New research on gender in alcohol and other drug regulation

In our latest article, which emerges from our larger project on drugs and human rights, we explore how alcohol and other drugs issues are considered in human rights scrutiny processes in Australian parliaments, arguing that parliamentary human rights scrutiny can generate important relations between alcohol, other drugs, gender and violence.

While social problems such as family and sexual violence are said to pre-exist legislative and policy practices designed to combat them, we argue that these phenomena are made in and through such processes themselves. Drawing on work from Moya Lloyd and Karen Zivi on human rights as constituting norms, rules, conventions and worlds, John Law’s work on collateral realities, and thirty interviews conducted with key stakeholders involved in Australian rights scrutiny processes, we explore how articulations about human rights actively shape the connections between alcohol, other drugs, gender and social problems.

Using a case-based approach, we focus on three accounts from among our interviews that generate relations between alcohol, drugs, gender and social problems. We consider the possible implications for affected populations, and we find that parliamentary human rights scrutiny processes often render alcohol and other drug effects as seemingly gender-neutral despite research suggesting that masculinities, alongside place and other factors, are entwined with alcohol and other drug usage and the social harms that alcohol and other drug regulation seek to address.

For most of our interviewees, alcohol and other drug consumption is considered intrinsically dangerous, and should therefore be regulated. We argue that important issues can arise when we treat alcohol and other drugs as a key ‘driver’ of social problems such as violence, without also looking at the role of other forces – such as gender – in that violence. One reason that this matters is because parliaments often propose solutions for violence, especially in nightlife settings, that are generalised or ‘universal’, applying to all people who consume alcohol and other drugs. At face value, this form of regulation appears to be more equitable and fair, because it does not target any identity groups. However, such approaches can also have a disproportionate or unequal effect on some groups (such as women and those that do not adhere to masculine norms), particularly when it comes to accessing nightlife spaces, even if such groups typically do not engage in violence in these settings. In this article, we argue that these might be viewed as equity issues with human rights implications, but that they are often overlooked in parliamentary human rights scrutiny processes.

We argue for a form of parliamentary human rights scrutiny that is more sensitive to considerations of gender and its role in social problems. We particularly encourage parliamentarians and their advisors to attend more carefully to gender in any work that deals with alcohol, other drugs, and social problems, including in human rights scrutiny processes within parliaments. As we argue in the article, it is important to

explore ways of challenging, disrupting and interrogating the way that connections are made and sustained in human rights scrutiny processes, and by insisting on new and different connections or associations. Applied to the present context, this requires challenging the way that parliamentarians and advisors might conceptualise the links between alcohol and other drugs and social problems and encouraging a greater and more explicit focus on gender.

Since the publication of our latest research, even more complex questions about how we understand and regulate alcohol have emerged, with the return of alcohol bans in the Northern Territory of Australia. Our research does not deal specifically with the regulation of violence in these settings, but we acknowledge the need for more work on these issues. As our program lead Kate Seear has argued elsewhere, there is a need to think much more carefully about how alcohol and violence is understood and managed in racialised settings, as well as how the complexity of alcohol problems is conceptualised in those contexts.

You can read the article here.

Citation: Seear, K. & Mulcahy, S. (2023) ‘Making Rights and Realities: How Australian Human Rights Make Gender, Alcohol and Other Drugs’, Australian Feminist Studies.