Alcohol is a depressant, right? And alcohol use and aggression/violence are related? But isn't it possible to use alcohol as a force of good, as a relaxant, as medicine? Don't we all deserve coping mechanisms?... And who are we to judge?   

Warning: Downer alert

I was in Lincoln about a week and a half ago, where we'd organized a Feminism In/Action discussion. It was the first time I'd ever been to Lincoln; I had no idea of its history of radical lesbianism (go Lincoln!) but I was thrilled to learn there's still a significant percentage of queer women (um, relatively-speaking here). More on that later...

Back to the discussion. A lot of it was focused on the difficulty of sustaining community/grassroots organizing projects there. For example: Two of the groups' participants had tried to start from what I could tell would have been an incredible DIY (do-it-yourself) health skillshare collective – where community members learn things like how their bodies work, how to be mindful about what you put into it, etc. Apparently people were really excited about it and invested at first, but after a few months, people stopped coming and the whole thing fizzled out. The main reason folks attributed it to was people spending more time in bars than working to better their community. 

In Denver's Feminism In/Action discussion the following night, the conversation again turned to the problem of sustaining local community organizing and projects. And people said very simliar things about the level of drinking and the prevalence of bars. 

I started thinking about other cities I've lived in, or spent a lot of time in. People in Detroit, Milwaukee, in San Francisco, here in Portland have said similar things, in different ways. Sometimes I run into people I know used to be really active in social change projects and they tell me they're drinking too much. I never know what to say in response. 


Several days ago, back here in Portland I went to see a band I really like, 3 Leg Torso (in the interest of self-disclosure I should say that my accordion teacher is in the band) at a bar. I'd seen them once before and loved it; the crowd was totally silent and focused on their music, which made sense because their music is extremely complex and layered, and their musical skill is incredible to watch. 

The show this week was totally different. It was at a bar rather than a community space. Lots of folks were talking, seemingly oblivious to the music. I was annoyed. (Of course. Aren't I always annoyed lately?).  But then I also noticed that lots of folks were dancing, and remembered back to the other time I'd seen them, where people were quiet but no one was dancing. Dancing is good for people, right? And doesn't alcohol often get people loosened up to dance?


I'll close with this little bit of historical information about the Temerance Movement, which maybe you already know.  I didn't know anything about the Temperance Movement until I looked it up on Wikipedia (thanks, Michael, for reminding me to use Wikipedia!).

The Temperance Movement attempted to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed within a community or society in general -- and even to prohibit its production and consumption entirely...

Most of its main supporters in all countries have been women, often as part of what some describe as feminism. The strong temperance movements of the early 20th century found support from women who were opposed to the domestic violence associated with alcohol abuse, and the large share of household income it could consume, which was especially burdensome to the low-income working class.

I never knew any of that -- that this movement was connected to women's and class struggles. 


Why does everything have to be so complicated?







by Debbie Rasmussen
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9 Comments Have Been Posted


since our discussion in lincoln, ive been interested in how drinking truly affects activism in our community. i realize how focused we are on relating benefits to a social drinking situation, and not only events like the bitch one here, but even political events...and health-related events. how do we change this? are we reliant on it because activism needs funding and funding comes from frequented establishments...or is it deeper than that?

Reading between the lines...

It is never easy being on the front lines of nascent groups and organizations. Despite all good intentions and promises to enact best practices, most groups do not make it to the first year (or even the first half-year) if people do not create the plans, programs and activity/information hubs before the first public meeting. And this is without taking into the array of personality clashes/turf wars that can occur.

To blame it immediately on the bar scene is to divert the blame and hints that, maybe, one of the reasons why some of the programs above did not work was due to the lack of responsibility taken. Was the real reason why no one attended a wednesday evening workshop on DIY Diva Cups and Luna pads was because everyone decided to go drinking that night or was it because some personal grudges/groups politics prevented any advertising outside of the Local Dr. Who Fan Zine that had a readership of 5.

I won't apologize for sounding cynical; I have been recently burned in a similar situation and know too well from past experiences that group members can be both the saviours and the undoers of groups. The ultimate undoing of the groups above may have been the extremist line they took towards drinking in the first place. Many people can go to a bar for a gig and not drink and just as many people cannot pass a bar without going in for a drink. However, I can see how unappealing it would be to be attending meetings of a new group that you were excited about and leave questioning whether the subtle threat of ostracism and losing your liscense to be a feminist because YOU like to drink and party sometimes makes the group worth your time.

I don't know. If drinking is so pervalent amongst the DIY feminist communities of America, then how did the Roller Derby revival happen?

On the other hand, maybe these groups worked all too well. Groups are by and large social organisms and sometimes, certain people within a group hit it off so well that they just take their friendship elsewhere.

a little devil's advocacy...

I wonder if this has to do as much with alcohol per se as it does with folks desiring to relax and unwind after work rather than pursue their more noble social goals. (Not that this justification is any better.) At my law school public interest group meetings and informative discussions with speakers often overcome this hurtle by offering alcohol and other beverages and snacks -- and advertising these refreshments in advance. (But this could have more to do with the alcohol culture of the legal profession, which surprised me at first but I'm pretty numb to it at this point.) It also occurred to me while reading your post that bars and clubs were instrumental in the early stages of the queer movement/developing LBGT communities in America in the 20th century.

Social space in general

Your last point is not just true for "the early stages of the queer movement/developing LBGT communities" but is extremely common today. I can't even count how many times I've tried to get together with friends and had my options quickly narrowed down to "well, let's go get a drink" even if I don't particularly want to drink, and bars are terrible places to actually talk.

Without other options to hang out and socialize, so many moments of bonding over issues with like-minded people will continue to be done over drinks. I go to bars because they are a convenient place to meet up with friends, if all my friends were hanging out at the local health skillshare collective, I would definitely forgo a beer and be there instead.

i don't think anyone at the

i don't think anyone at the discussion was saying that it was only bars that got in the way of sustaining projects, just that bar culture is really strong there, to the extent that it makes it difficult to, for example, get people to do things when drinking isn't involved and for another, that a lot of times people prefer to go to a bar to drink and socialize rather than, say, meet or organize. which is understandable, of course. but worth examining.

in the interest of transparency, most of the bitch fundraisers we've done have involved alcohol. if i'm honest i would also have to say that the ones that have had alcohol were more "successful," in terms of bringing people out and raising money. does that mean it's the "right" thing to do, though? i'm not so sure.

i've definitely had my share of straight edge folks who've tried to shame me and my "drinking ways." those conversations didn't so much move me as annoy me.

what has moved me is listening to the stories of people who grew up in families where alcohol and abuse were present. and listening to the stories of people who live in communities where they don't see a lot of options for unwinding that don't involve drinking.

it's complicated. even more so because it's such a loaded issue for many people.

observations from one detroit voice

I have encountered the heavy wrath of alcohol and activism while living in Detroit. Many of the folks I had been introduced to during my first year in the city were very active and living healthy/healthier lives (folks I had admired). Three years later, many of the same folk are still living in the city, are 10 times less active and 20 times less healthy than before. There have been newer folks who have moved into the city and brought new light and health but surely not enough to take over the overwhelming smelly breaths of booze. It doesn’t help when there are liquor stores on many corners either.

This is one chain of thought.
A city/place with fewer resources → at times a very depressing city/place to live → less healthy environments to go to “get away”, folks rely on drinking to “get away” or relax→ it becomes something very easy to do (easier than challenging It or finding alternatives)

Places like Detroit need help and support, especially by the folks who live there, support from the inside. The major question for me is how do you bring strength to a community as a whole, when an overwhelming amount of the whole, as independents, are actively pushing away from a strong and active and healthy life for themselves (separate from their lives as active and political people)?

Another problem is the choices and support for folks who do decide to stop drinking. While friends are saying, “wow, im really proud, or I think its really cool yr doing that”, many of the friends are not actively trying to make it easier for their friend to do so (still asking if they want to get a drink, going out to bars, etc). Partly because we want a drinking buddy, maybe because we want to feel less badly about our health, and ourselves, prolly because, let’s be honest, it can be fun to get drunk.

This is my experience, not to discredit those friends out there who do respect and support friends who are not drinking, or who are making life changes. Also, not to discredit the work that folks in Detroit, whether or not they drink, are doing.

To drink or not to drink?

Debbie, what you write about here is something that I actually think about a lot. Indeed, as a feminist, a native of New Orleans, the child of two alcoholic parents, and the granddaughter of a midwestern feminist who grew out of a temperance tradition, this is a subject I think about really often.

At the moment my thoughts -- especially in regards to local activism -- are something like this: Isn't access to alcohol for adults part of the freedom I'm fighting for? It's hard for me to picture my hometown without a neighborhood pub on every other block, without 24-hour waterin' holes, without the drunken debauchery that makes it what it is. (The local pride parade is called "Southern Decadence," and it's not because we're given to blue laws!) And yet, New Orleans is a town that has something of a reputation for lackadaisical ineffectiveness, especially in regards to policy, politics, etc. Far be it for me to baselessly attribute that to the 24-hour bars, the open containers on streets, and the drive-thru daquiri shops, but it is something I think about often. How many times have I, myself, blown off the opportunity to do something productive to meet with an old friend over a brew or three or four? That "sauciness" is, in a way, part of our culture, and part of the reason I love this city so much. Yet it is also something I find deeply frustrating -- especially when it's all the tourist industry seems to focus on (Thanks, "Girls Gone Wild".).

Ultimately, I think a lot of the impetus for excessive drinking, or binge drinking (or whatever other term there is for drinking habits that get in the way of actually, y'know, doing stuff), is probably something that can be attributed to a larger American consciousness that feeds on guilt and escapism, and I think that is part of a consciousness that feminism seeks to expose and uproot.

That said, a little escapism here and there is not a bad thing -- when you're an idealist seeking to improve the world, and you view the world through the lense of feminism (or anti-racism or anti-classism), and you spend your time worrying about everything from global gag orders to the "Best Beach Bods" issue of UsWeekly, you might just need a little relaxation -- and what brings that on better than a trip to the local pub with a few funny friends?

I admire the women of the first wave, who influenced people like my amazing grandmother, and who fought so hard to improve our stature in society. But I am not blind to the way that the "cult of true womanhood" also influenced the temperance movement, or to the very real, very human need for a rare kind of comfort that little things like a Friday night booze sesh can provide. I'm not sure I want to take that away from anyone.

thoughts on addiction

i don’t know much about addiction theory, but i’ve often wondered about the idea of looking at capitalism/commercialism as an addiction. not to imply that a converstaion about drinking must always lead to a conversation about addiction. or that those in the temperance movement were (or were not) drawing these correlations in their organizing.

however, we can openly acknowledge our addiction to oil, as one example, so why not widen the lens to include our entire culture of mass consumerism? for the pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps-american-dream believers (of all classes, races, sexualities, abilities…), is that fervent allegiance mimicking an addiction? or even for those who don’t necessarily subscribe to that belief system – or outrightly reject it – does that parallel yet remain as a result of being enmeshed in a culture that is addicted to capitalism?

on the other hand, i do not believe drinking alcohol always leads to addiction; that there is that certain balancing line we all (try our best to) walk in relation to our various coping mechanisms…i do not believe that a similar gray area exists in terms of “capitalism in moderation.” i don’t have a coherent summation…just a few thoughts that i’ve been bouncing around in my head lately.

well the mention of

well the mention of temperance in this post made me learn something too ... I'm an aussie and my first thought when I clicked that wikipedia link was that I could not be <i>less</i> surprised there is no mention of australia on it. drinking is so deeply engrained in so much of our culture. google just taught me though that there are at least two or three australian temperance organisations ... and on the other hand that there are at least a few people who think that the way in which temperance and wowserism has traditionally been portrayed as a feminist notion is really untrue.

from my perspective it seems like associating drinking and a decline in activism is like associating a change in humidity with a decline in activism. it would never even occur to me. most of the people I know who are most active in the creative fields, in social activism and in feminist or queer groups are heavily social. 'social' in the australian sense that also implies booze.

addiction to alcohol is debilitating and destructive, it makes a person passive and it shrinks their world to nothing more than booze, but I think a lot of people also believe - probably subsconsciously - that booze in and of itself is an underminer of activism.

that somehow the pursuit of pleasure or the loss of control is incompatible with making a difference. and this is especially relevant to women, because at the times of most temperance movements - even more so than today - women were socialised to believe virtue was all-important. to be temperant, well-behaved, chaste, restrained, and always in control was the way in which a woman gained social power. it let he be respected, made her marriagable, and stopped her being abandoned and becomign helpless.

those kind of beliefs are hard to shake.

I've been reading a lot about sydney in the 20th century lately and if anything I've found the most inspiration in two of the cities hardest criminals. they were terrifying, ruthless, immoral, dissipated and both female. it's not easy to fly in the face of the world as it is and attempt to change it for better or for worse, but I think you can do it with a bottle in your hand or without.

<b>from a police article written on the death of tilly devine:</b>

<i>She has been in conflict with society all her life. She has fought it with words, with action, and with her bare hands. She has held it by the throat and shaken it. She has spat in its face. Her sense of values, her code of morals and of ethics, are her own and she will tolerate no interference. For the average man, her life had held that singular fascination the criminologist describes - the fascination of the thunderstorm.</i>


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