Amy C. Willis
Normative Alcohol Culture: What It Is and Why It Matters
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
Normative alcohol culture is a term that I coined and one that I use a lot in my work as a sobriety coach. While the term may appear self-evident, the layered complexity of normative alcohol culture demands a clear, thorough and comprehensive explanation particularly if we are interested in challenging and dismantling it.
In many ways, normative alcohol culture functions like other systems in our world do; invisibly to the naked eye. And it’s often not until you’ve been negatively impacted by it’s wrath or find yourself outside of it that you realize it’s power and influence. I had never given a second thought to the way I engaged with alcohol in the world or that something like normative alcohol culture existed, let alone did I consider how it might be impacting and influencing my choices and negatively affecting almost every area of my life. It wasn’t until I came face to face with my addiction, began my healing work and removed myself from the fog of my drinking did I come to see alcohol for what it truly is (poison) and perhaps of equal importance, what it isn’t.
Normative alcohol culture is an accumulation of the beliefs, attitudes, expectancies, norms and behaviours within and surrounding the consumption of alcohol, including who, when, how and how much can be consumed based on cultural factors. Normative alcohol culture not only dictates what is normal, safe and “healthy” in terms of alcohol consumption but also encompasses the ways that we think about, interact with and speak about alcohol both in our lives and more broadly in our cultures and communities. It is a combination of messages and messaging that come at us from all directions that has convinced us that we not only want but absolutely need to regularly and enthusiastically consume poison in an effort to support the cultivation of our best lives.
Normative alcohol culture serves to bolster the patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy. Big alcohol exists purely as a capitalist venture as alcohol has no known purpose or benefit to humans; it literally causes a disastrous amount of harm to the tune of billions of dollars a year and more than 3 million deaths annually. Participation in normative alcohol culture keeps us numb, foggy, quiet and subdued, none of which will support us in creating the necessary and radical change that’s needed to disrupt and dismantle normative alcohol culture and the oppressive systems it upholds.
There are numerous ways that normative alcohol culture is upheld. For example, normative alcohol culture tells us that alcohol consumption is associated with myriad health benefits. And while it may be true that in very specific contexts, there may be trace benefits that accompany alcohol consumption, what these articles fail to include is the considerable dangers that exist alongside the minimal benefit. We know that alcohol consumption is linked to numerous forms of cancers, including mouth and throat, breast (for women), liver, colon and rectum, and more. We must remember that first and foremost, alcohol is ethanol which is poison for the human body, though for obvious reasons, you will never see the words “poison” or “ethanol” in booze marketing messages. The term “alcohol poisoning” exists because we can over-consume alcohol to the point of poisoning ourselves yet we still continue to question alcohol’s toxicity. Imagine that one day, companies began producing a palatable, consumable version of arsenic. It would be sold in attractive bottles with fun names and we would be told, over and over, that consuming small amounts of arsenic would be fun, enjoyable and ultimately, necessary in our lives and that there might even be health benefits associated with consuming it. Over time, we buy into the messaging and start to regularly consume arsenic. It feels fun in the moment but also brings with it a whole host of drawbacks including physical and mental side effects. As we continue to consume arsenic, more and more people become sick and develop addictions to this thing that makes them sick. After centuries of consumption of arsenic, it’s killing more than 3 million of us globally per year but we don’t bat an eye because the presence of arsenic in our lives has become so normal that we can’t imagine a world without it. THIS is the world that we currently live in. Poison is poison. If it seems outrageous to consider regularly consuming arsenic, I challenge your belief that regularly consuming another type of toxic poison is any better or any less outrageous.
According to the marketing messages, alcohol makes us: sexier, smarter, funnier, better able to connect with our friends and family, more attractive, more relaxed, more fun, better at our jobs and so on, despite the fact that in reality, alcohol actually does none of these things. It’s wild what we have come to accept as true after being inundated with specific messaging our entire lives. Alcohol actually serves no helpful or tangible purpose in modern times but through years of clever marketing and the establishment of normative alcohol culture, we have come to understand it as not only necessary but essential (hello, liquor stores being considered “essential services” during covid) so much so that it’s become the only drug that requires an explanation as to why you don’t use it rather than why you do. An important, arguably essential, function of normative alcohol culture is to insidiously convince us that the consumption of alcohol (aka ethanol aka poison) is so utterly normal and desirable that we would never even think to question its danger or toxicity. When it comes to what we understand about alcohol, normative alcohol culture has convinced us that down is up, that white is black and that yes is no and has done so incredibly effectively.
Normative alcohol culture is supported by constructs like Mommy Wine Culture which tells us that in order to mother our kids, we’ll also need to drink. According to this messaging, drinking is a necessity of motherhood. We’re told this is part of being a mom and perhaps more damaging, that it’s okay, normal and expected to drink as a way to cope with the stressors that accompany raising your children.
Normative alcohol culture tells us that drinking alcohol helps us sleep when in fact, alcohol consumption is incredibly disruptive to sleeping patterns.
Take note of how normative alcohol culture shows up in your day to day life. This could be counting how many times alcohol is consumed or referenced in your favourite tv show or in the next movie that you watch plus noting the context in which it was mentioned. You might be surprised to learn that alcohol actually plays a significant role in the narrative or story arc of your fave show but you simply never noticed it until being prompted to look. This is normative alcohol culture at play; it's become so regular and commonplace to see alcohol (again, a highly toxic, highly addictive poison) that you simply don’t even notice it. Take note of the next book you read or podcast that you listen to and simply observe how many references are made to alcohol consumption as well as the context of the reference. Just notice. How many alcohol ads do you see on your social media feeds (ps - you can limit the number of alcohol ads you see BTW. Click here to learn how to do this on Instagram)? Also, notice the impact that these messages have on you. After seeing a beer commercial, are you tempted to get a beer?
Normative alcohol culture encourages us to consume mimosas during a Sunday brunch; typically, drinking in the morning is frowned upon but somehow, adding some orange juice to the equation makes it okay. Have we thought about what makes this context okay for alcohol consumption? Have we thought about how many times we’ve heard the word “brunch” and mimosas immediately popped into our heads? Have we ever applied a critical lens to this? What if you swap out that mimosa with heroin? Does that immediately feel not okay? Alcohol is a drug just like heroin is a drug except normative alcohol culture has told us to mentally categorize alcohol differently, creating distance between it and drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine, even though alcohol-related deaths kill more people annually than all hard drugs combined and costs us billions of dollars in healthcare expenses, legal fees, lost productivity and early death.
If this feels like a radical comparison, I invite you to critically examine the beliefs you hold about alcohol and why something so toxic, addictive and poisonous somehow gets a free pass but drugs like cocaine or heroin do not. To be explicit, I am not arguing that you swap out your alcohol consumption with another drug; they are all terrible and will damage your body and life. I am simply pointing to the inconsistencies in how we conceptualize and compartmentalize how we view drugs and disrupting what we belief to be true about booze.
Ironically, normative alcohol culture tells us that we should all be able to consume certain amounts of alcohol and to do so is normal and desirable; however, if we exceed what’s considered normal and venture into the world of excess or problematic drinking, we will be met with stigma and consequences. Those who can’t “handle their liquor” are ostracized and labelled as different, drunks or alcoholics*; in other words, those who are likely predisposed to developing a troublesome relationship to alcohol (or other substances for that matter) are further stigmatized, making them the problem in the equation, rather than instead identifying that alcohol is a wildly addictive substance. Alcohol is the problem here, not the people who consume it after being inundated with messaging telling them all the reasons why they should. This messaging is especially damaging for those primed to develop addictions.
So we’ve talked about what normative alcohol culture is but perhaps you’re wondering why it matters? Like anything else in our lives, we need to be aware of and have an understanding of how systems operate if we are hoping to challenge and dismantle them. A significant part of my work is challenging and disrupting the ways that we think, speak about and engage in normative alcohol culture. Alcohol consumption and the damage caused by it has reached catastrophic levels. The situation is dire which is largely why I approach the topic in a direct, no BS way. I get that my approach may be perceived as radical and I’m okay with that as I genuinely believe that a radical approach is necessary for meaningful change to occur. Given how urgent the situation is, there is no space for mediocrity or a wishy-washy approach when it comes to creating change.
While I do what I can to disrupt normative alcohol culture, you can also participate in this disruption in your day to day lives, should you want to. This can look like:
Bringing awareness to how you think, talk about and engage with alcohol
Normalizing sobriety; it's not just for those who struggled with alcohol addiction. Anyone can be sober and you don't have to had a problem to not want to drink
Challenging problematic messaging when it comes to drinking. For example, when you see images and messaging in support of mommy wine culture, get curious and ask some questions. Or when you see your local yoga studio is hosting a “Vinyasa and Vino” event, ask why partnering a beautiful yoga experience with alcohol feels like it makes sense?
Calling out those who pressure (even subtly) others to drink
Offer non-alcoholic options in equal measure to alcohol options at events you host
Participate in a month-long sober challenge and talk about this experience with others
Normative alcohol culture, as I’ve described, is all around us. It’s insidious and powerful and very well established but that does not mean it’s indestructible or permanent. As the wise feminist marketing icon Kelly Diels has shared numerous times: we are the culture makers. In other words, we not only have a say in the shape and form culture takes, but we have the power to change it. Normative alcohol culture is dangerous and the need to radically change it is dire. Join me.
*I don’t use the term alcoholic in my work as it is deeply problematic. I write more about why I think this is true here.
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