An interview with GLaD research lead Kate Seear

What are your aims in establishing the Gender, Law and Drugs research program?

Australia has long been a leader in critical alcohol and other drug (AOD) scholarship. Much of this work draws on feminist theory, including feminist science studies, to identify and examine ideas about agency and materiality in drug policy and practice. Often, this work also prioritises issues relevant to gender, such as how the law conceptualises links between drugs and family violence, or how it understands the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault.

The GLaD program aims to draw from and build on these traditions by championing work with an explicit focus on the links between AOD, gender and the law. The role of the law is often neglected in these analyses, including how different areas of law constitute drugs, sex and agency. The program is interdisciplinary, so it draws together legal analyses of drugs with approaches from sociology, cultural studies, anthropology and related fields; and it is complementary, in that it aims to add to existing critical drug scholarship in Australia and internationally.

What are the main issues the program will seek to tackle?

A core aim of the GLaD program will be to consolidate critical analyses of law and drugs from feminist (and related) theoretical perspectives, such as queer theory and science and technology studies. The program is also directly concerned with how the law understands and constitutes relationships between alcohol, other drugs, gender/sex and sexuality, and major social problems such as family violence, sexual assault and other health problems. For example, one current project is addressing human rights approaches to drug policy  and another is tracking experiences of stigma and discrimination for Australians who have been cured of hepatitis C. We are also involved in a new Australian project in which legal scholars with expertise in different areas of law are reimagining existing laws and rewriting them from feminist perspectives. This feminist legislation project was inspired by feminist judgments projects around the world, where scholars rewrote legal judgments from explicitly feminist standpoints.

Why is it important to establish a research stream devoted to the study of gender, drugs and the law?

Ideas about sex, gender and sexuality have long been important in how we understand and regulate drugs. Although the process by which certain drugs gradually became illegal is a complex one, shaped by many ideas and forces, one central, influential idea concerned what might happen if (white) women consumed ‘intoxicating’ substances in and around (non-white) men. Anxieties about women’s sexual practices, desires, agencies and reproductive capacities have been particularly powerful in shaping the way societies viewed drug harms and effects, and have played a major role in the prohibition and management of drugs. Feminist theorists have many important things to say about legal approaches to drugs, and there is room for more interdisciplinary work on these issues, including research that brings in legal analyses of case law, statutes, legal practices and processes, human rights and legal education. The GLaD program aims to build research capacity on and innovative approaches to understanding these issues in Australia. 

What are the key research questions that a program like this seeks to answer? 

Some of the core questions the program aims to explore include:

  • How does the law constitute relationships between alcohol and other drugs, gender and major social problems such as family violence and sexual assault?
  • How does the law conceptualise the effects and harms of drugs, agency and responsibility, and are these conceptualisations gendered?
  • How does the law understand the experience and agency of women, non-binary and gender-diverse people who consume and supply drugs?
  • Are legal approaches to health problems associated with drugs (such as hepatitis C and other blood-borne viruses, addiction and overdose) gendered?
  • Do legal enactments differ across different areas of law (e.g. family law, criminal law, anti-discrimination law), and how might these differences matter?
  • How does human rights law conceptualise alcohol and other drug use, gender and rights?  
  • Can human rights law be mobilised to successfully guide drug law reform, or is human rights law shaped by problematic and outmoded ideas about gender? If so, what might a more gender-sensitive or post–human rights conceptualisation of drug law look like?

What role can research of this kind play in practical and everyday contexts, like policymaking, service delivery and people’s everyday lives?

Critical alcohol and other drug scholarship has an absolutely vital role to play in policy, legal and practice reform, and more and more we’re seeing it taken up in these contexts. It can, for instance, shed light on how laws and policies impact the lives of people who use drugs, or it can generate insights into the limitations and perverse effects of existing laws and policies. In the past, this work has helped to challenge dominant ideas about drugs and drug-related ‘harms’, including the idea that certain harms such as drug overdoses, sexual assault, or family violence originate from substances themselves. Critical alcohol and other drug research has interrogated dominant conceptualisations of drugs (as intrinsically harmful) and the law (as intrinsically remedial), highlighting instead that the law itself may generate harms and ameliorate them.

When we start to think about drug law and policy in these critical ways, it becomes possible to identify approaches that need to change in order to reduce harms, and to generate more just outcomes. I’m very proud of the fact that work my colleagues and I have undertaken in the past has influenced policy and practice. For example, some years ago, Suzanne Fraser and I undertook research on how the Victorian victims of crime compensation scheme treats victims of crime who have a history of drug use. Our research found that the scheme often involved significant scrutiny of victims’ lives, behaviours, character and conduct, and was more adversarial than assumed. Victims’ applications for support might be refused if magistrates considered them ‘undeserving’, and these adjudications were often based on highly subjective assessments of character or behaviour – including a history of drug use, or the consumption of drugs before they were victimised. Crucially, we also found that the scheme can perpetuate victim blaming, judgement and criticism of victims in ways that other areas of law, including criminal law, sought to address and eradicate long ago. We also found that the system allows for spurious and antiquated arguments about applicants (particularly women) allegedly ‘bringing violence upon themselves’ – for example, by becoming intoxicated. Such ideas could surface in family violence matters, sexual assault or abuse cases, or in other scenarios where gendered understandings of responsibility, vulnerability, agency and blame might shape decision-making.

Later, we extended this research through collaborations with other colleagues and managed to persuade the Victorian Law Reform Commission that major reforms to the crime compensation scheme were needed. Our research drew explicitly on feminist and critical drug scholarship, theoretical perspectives on sympathy, shame, stigma, causation and agency. I think it very clearly and powerfully demonstrates how theoretically informed empirical research can improve people’s lives for the better. 

Can you tell us a bit about your own research, Kate, and how it has addressed the intersections of law, drugs and ideas about gender, sex and sexuality?

Sure. My research has done this in two main ways. The first is that I have developed projects (often in collaboration with others) on drug law and policy that draw on feminist theories of the body, health, discourse, materiality and so on. There are important symbolic and literal connections between the figure, for instance, of ‘the addict’ and ‘women’, and many instances where ideas about addiction and femininity are mutually constitutive. As I mentioned earlier, there is a long tradition of critical drug scholars turning to feminist theory to interrogate those ideas, and I have found that work extremely valuable for critiquing assumptions about agency, rationality and irrationality, matter, lived experience and other issues that relate to ostensibly ‘abject’ subjects.

The second way my work has addressed these connections is by looking specifically at the way that aspects of drug policy and law might play out differently for different genders. For instance, in my book Law, Drugs and the Making of Addiction: Just Habits, I looked at the way that lawyers ‘stabilise’ certain ideas about the agency and effects of drugs when dealing with family violence and child protection cases. Drawing on ideas from the science and technology studies scholar Bruno Latour, including his claim that the law is a ‘highly distinctive world’ with its own methods for constituting ‘facts’ and ‘truths’, I argued that lawyers play an important role in establishing certain ‘truths’ about drugs, including ‘truths’ about the links between parenting capacity and drugs, or family violence and drugs. These processes of truth establishing – or ‘legal veridiction’, as Latour calls it – have major implications for people’s lives, and often especially for women’s lives. In making these arguments, I have encouraged lawyers to reflect on the ethical and political implications of the arguments they make and the connections they draw in their work – often done for strategic reasons, to help their clients – as these can have far-reaching consequences for the way publics come to understand drugs and what drugs apparently ‘do’. I’m deeply passionate about this work and excited to keep exploring these ideas through the work of the GLaD program.

What is on the agenda for GLaD in the next two to three years?

Our main priorities over the next couple of years are to commence and progress two major projects, one of which is an ARC Future Fellowship addressing human rights and drugs, the other an ARC Discovery project looking at the experiences of people cured of hepatitis C.

We aim to build a critical mass of researchers with an interest in the law, gender and drugs, including analyses of the law from feminist and queer theoretical perspectives. We are also keen to explore opportunities for national and international collaborations with researchers, other organisations and people who use drugs, and to convene seminars and events on legal and human rights aspects of gender, health and drug use.