Today, I want to post on a hot (but controversial) topic.
As a researcher on addiction and consumption – and a young woman in her early 20s -, I’m fully aware that discussions on MDMA/Ecstasy/pills are common. Forget cigarettes or alcohol for now. At a SSA conference (the Society for Studies on Addiction), when a student spoke about their research on alcohol addiction, a typical dispassionate response from an older researcher was ‘I’m surprised there’s anything left to do on alcohol!’ Alternatively, young scholars investigating MDMA received raised eyebrows and interest. They were in the minority. And they were aware that their research often led to a heated debate.
The debates are fascinating, but not what I want to talk about. I want to discuss gender.
I want to bring to the public a bewildering chapter called ‘Ecstasy, Gender, and Accountability in a Rave Culture’, (written by Molly Moloney and Geoffrey Hunt).
But first we need context. I need to emphasise that our everyday clubbing culture and experience has gender normative practices, reflective of other areas in our lives. (NOTE: These practices are not fixed and are constantly changing, but generally there are ‘normal’ and ‘expected’ behaviours, dependent on your sex/sexuality).
- What we drink … (How often do you see a guy order a sex on the beach, or a girl an old fashioned?)
- The way we drink it … (‘Mate, did you want a straw with that?’)
- The way we dress and move our bodies … (Could men fit comfortably in hot pants?)
- Even the way we laugh, walk and dance – (posture!)
- Eye contact … (the unspoken code/game of showing interest).
- Body language (Single ladies fold your arms!?)
- Structured timings related to pre-drinking and chatting … (women and men are usually segregated at the beginning, this usually changes by the end of the night!)
And do I really need to explain the sharing of toilets (obviously, the best place for transactions of drama and dance floor politics).
Now I’ve addressed this I want to speak about these gender normative practices in a ‘rave’ environment (music festivals/those ‘special’ events/house parties, etc). Most scholarship on MDMA argue that these ‘rules’, which are bound more in cultures of alcohol, are broken.
But, if we think about it, despite drugs being perceived as ‘liberal’ and ‘eye-opening’ by many of my generation, there are still gender normative practices within this consumption.
I’ll explain a brief history of MDMA another time, but let’s say settle on this point: ‘MDMA, compared to any other drug, became (and may still be) the quintessential drug of the international club and rave scene’.
Now, there is longstanding narrative (until recently) that men were the stereotypical ‘recreational’ drug users. Until the last two decades or so, women and drugs went like this:
Women and drugs = psychologically abnormal + powerless + dependent + victims – (not pleasurable).
Then came the new scholarship:
Women and drug = pleasure + empowerment + freedom – (eradicates repressive/oppressive gender norms and sexualities).
Or does it? Interviews suggest that women in these environments are not as free as we assume.
I won’t swamp you with the context but out of 300 interviews (half men and half women), most women believed ecstasy allowed them to feel freer, be who they were, accept and take ownership of their identities and their bodies, and break down the social boundaries: Everyone was kind – interested in what they had to say. No one felt judged. And besides, they didn’t care – they were never going to see these people again anyway.
Then there was SEX. MDMA has the reputation of being a ‘sexual drug’. However, it’s apparently more of a ‘sensual drug’, due to empathy releases (and short-term ‘physiological consequences’ for most men).
Now the exciting part. Apparently, there is a switch in the ‘expected’ gender roles after administering ecstasy. Men overwhelm other men with ‘bro-mance’. Women are more sexually prowess. Ecstasy allows young women to take risks of confidence, and be bolder in their sexuality and propositioning. The drug and environment stopped shame or stigma, which would usually be the response if they behaved this way in a standard night club environment.
IS THIS EMPOWERMENT? Well first, it’s not exactly ‘progress’ in feminism. Women embodying the physical identity of ‘crude’ and often vulgar male behaviour in clubs. And secondly, it also demonstrates another example where women must consume (psychoactive substances or technologies) to feel confident in their own bodies. Only then can they ‘comfortably and acceptably’ add a confident sexual ego to their identity (without worry, shock horror reactions and stigma).
Also, the interviews showed that this embodiment of a (femininely deviant) sexual identity did not actually go unnoticed by others. In this setting, these women were judged. It simply wasn’t discussed as much, or mentioned face to face (it was ‘forgiven’/’excused’). But, what is most important is that these interviews revealed a continuation of gender norms, which is the policing of women (and their bodies). This occurred more than in public spaces of alcohol consumption.
Men often felt they needed to “protect” female ecstasy users from doing “something they’ll regret”. A man claimed that he must be present in the company of the girls he knew. Giving them water. Escorting them to the bathroom. Rarely leaving a young women’s side. And one admitted to not trusting his girlfriend alone under the “influence of MDMA” (it must be noted that men were less aggressive or sexually predatory in these environments). Did he trust her? He said he “didn’t trust others“. And that he didn’t trust her, but of course, only when she was on MDMA…
It was also ‘implied that women use ecstasy as a feeble excuse to explain inappropriate behaviour’. Is it only women, not men, that are at risk of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and need excusing?
Intriguingly, the article continues that the ‘policing’ of men who may take advantage does not occur, it’s the policing of the women’s behaviours and actions – who were ‘sexually encouraging’ – that occurred. But let’s not blame the men. Women were also ‘policing’ and ‘protecting’ other women from engaging in sexual behaviours that they might later ‘regret’. Most fascinatingly and very controversially, the men who initiated sexual advancements and behaviours in these environments were accepted as ‘normal’. They were not ‘as problematic’ or stigmatised, even if they appeared to be at an equal loss of control, or might ‘regret’ their actions later. They were not as judged, and were presumed to be more responsible. They were perceived as able to take ownership of their decisions and be in control of their bodies.
Alternatively though, men also used the drug as an excuse, but not for their sexual advances. Rather, they used MDMA to justify their emotional outpourings, their ‘gayness’ to their friends, and/or their homosexual experimentations. They used the drug as an excuse to avoid stigmatisation or judgement of their ‘feminine’ tendencies. So all in all, women are not the only ones bound to gender normative practices and expectations.
I have two main conclusions:
- Perhaps the differing environments of alcohol and MDMA consumption are not as different as we first perceived? As Hunt and Moloney conclude ‘despite the ability of ecstasy to blur gender expectations, gender policing tries to keep women within the confines of traditional gender roles’. I’d like to extend this argument, and say that men are also confined to traditional gender roles.
- Additionally, in this relatively new cultural phenomenon (MDMA in rave cultures), the consumptions and technologies that are perceived as “liberating” and “empowering”, in fact, have carried on the practice of ‘policing’ our bodies.
This needs to be acknowledged and accepted in our conscience, our decision making, our judgement, and the ‘policing’ of other bodies.
Even if we think this ‘policing’ is for the greater good. It is an old patriarchal (and often oppressive and un-liberal) gender normative tradition transferred into our un-conscious decision making by both men AND women. So, when in public spaces of consumption. Whether in a bar, club, ‘rave’ or music festival. As a woman I hope this post makes us think twice about our (delusional) freedom; our (fighting) personal control over our bodies; and our (struggle) to make accountable decisions for ourselves. And necessary without the influences, or judgement, from our (‘friendly’) peers. (NOTE: This is not one-sided to girls – but I personally cannot provide an anecdote of how men think and feel, but I do not want to present a radical – and unfair – gender bias either).
Therefore, I argue that we should respectfully challenge gender normative practices in these public spaces of consumption, whether alcohol, legal or illicit drugs, and even food (don’t get me started on reactions towards men ordering salads or green teas). And we should take full responsibility of our actions (no excuses). Support one another, and be proud of our bodies, without the need for technologies or psychoactive substances that transform our bodies, or our confidence.
The environments that we are in, and the technologies and substances that we administer may not be as ‘liberating’ and ‘empowering’ as we think.
Please feel free to draw your own (respectful) conclusions on this provocative topic.
1. Respectfully, this blog post does not undermine collective efforts to reduce the reality of sexual assault or harassment during or after these events.
2. The pharmaceutical effects of this drug cannot be held entirely accountable. But nor can their biological effects go unrecognized.