According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, women are just as likely as men to become addicted (and vice versa) but that doesn’t mean they experience addiction in the same way. Men and women use drugs differently, have unique responses to them and face different obstacles while in treatment.1
As a result, effective drug and alcohol addiction treatment should not only be individualized based on personal need, but addiction programs should also address the unique needs, perspectives and context of either a woman or a man’s life.
Sex Differences vs. Gender Differences
It’s important to note that there is a fundamental difference when it comes to sex and gender in regards to substance abuse. Sex differences are those determined by biological and genetic differences in men and women, while gender differences are determined by a culturally defined role, such as how a person views himself or herself.2
For example, According to the National Council and Drug Dependence, men have higher levels of the enzymes that break down alcohol in the stomach and liver. Because of this, men do not absorb as much alcohol into the bloodstream as women do. As a result, a man’s blood alcohol concentration will be lower than that of a woman.3 This is an example of a sex difference, not a gender difference.
Men and Women Have Different Treatment Needs
Research has shown that men and women have varying treatment needs for addiction because drug and alcohol abuse affects each sex differently in a number of ways.
- Physically – Male and female bodies are different, therefore men process alcohol and drugs differently than women. For example, research has shown that women may be more vulnerable to the effects of stimulant drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, as estrogen may increase sensitivity.1 Additionally, men’s bodies contain more water and less fatty tissues than women’s. If alcohol addiction is present, a woman may be more susceptible to the negative physical effects of alcohol abuse because fat retains alcohol and water dilutes it, exposing her organs to greater risk.3
- Socially – Women in treatment programs are more likely to have experienced sexual or physical abuse and are less likely than men in treatment to have a high school diploma or employment.4 Women in treatment are also more likely to deal with the child welfare system and the advanced complications of alcohol and drug use during pregnancy.3
- Psychologically – Although women are less likely than men to develop drug and alcohol problems, when they do develop them, the process is much faster. As a result, women tend to enter substance abuse treatment programs with more severe psychological, medical, behavioral and social problems.5,6 This has many implications on treatment needs and fulfillment.
Benefits of Gender-Specific Treatment
Just as there are many differences between the way men and women experience addiction, there are also many benefits to providing separate treatment. Although very few studies have compared gender-specific treatment to mixed-gender treatment for addiction, there are several clear ways both men and women may benefit from gender-specific treatment.6
Less time is spent on gender issues.
When treatment is gender-specific, facilitators such as clinical counselors and recovery specialists spend less time addressing gender issues that may not apply to some of the group. For example, a great deal of time should be spent addressing pregnancy and substance abuse if a pregnant woman is in recovery, but the males in the room will not be able to take this information and directly apply it to their own situation in treatment. While this particular situation would provide a unique opportunity for a man to gain insight into the recovery process of a pregnant woman, his time would be better spent addressing the issues he faces as a male in recovery.
There are fewer distractions.
While in recovery, men and women should be focusing on their own health, self-improvement, and growth. In some cases, a member of the opposite sex may prove to be a distraction and hinder an individual’s progress while in therapy. Men and women in recovery already have a number of life distractions that are fighting to steal the spotlight from their addiction treatment, so by eliminating one of them, treatment may be more effective.
Clients are more able to relate with one another.
Peer support is a large part of addiction recovery. Having shared life experiences with other individuals in group therapy encourages sharing and helps people relate to one another with greater ease. For example, a man in recovery may feel an overwhelming sense of shame because he feels like his substance abuse caused him to ruin his relationship with his wife and kids. A male recovery specialist may be able to provide support by sharing his own life experience with addiction or offering advice on how to make amends as a husband and a father.
Treatment is more comfortable.
Some individuals may feel uncomfortable sharing intimate, painful or traumatizing life experiences in a mixed-gender group setting. Because of this, gender-specific treatment often offers an environment that feels more safe and welcoming. This encourages openness and honesty, which leads to more healing and progress throughout addiction treatment.
Research has identified many gender differences in the effects and patterns of substance abuse.6 For this reason, gender-specific programs offer the added benefit of providing a more thorough, individualized approach to addiction treatment.