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Written by Sheila Henderson   
Wednesday, 01 December 1993 00:00



Are they incompatible with existing perspectives on women and drug use? Sheila Henderson examinesthe use of Ecstasy, LSD and amphetamines in the context of nightclubs and allnight parties and considers the implications of the British experience of this trend for existing perspectives on women's drug use.

This article is based on a paper given to the IVth International Conference on the RedLiction of Dnig-related Harm, Rotterdam, March 14-18 1993.


New trends in drug use bring with them many things, among them an opportunity to reassess existing perspectives, policies and responses to drug use. The use of Ecstasy, LSD and amphetamines in the context of nightclubs and all-night parties has mushroomed in a number of countries in recent years and this article presents a preliminary examination of the implications of the British experience of this trend for existing perspectives on women's drug use. A brief summary of the phenomenon is followed by an introduction to the research project which formed the basis for the arguments and a summary of its initial findings. This picture of women's drug use is then contrasted with an overview of existing perspectives on women and drug use, and some conclu, sions are drawn.


The headlines discovered what was then known as the Acid House scene in Britain in 1988 - irriages of large numbers of young people dressed in brightly coloured clothes dancingas if in a trance to loud, repetitive lec, tronic music quickly came to represent a threat to pub. lic order. These large gatherings in rural locations or abandoned warehouses were outlawed and, as a result, were increasingly channelled into legal all-night venues inclubs and other larger buildings such as leisure centres and sports stadia. The effect? This culture of Ecstasy use enjoyed major expansion. By the end of 199 1, now referred to as the'rave scene', it was big business: part of mainstream popular culture - from high street fashion outlets, to pop radio stations and youth magazines, even the football terraces.

Things have changed, Consumer demand for the Ecstasy experience may not have waned (although there are still no studies quantifying the phenomenon on a national scale with a sample of over 1000) but the MDMA content of drugs sold as Ecstasy has. New and younger recruits to the scene still wax lyrical about it but longer-term 'ravers' appear to be discontinuing use in increasing numbers - citing lack of purity and/or the popularisation and dilution of the scene or plain 'boredom' as major factors. In early 1993, reference is increasingly made to the 'dance scene' and this reflects a major diversification. Different drug and style scenes associated with ever diversifying and eclectic music forms make it difficult to refer to a unified drug culture. Dancing, drugs, nightclubs and the aftermath of MDMA's role in shaping the culture for at least 5 years are still, however, the major unifying forces. And while it is true that a range of drugs have made their way onto the dancefloor masquerading as Ecstasy but cocaine use, for example, is increasing - and everything may not now begin with an 'E'- Ecstasy's role in attracting large numbers of young people to specific styles of music, fashion, nightclubs and parties would appear to be outliving its actual availability and bad press.

93432.jpg (5732399 bytes)
The joy of dancing, music and group feeling


The project began in October 1991 and has been funded for 2 years by the North West Regional Health Authority, based in Manchester, and conducted in association with Lifeline Manchester (a street drug agency, the North West Regional Drug Training Unit and the Department of Sociology, University of Manchester. It aims to investigate gender differences in ways of accessing and participating in recreational drug use, looking especially at attitudes to and experiences of sex and sexuality, with an eye to safer sexual practices but also to the wider lifestyles and backgrounds of young women between the ages of 14 and 25 years. As such, the project functions on a range of different levels from the practical to the more academic. Examples of the former include feeding back findings directly into Lifeline's Advice and Counselling Service and providing'market research'for information materials. Meanwhile, an account which puts young women to the fore within popular youth culture has much to offer a range of policy areas and academic disciplines. The project has focused on the 'dance drug'phenomenon because (1 ) this has been the context for a new, very large and mainstream wave of drug-taking among young people and (2) as a reflectionof this, itwasdesigned todovetad with Lifeline's Young People's Project which has heet. operating at Lifeline Manchester since Spring 1991. Research methods include in-depth individual interviews, group discussions, and diaries kept by participant observers.

The information referenced here derives frorn initial findings from 20 in-depth interviews accompanied by a lifestyle questionnaire; 100 'E' questionnaires; 3 participant observation diaries, 15 background indepth interviews and ongoing briefings from both the project's core advisory group and the wide range of rele-' vant contacts (from rave promoters to club journalists) maintained by the Lifeline agency. An evaluation of existing Lifeline information materials on aspects of this type of drug use also provided background material. This was conducted between February and April 1992, and involved individual and group interviews in youth clubs and young people's homes (in which 144 young people participated, with 109 young women (75.7%) and 35 young men (24.3%)). It was geared primarily to gaining theiropinionon the gender appeal of the materials but also yielded information on attitudes to drug use among young women and other relevant material.


Full analysis of the data is due later in 1993 but 1 am able to make observations from initial work. What follows is based upon data on the 18- to 2 5 -year-old group: background data gathered throughout the project and indepth interviews conducted during 1992 and the early part of 1993. These young women varied in the frequency, quantity, range and duration of their drug use. Most were still participating; the majority had been through a period - from 3 months to 2 years - where they had taken Ecstasy on a weekly basis. Most had supplemented their Ecstasy intake with amphetamine sulphate and a few also added LSD to the cocktail. The majority smoked tobacco and cannabis on a regular basis. Alcohol was the least preferred drug - in terms of its effects, after-effects and cultures of use.

More equality of participation

Although there are variations in different sectors of an increasingly diverse and continually transforming culure, my research suggests that young women generally participate in this scene more equally than previous accounts of young people's drug use and youth culture would lead us to expect. They are generally present in equal numbers, are as likely to be introduced to the culure and the drugs through female associates as male, come from a range of class, race and ethnic backgrounds, participate in low-level dealing, and are more likely to access the scene via a crowd of friends of mixed or single gender. Factors proving more resistant to this relaxation of the gender rules and codes include: becoming a DJ (a central character in the scene), being involved in parts of the scene organised around specific types of Techno music and being actively involved in the organised crime which has been increasingly in evidence.

Drugs as fashion and fun

The form of drug use in question is only one element of a culture - other components include music, dancing, group experience, ways of dressing, world views. The process in which the machinery of popular culture circulated this phenomenon to an increasing number of outlets and consumers resulted in drugs becoming fash, ionable not only in the sense of being popular and widespread but also of being associated with fashions. The takeup of dress styles associated with the scene by high-street fashion outlets and youth magazines, for example, was an important turning point in the path, way from subcult to mainstream youth culture and helped associate the drug scene with fashion and things often viewed as frivolous by 'serious' social/cultural commentators and early participants in the'rave'scene alike. Coverage of drugs, both implicit or explicit, in fashionable magazines like'ID','The Face'and'Mix, mag', also assisted this process. Although most of the young women 1 interviewed were at pains to distinguish themselves from what they called'fashion victims', it is clear that the association with youth fashion has played a key role in young women's attraction to the scene Fashion, getting the clothes, the music, the dance styl and magazines associated with the scene, is one part o the main attraction - having fun.

93433.jpg (3989649 bytes)

Young women occupy the social space with confidence

The joy of music, dancing and group feeling...

Respondents described the pleasures involved in the scene with varying degrees of articulation but for all o them the combination of music, dancing and group feeling - and their enhancement by mainly Ecstasy, amphetamine sulphate or LSD (or a combination o them all in a few cases) - was clearly the key. Some put more emphasis on the music, some the drug-taking some on a sense of belonging and confidence; all inti. mated the degree of pleasure which this 19-year-old respondent described so enthusiastically:

'I love dancing. Once 1 get on that dancefloor there's no getting me off... at the end of the night when that turntable slows down, it just goes uuurrmmmOFF! It's so weird it's like somebody's just smacked you over the head or something. It's the most awful feeling at the end of the night when that music goes off for me. When you listen to the music you usually know the music is coming out of the speakers. But when you're on E it's like you're dancing on the notes... it's all around you, and you feet so up there it's like, it'S so hard to describe, it's like heaven. And you just feel so good, you love everybody, you look around and you think oh you're all wonderful! Oh it'S such a wonderful atmosphere! DJ you're wonderful! If you get a good song on, you get like vibes going through your body and er like rushes... it's fantastic. I've never felt anything like it!'

This respondent reflected the sentiments of many young women when she rated Ecstasy, music and dancing above other forms of enjoyment in her life such as sex and keeping fit.

... not sex?
The fact that the scene has provided a social space for young women to pursue these pleasures without uninvited sexual attention from men was referenced widely in the interviews, and contrasts were drawn with more traditional clubs in which alcohol played a key role. Gettingdrunk and finding a sexual partnerfor the night was definitely frowned upon as a boring and very limited pastime in comparison. Taking drugs which make you feel confident, physically and mentally sensitised and'love' yourself and everyone else - in a stimulating environment where large numbers of other people are doing the same - clearly had much more to offer. In short, instead of being tied to a boyfriend, having to stick close to friends, feeling self-conscious about appearance or dance-style or intimidated by attention from men, the young women occupied this social space with confidence, circulating and meeting new people independently.

Despite an increasing presence of organised crime and occurrences of violence and theft in this culture, the young women interviewed clearly felt that it provided an exciting, exhilarating but also 'safe' social space for ,them - safe in an important sense. The role of Ecstasy, in particular, in modifying male behaviour was referenced widely (interestingly, as things change and MDMA is less in evidence, these references are decreasing). Hugging, being massaged, communicating with dance movements, smiles and other facial and especially hand expressions, roaring or whistling when the empathy between the crowd and DJ and high points in the music peaks - all of these ingredients and more (such as fairground rides and bouncy castles) are all, ~ or have been, part of the fabric of' interrelationships between and among the sexes in this context. This has been attributed to the This respondent reflected the sentiments of many specific effects of Ecstasy on male sexual appetite (or young women when she rated Ecstasy, music and danc- equipment). A rare study (Buffum and Moser, 1986) ing above other forms of enjoyment in her life such as put it this way:

'It is curious that a drug which can increase emotional closeness, enhance receptivity to being sexual and would be chosen as a sexual enhancer, does not increase the desire to initiate sex.'

But anecdotal evidence suggests that this effect is by no means universal and, once again, there is change. The growing sexualisation of some segments of the culture (via clothes, club night themes etc.) appears to be accompanied by a greater interest in sex and relationships.

What is needed from drug services?

Advice and information would appear to be the main requirement from young women involved in this scene. Many had come into contact with information material produced and distributed by the Lifeline agency (i.e. the'Peanut Pete'series of cartoon leaflets, Ecstasy postcards) and by the Mersey Drug Training Centre (e.g. 'Chill Out'and'Keep Chilling') in nearby Merseyside. They spoke of the relief theyfelt onreceivingthe material (1) because they had finally gained access to information or (2) because they found their instinctual response or advice from friends was correct. Specific information on the effects of the drugs most commonly used on the menstrual cycle, contraception and pregnancy would appear, judging from my research and anecdotal evidence from agencies, to be of specific concern to the young women themselves and, sometimes, their boyfriends.

The HIV dimension

Early media coverage which dubbed Ecstasy the 'love drug'and associated it with'sex romps'and'orgies' (The Sun, October t988), gave cause for some, though limited, concern that this seeming reversal of the values which had been heralded in with the advent of the HIV retrovirus would he accompanied by a growth in its transmission. However, few studies which focus on the relationship between this or any other type of noninj . ecting illegal drug use and the sexual transmission of HIV have as yet been reported (Ford, 1990; Klee, 1992). My own study suggests that, the 'dance drug' phenomenon (at least as it was in 1992 among 18-25 year olds) is less likely to provoke unsafe sex than the use of alcohol in large social settings. I found a high reported awareness of sex-related ri~k and a correspondingly high use of condoms or experimentation with non-penetrative sex among the young women interviewed. Ifsexual activity occurred at all in the context of the use of 'dance drugs', it was most likely to occur during the'comedown'period -during which the opportunites for exploration offered by a long wait for sleep were sometimes taken up.


How does all this square with existing perspectives on women's drug use? First a brief examination of the two main sources from which these are gained - the media and the drugs literature.

Media coverage of women and drugs

Recent coverage of women's use of illegal drugs in the UK has been dominated by young women's use of Ecstasy and other drugs associated with 'rave' or'dance' culture. From the first sightings of what were then called Acid House parties by the tabloid press, a trend was set. Quickly backtracking on its observation earlier in the month that Acid House was'cool and groovy'(The Sun, 1988a), The Sun spent much of October 1988 condemning the'EVIL OF ECSTASY'(The Sun, 19_88b~) and'ACID HOUSE HORROR'(The Sun,1988c). By the end of the month we had the headline which typified later reporting of female users of what came to be known as 'dance drugs', casting them as innocent victims of the 'drug evil' (Redhead and Melechi, 1988, p,22) - 'GIRL 21 DROPS DEAD AT ACID HOUSE DISCO' (The Sun, 1988d). More followed, culminating, again inThe Sun, in 'Acid fiends spike page three girl's drink'(The Sun, 1988e). Here, the story of evil was given two extra spicy ingredients: first the story intimated that 'foreign' men were spiking women's drinks in order to take sexual advantage of them; second, the involvement of a Page Three girl added a further sexual dimension.

Leap to 1992. By this time, the earlier reporting of the Acid house phenomenon which gave it a sexy edge had given way to a much greater emphasis on death and psychosis. As the phenomenon escalated and diversified so did the reporting, but the focus on young women as innocent victims continued. The 1992s equivalent of the 1988 Page Three girl story was The'TV flake girl'. Once more a minor celebrity, this time a model who had featured in an advert for a chocolate bar lying in a bath in a luxurious bathroom in Venice and lingering over the chocolate in a thinly veiled reference to oral sex (Daily Mirror, 1992). Hence another'sexy'angle. Once more her drink was reputedly 'spiked' but this time the outcome was not intimated sexual abuse but'madness'. The young woman's mind was reputedly sent into a'turmoil'after one tablet of Ecstasy and she was confined to a psychiatric ward. Whatever the actual detail of this story (and anecdotal evidence suggests it was far from accurate), it continued an established pattern of reporting in which stardom became a newsworthy 'hook' for stories of female innocence and tragedy. Wealth and ordinariness also served this purpose - examples include stories of 'Suzanne' - a little rich girl rescued from her flirtation with drugs by her father (Daily Mail, 1991) and'Club girl Paula' (Manchester EveningNews, 1992), another young death associated with Ecstasy.

This media portrayal of women as innocent victims of drug trends, which has drawn on stories from the lives of the rich, of stars or of the spectacularly ordinary to bolster newsworthy status, has a long history (Silver, 1979; Palmer and Horowitz, 1982; Kohn, 1992). The flipside of this coin has been the portrayal of women who use drugs as deviators from the feminine norm, their active involvement construed only in terms of deviance. Sex still plays a major role but this time the salacious element works not only to 'sell' the story bt-,?'.t also to assist in designating the deviance of women involved. The most familiar recent reporting of this type introduced us to the phenomena of 'crack babies' and'AlDS babies'. In both cases, the responsibility for the outcome of active engagement with drug use was placed squarely on the shoulders of the mothers.

The literature on women and drugs

It is a familiar sentiment by now that the literature on drugs is limited when it comes to the subject of gender anddrug use. All too often studies have ignored gender as a factor influencing drug use and extrapolated from themale experience. Perhaps understandably, attempts to address this imbalance in gender focus have specifically highlighted women's drug use (incidentally with the result that, in the process, the male experience has once more escaped exploration as such and remained in its generalised and generalisable state - a fact sometimes not so widely recognised). Yet, despite this, the literature on women's drug use is still comparatively small,and, if the subject of drug use and pregnancy were excluded, much smaller. In Britain early seminal work (Perry, 1979) has seen little follow-up in recent years (Waterson and Ettorre, 1989; Henderson, 1990; Oppenheimer, 1991; Thom, 1991; Dorn et al., 1992), the volume of the literature seeing its most extensive growth in Australia (Wodak, 1990; Broom and Stevens, 199 1; Roth, 199 ];Sargent, 1991, 1992).

A drugs literature dominated by medical and psychological explanations of drug use has delivered a mixed image of women's drug use. Contributions to the literature inspired by the women's movement offered a critique of earlier perspectives which, when considering women at all, cast their drug use as a deviation from the confines of'normal'femininity and explained it, at best, in terms of a compensation for physical or mental deficiencies, at worst in terms of disease. The basis of this critique was an assertion that social inequality was an important contributing factor requiring a specific focus on women and that women's dependence on drugs was related to their generally dependent positioning within society. Where previous work had focused specifically on women's role as mothers and arose from a concern over the effects of drug use on pregnancy outcomes, the feminist contribution attempted and, to some degree continues to attempt, to shift the focus ontothe individual woman and her needs. Alcohol and tranquill iser use have dominated this literature but illegal drugs have enjoyed a similar approach (Rosenbaum, 198 1). Developments in recent years have maintained a precarious balance between the concept of addiction as individual personality trait and social inequality as cause - fuelled by a growth in the feminist literature on wornen's addiction -to food, to sex, to sexual abuse and violence, to shopping (Ettorre, 1992). Although no longer deviant in this scheme of things, the picture of women's drug use slips back into the victim mode wornen as victims of social circumstances, men's power, their addictive personality. Meanwhile, in sociological explanations of drug use which foreground injecting heroin use seen as resulting from a lack of social resources in inner city areas, women appear, when at all, as largely passive and powerless creatures, introduced to the scene and administered drugs by men. Bound by masculine codes, looked down upon by their male peers and invariably involved in prostitution, their initial pleasure-seeking, if involved at all, inevitably results in a downward spiral.

Practical and policy perspectives

An additional contribution to perspectives on women's drug use has been derived from the worlds of policy and service provision. Prior to the advent of HIV, women were a low priority in drug policy terms in Britain. Service development, with important exceptions inspired by the women's movement,which gave attention mostly to women's use of alcohol and tranquillisers, revolved largely around a concern over the effects of drug use on reproduction. In this context, the welfare of the cl uld took precedence over the needs of the mother. By 1984, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD, 1984, p.23) recognised the need for special attention to women's drug use but it was not until the 1989 report on AIDS and Drug Misuse that specific recommendations were made for making drug services more receptive to the needs of women (ACMD, 1989, p.40. These included women-only sessions, access to women doetors and counsellors, provision of creche, childcare and family planning facilities. These and other women's health-inspired initiatives had been appearing in a few drug agencies before the recommendations and have increased slowly since that time (Henderson, 1990). However, the major effect of public concern to stem the tide of the HIV epidemic by concentrating policy initiatives on those seen to be most likely to assist transmission of the virus, has been to sharpen the image o womenwho inject illegal drugs asprostitur,es and'unfit mothers'- prostitution and pregnancy being the two major areas of policy focus.

In summary, existing perspectives on women's drug use present a picture of women who slip into a world of drug-taking dominated by male rules and codes, a world of few opportunities of active participation which casts them either as victims or in a deviant (often sexually deviant) light. Their drug use is explained in teri-ns of compensation for lack of social power, accommodation to 'normal' femininity, balanced personality or mental health - any pleasure -seeking involved is thus reduced to a sign of deviance. Very little hint is given of the specifics of different cultural dynamics of different types of drug use.


What are the implications of all this? They are many but the following comprise a selected few.

Accommodating pleasure

First, the picture of women within the'dance drug'culture assists us in the process of viewing women's drug use as a mainstream phenomenon and concern, as opposed to deviant or marginal. It also offers a view of women as active participants indrug use, instead of the more usual image of passivity and powerlessness. Clearly, I have been examining a specific, largely recreational form of drug use in a specific setting but insights gained in this context could usefully be applied to other cultures of drug use. Although it would be simply foolish to abandon perspectives which understand drug use as a social and/or individual problem, we have something to learn from additionally viewing drug use as a leisure pursuit. The recreational aspects of drug use, the role of drugs within consumer culture and the pleasure principle involved are all particularly overlooked with regard to women. Whether in dire or more eased social circumstances, drugs feature among a range of consumer products which women use to pleasure themselves - to positive as well as negative effect. Such considerations could usefully enhance the picture of drug use upon which service responses and policies are based. By operating from a basis which is more in touch with the reality of women's everyday experience, a more 'userfriendly' approach could evolve which moves beyond stereotypes and in so doing'normalises'women who use drugs and commands their active engagement in reducing the harms from their drug use. The much-needed sense of burnout which this approach would necessarily ~ entail could facilitate the process of sidestepping both the insensitivity and political posturing which currently abound - the result? The possibility that commonsense, and with it a range of options for women drug users involving informed choice, could at last prevail.

The cultural dimensions of drug use and popular~ culture as a site for harm-reduction messages

The process of examining cultures of drug use is also an important lesson here. Not only does it have implications forperspectives on drug use and in turn theireffect on policy and practice, it also gives us specific targets and appropriate media for harm reduction. Harm reduction messages addressing the 'dance drug' phe nomenon in Britain have targeted popular culture viaits own forms with great success, if awareness of them within the culture is taken as a guideline.

Drugs and sexually transmitted diseases: beyond condoms and injecting

The focus of this study on the relationship between wider experiences of and attitudes towards sexuality raises important questions about the role of the relationship between non-injecting drug use and the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. First, it offers an insight into the dynamics of sexuality which moves beyond the simple question of frequency and incidence of condom use among drug injectors which has preoccupied our attention to date. Second, it begins to provide us with an alternative model of, mainly young women's, sexuality within which some power and informed choice are exercised. An encouraging phenomenon which could assist thedifficult business of reducing sex-related harms among young people - not least by contributinga small light of optimism to an overwhelming body of negative evidence.

Gender on the drug use agenda

Finally, but by no means least significantly, this discussionkeeps gender on the drug use agenda - but hopefully in a different way. Although the issue is largely marginalised in a researchand service provision ghetto and responses to and reports on women's drug use are still tailored to a largely female audience, a different approach -one which makes both masc u I ini tyand femininity explicit factors for consideration by a general audience - is not only desirable but increasingly essential. In Britain, despite a fall in the numbers of smokers of tobacco in the general population, the numbers of youngwomen are rising. Meanwhile the initial find ings of asurvey of 776 schoolchildren aged 14 and 15 years in the north west of England found that more girls than boys admitted to having tried an illegal drug and that 14year-old girls were twice as likely to try solvents (Newcombe et al.1 1992). If this is indicative of future drug trends, a practical perspective on gender conversant with the positive motivations for women's use of drugs and other pleasurable commodities will be essential.


Sheila Henderson, Research Associate, Lifeline, Manchester


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Last Updated on Monday, 20 December 2010 20:04

Our valuable member Sheila Henderson has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.

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