The Tara Treatment Center Blog

Gender and Addiction: How Stigma Affects Women and Men

While women and men are more alike psychologically than they are different, each gender is faced with unique social roles and expectations. We’ve discussed in a previous post how gender differences can affect what a person needs during addiction treatment, but we’ve only scratched the surface on the unique ways women and men experience addiction.

Take stigma for example. Shame and guilt are common feelings for anyone with a substance addiction, but women and men often feel guilty about their substance use for different reasons. Social acceptance of substance use also varies based on gender, causing women and men to suffer from stigma in different ways.

To better understand how stigma affects women and men, we spoke to three experts on the subject here at Tara Treatment Center: Amber Hoff, our Women’s Program Coordinator, Barbara Warner, our Men’s Program Coordinator, and Jennifer Parker, our Clinical Supervisor. Their expertise can help loved ones and care providers know what to expect from someone who is suffering with addiction.

From left to right: Amber Hoff (MSW), Jennifer Parker (BSW, LAC, ACRPS), and Barbara Warner (MSW, LCAC, LCSW)

Gender Roles: The Basis for Stigma Difference

The biggest reason women and men experience stigma differently is because society assigns them different gender roles.

Women are typically expected to fill the role of caretaker and manager of the home in addition to their professional responsibilities. This expectation is even greater if they have children. “As a woman, you’re supposed to be the caretaker of your kids, and not being able to fulfill that obligation creates shame and guilt,” Amber explains.

Men, on the other hand, are expected to be providers for their family. They often feel that they should be strong, self-reliant and unemotional. “Men in general struggle with asking for help and showing weakness,” Barbara says. I think they’re conditioned early on that ‘boys don’t cry.’ “

Gender-specific stigmas associated with substance use stem from a woman or man’s inability to fulfill these expected roles.

How Stigma Manifests Across Genders

So, what are some ways stigma typically presents itself in women and men?

For starters, due to their role as caretakers, even moderate alcohol or substance use is looked down upon for women. According to Jennifer:

“For men, it’s acceptable to drink every day after work as long as you’re going to work and providing for your family, whereas for women, whether they’re a housewife or they work outside of the home, or both, any use at all is stigmatized. It kind of falls back to, ‘It’s not ladylike. How could you possibly care for your kids and hold down this job if you are abusing alcohol?’ “

Peer judgment and feelings of shame only get worse if a woman’s substance use affects her family in tangible ways. “I think to this day there’s more stigma attached to women when they get involved with the Department of Child Services. People think they can’t take care of their kids and fulfill their role as a woman in the home,” Amber says.

By contrast, because moderate drinking or drug use is tolerated for men, they typically have more difficulty accepting when it has become an issue. Barbara explains:

“Men have this perception of an alcoholic as someone with a brown bag who’s living in a cardboard box. As long as they still have a job, they’re paying bills, they’re contributing—that male provider role—they think, ‘I’m still somewhat functioning, so that can’t be me.’ It creates a denial system.”

If their usage becomes severe, men may also feel a stigma toward showing any kind of weakness to their peers. “Men really struggle with displaying and communicating emotion. Oftentimes their emotions come across as anger when they’re actually feeling hurt, sadness or fear,” Barbara says.

Stigma as a Barrier to Treatment

In addition to the emotional suffering it causes, the stigma of substance use can also act as a barrier to receiving addiction treatment. Stigma does this in two ways: by preventing women and men from seeking treatment in the first place and by convincing them to leave treatment early.

Again, women and men sometimes postpone treatment or drop out of it for different reasons. Women may be more likely to put off treatment in order to continue caring for the family, while men may be more likely to avoid it out of denial. Jennifer points out:

“Women tend to seek treatment later than men because of the need to stay in the home and care for the house, the children—whatever responsibilities they have. For men, it’s almost like there have to be consequences before their mindset changes, whether it’s their behavior, or they get arrested, or they show up to work intoxicated.”

Once in treatment, both women and men may be tempted to leave because they feel guilty for neglecting their personal responsibilities. However, women may face additional pressure to return home to care for children. Amber explains:

“One of the primary things we hear at the women’s facility when someone is struggling to want to stay in programming is that there’s a need for them to get back to their kids. They say, ‘I need to relieve my grandmother, my mom, my aunt, whoever might be taking care of my kids. I need to get back so I can start fulfilling the caretaking role.’ “

This concludes our discussion on the complicated intersection of substance use, stigma and gender. Stay tuned for the next post in our series on Gender and Addiction, which will take a look at the role past trauma plays in addiction.

For more on addiction and gender, see our other blog posts below!

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Gender-Specific Recovery Creates a Comfortable 'Comeback'
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Getting Gender-Specific with Mike Denton