Gender and Critical Drug Studies: Reproducing Female Vulnerability in Gendered Drug Discourse

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Helen Keane, associate professor and head of the School of Sociology at Australian National University in Canberra. In it, she explores more about her article on perceptions of female vulnerability, especially in terms of drug use, which appeared in a special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies. Enjoy!

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Helen Keane

Female vulnerability is a persistent theme of medical, public health, and popular discourses on drug use. Women have been understood as biologically, socially, and morally vulnerable to the harms of substance use, and the blurred boundaries of these categories have acted to exacerbate the naturalization of women as at risk from drugs. Men have higher rates of drug use than women, but they are rarely interpreted as suffering from an inherent vulnerability to harm. Instead their use is associated with risk-taking.

Discourses of vulnerability and norms of gendered responsibility for familial and social wellbeing combine to produce women’s drug use as more deviant and disordered than men’s use. In the figure of the pregnant or maternal drug user, the vulnerability of women is converted into a threatening capacity to produce harm. Female biology is contrasted with an unmarked male norm and viewed as more unstable and more prone to damage (in a set of tropes focused on reproduction and reminiscent of Victorian medicine). The vision of unruly drug-using women and the social disorder they produce is one of the “governing mentalities” of drug policy, to use Nancy Campbell’s term [1].

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