The rise of gender studies in the 1960s and 70s completely transformed the ways in which anthropologists looked at the issue of drug abuse between men and women. Up to that point, scholars entertained fairly androcentric (male-centric) interpretations of the narcotics and opioid epidemic in the country. In modern media such as film and television, images of cocaine-snorting, high-profile men have gradually been giving way to that of the “crack mom” and a more gender-balanced reflection of the current opioid crisis. As anthropologists J. Bryan Page and Merrill Singer have argued in their monograph Comprehending Drug Use: Ethnographic Research at the Social Margins, the increase emphasis demographers, anthropologists, ethnographers, and other social scientists have devoted to studying the “little-known people” who populate the everyday environments of the cities has allowed a clearer understanding of the dependency issues of both women and men on illicit substances.
Cocaine is the overwhelming favorite among drug users, both men and women. One clear difference between men and women’s relative ability to procure cocaine, according to Page and Singer, is that men are more likely to independently seek out and procure the drug, whereas women prefer to acquire it through a male intermediary. The one arena in which this does not apply is the sex-trade industry However, because the sex-industry is predominately populated by female workers, it still reinforces gender disparities in how cocaine and other drugs are obtained. According to the ethnographer Jennifer James, sex work and drug use are etiologically related. Some conditions of the sex work industry specifically guide women down the path of substance abuse and dependency.
Other researchers have focused on the effects of drug use on the deterioration of everyday life for both men and women. Marsha Rosenbaum in her book Women on Heroin has tackled the difficult questions arising from the difficulties of childrearing and leading a “normal” life while suffering from heroin addiction. Her research suggests that, while drug use within the family is always detrimental to the healthy development of a child, its negative effects can be exacerbated if it is the mother who is an addict. The reason is that drug-abusing mothers very rarely hold stable jobs, and are therefore much more likely to embrace their maternalistic roles of childcare than will drug-addicted fathers. Thus, these children tend to be exposed to drug paraphernalia for much longer, and starting from a much younger age. Early exposure drastically increases the likelihood that they will experiment with drugs themselves. The gendered roles of drug use can have unintended ramifications within the nuclear family.
Some social theorists have pointed to the ways in which drug-abusing women have been represented by society throughout the twentieth century. Incredibly, in the 1990s there existed what was known as the “heroin chic,” in which dead-eyed, pale-faced, emaciated women were portrayed in some magazines and illustrations as embodiments of independence. Advertisers portrayed these women as “being beyond needing, beyond caring, beyond desire,” and thus beyond the grasp of the West’s civilizing mission. In her book, Abusing Women: Gender, Drug Policy, and Social Justice, Nancy D. Campbell has discussed how the emergence of the heroin chic marked the end of respectability among women as a form of social control, in some sense liberating women from the stifling conventions of modern social morality.
Although the logic of the heroin chic may be a bit excessive, there is no doubt that by the 1990s it was not longer just scholars, but also the general public, that was beginning to reorient their understanding of who exactly did drugs. Since then a spate of scholarly publications and popular works have equalized the playing field and recognized that drug abuse is a phenomenon that touches the lives of both men and women. In this new representation, men have assumed the identity of soulless perpetrators and women that of helpless victims of circumstance (in many, but not all, cases). For example, it is exceedingly rare to see depictions of a female drug dealer in movies or television. It is much more common to see women turn to drug use as the result of a physically abusive marriage.
The new representations of drug use that have emerged recently have had a checkered influence. They bring to light previously ignored aspects of narcotics abuse, while at the same time grossly exaggerating certain aspects of the drug industry.