Why Women Take Fewer Drugs Than Men

The gender drug divide is actually widening; women are now less likely than men to have taken drugs than they were in 1996.
Max Daly
London, GB
March 9, 2017, 11:01am
A woman demonstrating how she smuggled her drugs into a festival in her bra. Photo by Michael Segalov

From income to civil rights to rates of liver disease, women are—however slowly—approaching gender equality. Yet one thing has not been equalized at all over the years: taking illegal drugs.

"I'm the only one of my close girl friends that loves taking drugs," Emily, a 25-year-old publishing assistant, tells me. "I would love to trip with them, but it's hard to find anyone who'll do it, because the girls don't go for it as much as the boys I know. They would never get an Airbnb with me and devote a whole weekend to it, so I have to rent somewhere with the boys. I've always been the odd one out."


In 2017, despite the continuing rise of feminism, the increasing acceptability of drugs, and more women in the public eye being honest and overt about their drug use, men are far more prolific drug takers than women. This is the case the world over.

In the UK, women are between two and three times less likely than men to have taken any given drug in the last year. Bizarrely, the gender drug divide has actually widened over the last 20 years; women are now less likely to have taken drugs compared to men than they were in 1996. So what's going on?

The most commonly cited reason is that men are risk takers—and the research backs this up: men are less averse than women to breaking the law and to damaging their health. Men also commit between 80 to 90 percent of crime. However, it's not because men are somehow innately braver or more stupid: risk-taking has a lot to do with social conditioning. Boys are taught from a young age to take risks in a way girls are not. It has always been seen as a stereotypical male trait.

But it's not that simple. Schoolgirls appear to stick two fingers up to this theory. Between the ages of 11 and 14, drug use prevalence in girls is almost identical to that of boys. In fact, at 14, British schoolgirls are more likely to have taken drugs than their male classmates. Between the ages of 12 and 15, the number of girls who have drunk alcohol rises far more rapidly than that for boys.


It's not like this for long, though. Women are fast catching men up in terms of the amount of alcohol they drink during adulthood, but from age 15 onwards the gender gap widens when it comes to illegal drug-taking. Men aged 16 to 24 are twice as likely to have taken drugs in the last year, rising to three times more likely aged 25 to 59.

Looking at those age ranges, is this about motherhood perhaps? It's true that pregnancy and the first few years of having kids can be a pretty effective antidote to drug taking – thanks to all the nights in and the terrible comedown/screaming baby combination – and it's not always an even partnership: mothers have to carry the baby and give birth; fathers don't, so may well continue squeezing in a sesh every now and then.

Even so, women's drug journeys through adulthood are not a straight path into kids and abstention, as some official statistics might suggest. A report published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in 2011 analysed the drug habits of 778 women from Manchester and Liverpool as they grew from being school kids to 27-year-olds through the 1990s and 2000s. It found that some mothers surf a second wave of highness when their kids are old enough to spend the night with family or friends.

"During pregnancy most desist from drug use, and this persists while they are new to parenthood," one of the report's authors – Lisa Williams, of the University of Manchester's School of Law – told me. "Some never return to drugs because of the competing demands of running a household, being a parent and working. They also have their identity as mothers to contend with, and refer to wanting to be 'good' or 'responsible' mothers. That said, some do return to drug taking, albeit at a slower pace, once their children are less demanding and they have appropriate social networks to look after them, for example, when they have gone out clubbing."


"The perception is that they are more vulnerable to taking drugs than men, although from what I know a lot of the MDMA lightweights are men"

Of course, it's not just about having families. There remains a claustrophobic moral pressure on women, enforced by wider society. It starts at school, according to Emily, who says that while at her all girls' school she was shown a Leah Betts video and told she would die if she took drugs, at the nearby boys' school they were handed leaflets about the different effects of drugs.

Karenza Moore, a lecturer in sociology at Lancaster University who has been researching the club-drug scene for over a decade, says women have always been painted as drug victims by society. "The perception is that they are more vulnerable to taking drugs than men, although from what I know a lot of the MDMA lightweights are men," says Moore. And she's backed up by the pharmacology: there is insufficient evidence showing that women's bodies are more vulnerable to drugs than men's, nor that men's brains are more hard-wired to impulsive behaviour than women's.

"Women are still bombarded with messages about drink spiking, getting home safe and how getting out of it is not becoming of a woman," says Moore. "There is that classic image, constantly repeated in the newspapers, of a young woman lying drunk on a bench. But it's seen as a masculine trait to drink your weight in beer." Possibly, because of the increased stigma surrounding female drug taking, women's drug use could be more hidden than men's.


Moore also points out that, from a young age, more often than not, it's boys and men who control the supply of drugs. So it's easier for men to buy drugs and easier for women to have their supply cut off when a partner or sibling becomes distanced.

Not all drug-taking scenes are unequal. Some club spaces offer a sort of narcotic oasis for women who want to take drugs without getting harassed by idiots. Moore's studies into drug use in clubs across the UK have found that in drum-and-bass and trance venues, in particular, women's use of MDMA, cocaine and ketamine was similar to that of men.

These venues were viewed as "permissive spaces", where women felt safer and freer to have a psychoactive night out. This is reflected in the official statistics: among 25 to 59-year-olds, MDMA – a drug closely linked to clubbing – is the only substance in Britain that women are as likely to be taking as men.

It has been predicted many times in the last 20 years that, like in other aspects of life, women's drug use will converge with men's. But this has never happened. Whether that's because of external pressures on women from society, the way the drug trade operates, motherhood or something innate, there is no conclusive proof as yet.

Maybe, despite advancing equality and more liberal drug laws, the future will not be one of equal and fair intoxication among the sexes – and instead, as women increasingly turn their back on drugs, they will be left watching and laughing while all the guys K-hole in the corner.