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Girls’ vs. Boys’ Buzz? Tobacco and Gender Use

July 7, 2011

Guest Post by Carleton alum Kay Ehni. Kay is the Managing Editor of www.alltreatment.com, an online rehab center directory and substance abuse information resource.

When I started college, I don’t think I had ever seen a tin of chewing tobacco outside of a gas station shelf. Cigarettes, cigars, and hookah had made their way around my high school, but chew was about as foreign to me as a hard drug. I knew it existed, vaguely, but I had to guess at any social rules governing its usage, until a particular incident I learned about my sophomore year. One of my female friends indulged in tobacco every now and then, so when a male acquaintance nonchalantly offered her chewing tobacco one Saturday night, she accepted…and, apparently, never heard the end of it. Several months after the “incident,” a mutual friend who learned about this by hearsay would still rib her about “taking a dip.” When I asked why he thought it was so weird, he could only offer that she was a girl. I found this slightly funny and deeply confusing. In an atmosphere where girls regularly shotgunned beers and lit joints alongside their male counterparts, the fact that a pinch of tobacco inside a girl’s cheek made interesting gossip was inexplicable.

While I thought this was weird, it drifted to the back of my mind until last summer. While visiting a friend in Norway, I noticed a few female bar hoppers slipping beige pouches under their upper lips. I later learned that these were snus, little tobacco purses that are very popular among women and men throughout Scandinavia. The user keeps the pouch in between the cheek and gum for about fifteen minutes and then discards it. In other words, it’s a cleaner form of chewing tobacco, and it’s considered acceptable for women, though a bit more popular among men. I was ready to chalk this up to cultural differences until I returned to the States and saw an ad in a women’s magazine for Camel Snus in spearmint and pumpkin spice flavors. Needless to say, I’ve never seen an ad for chew in Cosmopolitan.

I tried to unearth the rhyme or reason behind tobacco’s gender segregation. Maybe chew is masculine because it’s messy, while the tidiness of snus makes it feminine. But if messiness is the critical factor, why are cigars considered masculine when cigarettes are more “gender-neutral”? Perhaps it’s not messiness but conspicuousness that makes a tobacco vessel masculine. But that doesn’t account for the relative “femininity” of clove versus hand-rolled, unfiltered cigarettes. So maybe it’s a bundle of stereotypically masculine versus feminine traits—messy vs neat, big vs small, sweet vs pungent–that accounts for the gender segregation of tobacco use.

Rates of female cigarette smoking started climbing significantly in the 1940s and 1950s in the U.S., and, especially among younger age groups, are nearly identical today, so it’s interesting that the gender coding of administration method persists. It seems that we’re approaching a separate but equal attitude toward gendered tobacco use. While at first glance this could be seen as somehow beneficial—fewer forms of tobacco being considered acceptable to either gender equals fewer tobacco addicts—the gender acceptable counterpart to every form of tobacco makes this unlikely. If anything, the “masculinity” of certain forms of tobacco use may make them feel liberating to women who wouldn’t pursue them otherwise, as an article from The Harvard Crimson suggests. The reverse could certainly be true for men wishing to step outside gender boundaries, as well. Tobacco use may therefore be an unexpected site of interaction between two goals regarding individual health—the desire to control the body without gender-based judgment and the respect and optimization of one’s health.

It’s tempting to turn toward social psychology for erudite factual support, but most of the explanation these studies can provide is wanting. For example, several studies have suggested that female alcoholics tend to have a higher degree of comorbid psychopathology, particularly anxiety and depression, than males. Granted, this may not be a particularly helpful statistic given that rates of anxiety and depression are on the whole higher for American women than men.

Psychoactive drug use provides excellent insight into the relationship between mind and body. It seems pretty clear that drugs get attached to one of the two genders. While a drug’s gender association can be fluid, it’s rare that one substance has equal acceptability between genders.

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