does drug abuse vary by gender

It doesn’t take the most astute observer to recognize that men and women process emotions differently. Although some of the difference is fueled by stereotypes and social pressures, like boys don’t cry, there is a fundamental difference based solely on gender.

Physiological differences, of course, are obvious, too. While it is true that a girl can grow up to be a bodybuilder, the way her body develops muscles is different from the way a boy’s does. At its basis, gender difference is chemical. Our body and brain’s chemical makeup is patterned, in varying degrees, either male or female.

Just like losing weight can be a different struggle for a woman than for a man, drug abuse affects us differently, as well. The way we process emotions, build muscle and succumb to societal pressures all influence the drug abuse variations between men and women.

Drug Addiction Between Genders

Statistics are the best way to show that there are indeed differences between men and women when it comes to drug abuse. Here are just a few facts:

  • More men than women abused prescription drugs from 2002-2005, according to a national survey
  • Females aged 12 to 17 abuse pain relievers, tranquilizers and stimulants more than their male counterparts


  • A higher percentage of males than females reported tobacco use in 2013
  • In 2013, 5 percent of males abused illicit drugs as compared to 7.3 percent of females
  • While the rate of marijuana use among men increased from 2006 to 2011, female marijuana use decreased
  • The rate of illicit drug use in general was higher for men in 2013 than for women
  • There was a decrease in the rate of illicit drug use for women from 2012 to 2013 while male drug abuse remained the same
  • Approximately 62,000 men die from alcohol-related causes each year while 26,000 women die the same way

There is almost no correlation between the genders when it comes to drug abuse stats. Female rates rise while male rates decline and vice versa. Given this information, it is difficult to speculate what the differences could be. Clearly both men and women are subject to addiction, and people of both genders use illicit drugs and prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes. Even alcohol, the most socially acceptable drug of choice, does not affect the female and male populations the same way.

Gender Trends in Substance Abuse

Stereotypes and gender roles play a big part in American lives. Even if you don’t want to admit they matter, your behavior probably shows otherwise. This is because in subtle ways, we accept the gender role stereotypes society gives us.

Substance abuse trends are no different. Men and women gravitate toward different substances, perhaps for unknown reasons. Although there are no strict rules, you might observe that men are more likely to drink beer and women tend to drink wine. Women tend to prefer sweeter-tasting mixed drinks while men lean more toward straight liquor.

Here are some other drug abuse trends by gender.


Men are more likely to abuse:

  • Cocaine
  • Hallucinogens
  • Alcohol
  • Prescription drugs

Women are more likely to abuse:

  • Heroin
  • Tranquilizers
  • Pain relievers

In the younger age groups, the difference in substances abused between men and women could be associated with access. Having access to drugs is the No. 1 determination of what drugs a person takes. Teenagers have the fewest resources of all age groups, therefore access is most important to them.

Men consistently show a higher rate of drug abuse than women in the general population. Despite this and other gender differences, when access to drugs is equal for men and women, there is no difference in the rate of drug abuse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “once given the opportunity to use, males and females are equally likely to use drugs.”

This equality does not keep substance abuse choices from trending along gender lines. Of course, this doesn’t make a particular substance the exclusive choice of one gender or the other any more than you can’t find a female beer drinker. All drugs are abused by both men and women with plenty of crossover between the genders.

Gender Differences in Substance Abuse

Access is only one factor that affects drug abuse discrepancies between men and women, and might also account in part for the fact that they gravitate toward different substances. However, our physiological makeup also plays a part in how each substance is received by the body and what happens next.

A 2003 study conducted by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reveals several differences in drug abuse between men and women. “The Formative Years: Pathways to Substance Abuse Among Girls and Young Women Ages 8-22” focuses on drug abuse behaviors in the youngest age group, but some of its conclusions can be extrapolated to the larger population.

The study revealed some differences in why girls and boys begin to use drugs:


  • Dieting and eating disorders are more prevalent among girls than boys, putting girls at an increased risk of substance abuse
  • Physical and sexual abuse are other risk factors for drug abuse, and girls are more likely than boys to have encountered these situations
  • The onset of puberty affects drug abuse behaviors, which increases a girl’s risk over a boy’s because girls usually experience puberty at a younger age than boys

Overall, major risk factors for drug abuse tend to put girls in more danger. These discrepancies point to social and emotional differences between boys and girls, especially during their teenage years. While the differences are natural, perhaps nurturing could change the way they are experienced.

By addressing girls’ relationships with food before they develop eating disorders, at least one risk factor for girls could be mitigated. A larger social issue is reducing physical and sexual abuse, but that could also help reduce the likelihood of girls using drugs.

In addition to being at greater risk for abusing drugs, girls are affected differently by substance abuse. They become addicted faster:

  • Girls develop addiction to nicotine faster than boys, even before they become routine smokers
  • Girls go from using alcohol to abusing alcohol much faster than boys
  • Addiction to cocaine is more likely in adolescence for girls than boys

Addiction rates in women are not well understood yet, but they are likely tied to the hormonal cycle. Women who try to quit smoking, for example, have a harder time during certain parts of their cycle. Estrogen levels that fluctuate throughout the month are connected to mood and anxiety. Women have more intense cravings when their estrogen levels are low, and they are more susceptible to environmental triggers than men, like seeing someone light up a cigarette.

Women also have more adverse health effects related to drug addiction than men do:


  • Smoking-related lung damage is higher among females than males
  • Alcohol abuse is more likely to result in brain damage, liver disease and heart disease for women than for men
  • More females are hospitalized for misuse of medications like antidepressants than males

Increased organ damage from alcohol in women can be explained by basic physiology. Women tend to weigh less than men and their bodies contain more fat and less water. The fat holds onto alcohol while the water dilutes it; therefore, a woman’s organs have greater exposure to alcohol when they drink the same amount as their male counterparts. Women also have lower levels of two enzymes that break down alcohol in the stomach, which means more alcohol is entering the bloodstream with each ounce consumed.

Drug abuse is dangerous for everyone, but women seem to be naturally at greater risk. Their emotional issues tend to lead them to drugs as an escape, and their physiology compounds the exposure. Addiction hits them faster and their physical health deteriorates more as a result.

Gender Differences in Drug Abuse: Where It All Starts


As a disease, drug addiction is treated like other mental illnesses. The general causes are believed to be environmental and genetic. Growing up in an environment that exposes you to drug use and a tacit acceptance of the practice, either at home, in school or around the neighborhood, tends to get things started. Then, genetic factors control how quickly abuse turns into addiction.

Although drug addiction can begin later in life, it is often in those early years that you develop the pattern of addictive behavior or the thought process that accepts drug use as OK. Girls and boys turn to drugs for different reasons, and this accounts for some of the discrepancies in their addiction rates.

Some reasons girls begin using drugs:


  • Support weight loss
  • Counteract depression
  • Develop confidence
  • Face problems
  • Improve sexual experience
  • Lessen tension

Not all girls who experience low self-esteem turn to drug abuse, of course, but many struggle with these problems. Their instinct is often to escape feeling bad about themselves, hide or try to fit in. In contrast, boys use drugs to increase their social status. Seeking status is a way to put themselves in the spotlight, not hide from it like their female counterparts.

Our society makes it easier for girls to get drugs, too. Girls are less likely to get proofed buying cigarettes or alcohol than boys are. They also receive offers of drugs or alcohol in private homes more often than boys. In addition, advertisers play on female insecurities and market alcohol and cigarettes directly to women, making their products look as if they enhance the appearance and glamor of the people who use them.

There are many causes of drug abuse, and addiction entails a unique combination of circumstances. Once drug use begins, addiction is almost inevitable. Understanding some of the root causes and trying to address the problem before it starts is the best way to treat drug addiction. Here are some ways you can help young girls stay off drugs:

  • Don’t make it easy for young people to get drugs, even nicotine. If you are involved in retail sales, be sure you are following the law and requesting proof of age from everyone, girls too. Never provide drugs of any kind, alcohol included, to teenagers.
  • Don’t make addictive behaviors acceptable in your house, your classroom or where ever you encounter young people. Smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer are not harmless activities; don’t treat them like they’re no big deal. Watch your references to your own adult Sarcastic comments about needing a drink or wanting a sedative may sound funny, but they reinforce the idea that avoiding strong emotions with medication is normal, acceptable behavior.
  • Find ways to support the development of healthy self-esteem in your daughters and other young girls in your life. Praise and compliment them regularly, and avoid making critical comments about them. Girls know when their hair is a mess or they look fat; no need to point it out. Instead, point out the positives that they have likely overlooked, like their compassion for a friend or their improved academic achievement.
  • Model positive self-talk, and don’t accept self-deprecating comments from others. Words are powerful, even when they are your own. We often think criticism is acceptable when we do it to ourselves, but it is still damaging. Show the young girls in your life how to raise their self-concept by flattering themselves, instead. 

Drug abuse and addiction is a complicated matter that does not have one easy solution. Attempting to stop the problem before it starts is one way to avoid the need for rehab. Addiction involves some strong mental and emotional forces, however, that you may not be able to counter. If someone in your life is already involved in drug abuse, you can show her support by helping her find the treatment she needs to break her addiction.

Drug Addiction Treatment by Gender

As more is learned about the concept of addiction, its causes and how to stop it, addiction treatment programs have become more prevalent. The classification of addiction as a disease has also helped people talk about it more freely and with a little less shame. The more you know about your treatment options, the better equipped you are to ask for the help you need.

Like many other things in life, addiction treatment is different for men and women. The differences have only recently been recognized and are not fully addressed in many programs. One major difference in addiction treatment by gender is access to that treatment. To be fair, both genders face barriers to treatment, like:

  • Fear of treatment
  • Concern for privacy
  • Lack of social support
  • Reluctance to admit the problem
  • Time constraints
  • Lack of availability of treatment
  • Difficulty completing admission process

Deciding to seek addiction treatment is a big step that begins with an acknowledgment of the problem. Addiction is a serious disease, recovery from which requires treatment, but it is often difficult to begin this journey. Very often, someone addicted to drugs is not seeing her life clearly, anyway. Making a rational decision in that state can be extremely difficult.

Once the decision is made to seek treatment, it is often more difficult for females to get the type of support they need for successful recovery. When a women is ready to seek help, she often turns to a mental health practitioner or her primary care physician instead of reaching out to a specialized treatment center that deals exclusively with addiction recovery. Without specialized treatment, the relapse rate for addiction recovery is much higher. Since more women than men don’t get the right type of treatment for addiction, their rates of relapse in recovery are a bit higher.

In general, women are more likely to encounter barriers to treatment than men. Some of the reasons they do not seek treatment or follow through are:

  • Women may avoid seeking treatment for addiction because of anxiety or depression, something fewer men face
  • Family responsibilities tend to interfere with a woman’s ability to attend treatment regularly
  • Women are more likely to have trouble paying for treatment than men
  • Addiction treatment elicits stronger feelings of shame and embarrassment for women than for men

Some of the same emotional issues that make women more susceptible to addiction keep them from seeking the treatment they need, as well. Women tend to put everyone else’s needs before their own. When choosing between picking the kids up at school and attending a therapy session, many women choose the kids instead of recognizing that their own well-being is important.

Some women are ashamed to admit they need help. Their own self-concept is tied to their successful performance of simultaneous tasks that keep the house, the office and everyone else’s lives running smoothly. Their addiction may be to the stimulants they came to rely on so they had enough energy to get through those impossible days. If they seek treatment for the addiction, they’re afraid people will know they are not superwomen, after all.


What Drug Addiction Means to Women

Old societal values would have us believe that women are the weaker sex. Activists in the sexual revolution fought to change the perception of women to be equal to men. The physiological fact is that women are different from men, not superior or inferior.

For decades, women have tried to fit into a man’s world. Even medical treatment was male-dominated with research, medical testing and pharmaceutical dosing based on male subjects. In more recent years, women have been recognized as unique; not just smaller versions of men. This recognition is moving us toward a better understanding of how the female mind and body work and the best ways to support it for optimal health.

In many ways, addiction is an extension of the emotional issues women face growing up and succeeding in our society. A successful recovery not only needs to address the addiction, but it also has to heal underlying issues that may have even been exacerbated by drug use. For women, drug addiction is an all-encompassing affliction that requires a holistic approach to recovery.

Understanding that addiction develops differently in women than it does in men allows us to create unique treatment options to help women through recovery, increasing their success rate. At Voyage, you are surrounded by the loving support of other women who understand what you are going through. We have a unique perspective on how to heal each other.

Voyage is an exclusively female addiction treatment center designed for comfortable, safe healing. We fit each individual with a unique treatment program to meet her specific needs. Our staff of caring clinicians and treatment specialists understands the nuances of female addiction and the challenges you face in recovery.

To learn more or to begin healing your life, contact Voyage today.