, the women she spoke to expressed concerns about being a ‘bad’ partner or mother if they drink heavily. Notably, the newly sober women relish being house-proud, learning to cook, being a better mum and becoming more loving and caring – values that Dr Nicholls says centre femininity in the domestic sphere and draw on traditional ideas of femininity. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a universally positive thing,” she adds. “So we are looking at starting a conversation about whether sobriety in itself could be a kind of rebellious or feminist act that empowers [people] by going against drinking norms.” That’s where she sees the greatest likelihood for having impact: in changing the narrative around sobriety to make it a positive, not a defensive, stance. ISSUE 1 / 2020 31