Men’s drinking and the way alcohol shapes masculine identities in Scotland have been put under the spotlight in the first of a series of seminars organised by Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) and the London-based Institute of Alcohol Studies.
The discussion has raised questions about what alcohol means for men, how this affects the ways in which they use it and how alcohol interacts with cultural factors, including class.
SHAAP director Dr Eric Carlin argues that there seems to be a “general moral concern” about young women’s drinking in the media, when in fact men are three times more likely to end up in hospital as a result of drinking alcohol.
SHAAP, which was established in 2006 by the Scottish Medical Royal Colleges and is based within the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, is a group which aims to tackle the public health issue of alcohol-related harm to improve the health and wellbeing of people in Scotland through a range of evidence-based approaches.
This includes the aim of changing the public’s relationship with alcohol, and thereby reduce the negative impacts that continue to be deeply embedded in Scotland.
Carlin also points to research concerning Gender and Alcohol carried out by Glasgow Caledonian University, the Glasgow Centre for Population Health and the University of Stirling, which shows that the UK media largely associates binge drinking with women and presents women’s drinking as somehow more problematic, despite evidence showing that men are more likely to binge drink.
According to SHAAP, men consume 17.2 units of alcohol per week on average, compared to a weekly 8.7 units consumed by women, and each year the number of alcohol-related deaths for men are double that of women.
Carlin suggests that women are judged differently on their behaviour and appearance if they have been drinking alcohol than their male counterparts.
“From an early age, men are encouraged to have a taste of alcohol and it is a sort of rite of passage,” explains Carlin.
“Holding an alcoholic drink is viewed as having a certain type of masculinity, and it is seen as being really important to be able to ‘hold your drink’. That is not the same in continental cultures, it is very specific to Scotland.”
Former Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill was joined by Dr Harpreet Kohli, honorary clinical senior lecturer in public health at Glasgow University, and Kevan Christie, The Scotsman’s health correspondent, at a seminar held at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh on Monday, 2 September. About 40 academics, policy makers and health professionals gathered together to discuss key issues surrounding men and alcohol.
MacAskill contended that the issue of class is not sufficiently on the policy agenda, yet those working class men who once had careers in the industrial sector have been shunned by society and left with nowhere to go.
He questioned where these men end up and who they are now without the sense of identity they had derived from their working lives.
MacAskill’s concerns were echoed by Christie, who suggested that the “aspirational classes” – or “climbers” – are also seriously affected by alcohol.
Although the journalist advised that alcohol problems transcend class, he argued that they were perceived differently depending on demographics. For example, someone seen drinking heavily in a park portrays a significantly different message to the sight of someone drinking several gin and tonics at a golf club.
Christie also observed that alcohol is a “glue for superficial friendships” among men, and claimed that this can often lead to a level of hooliganism which is unacceptable in other countries.
“There are links with sport and the idea that men don’t talk about their feelings very often, so we have a sporting context and an alcohol context,” explains Carlin.
“The two together are places where men might share and bond.
“Men here don’t go out for dinner together, they go to the pub together – and that is different to other countries.”
Meanwhile, Kohli raised the issue of a “poverty of men’s emotional intelligence”, urging that this needs to be addressed.
The seminar also highlighted the alcohol problems that surround the LGBT+ community.
Carlin adds: “We know that levels of drinking and potential harms among gay and bisexual men are likely to be higher than the rest of the community.
“With the very welcome progress in recognition of the rights of the LGBT+ community, big business saw an opportunity and moved in on that. So you now have big alcohol companies sponsoring events such as Pride.
“There aren’t many places for LGBT+ people to socialise that don’t involve alcohol, and that is an issue that the community is not talking about enough. There are potentially further problems down the line.”
He goes on to say: “We are trying to get discussions going about how alcohol contributes to men’s identity throughout Scotland, and to think through how that impacts on what we think it means to be men.”
The four-part seminar series will continue at the Institute of Alcohol Studies in London on Friday, 22 November. Speakers will include presenter Adrian Chiles, Matthew Philpott and Habib Kadiri.
For more information, visit www.shaap.org.uk.