While Australian women’s alcohol consumption is increasing and for various reasons, the global ‘sober curious’ movement is also growing. Our studies involving some of Australia’s heaviest drinkers – midlife women – show women do feel motivated to drink less, but they need to be supported by a social environment and public health campaigns that enable them to do so.
Originally coined by author Ruby Warrington, to be ‘sober curious’ is to actively reflect on one’s alcohol consumption and try to drink more ‘mindfully’ (rather than necessarily stopping completely, although this might be the outcome of the reflection). Our new world first study, just published, suggests the sober curious movement offers an opportunity for public health authorities to develop new campaigns and interventions aimed at supporting women to drink less. Drawing on interviews with 27 sober-curious Australian women aged 45-64, we examined the kinds of lessons that might be learned to help reduce women’s drinking at a time when ‘sober curiosity’ is in the public spotlight.
Part of the sober curious movement is an expanding range of zero alcohol beverages for sale in bars, bottle shops, even in supermarkets, and there is debate over whether this is good given they mimic alcohol brands. People also criticise the wellness industry for selling self-improvement. Regardless, sober curious at least increases the prominence of not drinking within an ‘alcogenic’ society where women are expected to drink and instructing women not to drink is ineffective, even harmful.
Leveraging the sober curious movement
Our findings show how sober curiosity reframes the issue by promoting not drinking as a gain (taking up something new for wellness) rather than a loss (giving up drinking). This enables sobriety or reduced consumption to be positioned as positive experiences with benefits for health and wellbeing, and achieve “a new phase of life” (‘Kelly’) for “sustainable long-term change” (‘Rosie’) and “a good quality of life for as long as possible” (‘Gloria’).
Such messages can be adopted by public health authorities, tying into wider movements towards wellness and living a flourishing life, that may also be popular with this demographic and presenting a more positive framing for mindful or reduced consumption. Related to this, existing alcohol reduction messages often frame drinking as a ‘problem’ that needs to be fixed, typically by the drinker. This causes women to feel pressure to stop drinking and experience a sense of failure when they can’t. For these reasons the women we interviewed with resources to fund sober curiosity like the idea – seeing it as a flexible and achievable approach to managing consumption:
“I don’t want to totally stop drinking and alcohol isn’t destroying my life, but I am probably drinking too much alcohol. I like this idea […] around actually being curious, and thinking about maybe reducing, moderating, being very mindful that you’re drinking” (‘Bronwyn’)
Relatedly, women’s activities are often partnered with alcohol (women ‘uncork their creativity’ or participate in ‘girls’ days at cellar doors) leaving them no escape from socialising with a drink. More events targeted to women that are not alcohol-themed or sponsored by the alcohol industry could also support women’s sober curiosity.
Sober curiosity can offer a sense of community to make reducing drinking feel more possible than it otherwise would. However, the movement is primarily led by younger wealthy female ‘instagrammers’, meaning those in midlife may feel under-represented or invisible, or just not sure where to access support:
“You get scared about doing this, because you think I don’t want to give up alcohol for the rest of my life. I think it’s […]an either/or – either you drink or you give up completely. That’s where I want to find that medium. Where do you talk to likeminded people who actually want to achieve that? Is there a group that you can actually say, ‘This is what I want to achieve?’” (‘Celeste’).
Call to action for public health
Public health authorities could help by designing (with women’s help) more tailored online platforms for support, as Sonia suggests:
“I wonder whether something like the [name of alcohol sobriety program], but geared toward women in midlife, and their reasons for consumption, the supportive platform like that might be a way forward because from the women I speak to, they are looking on social media […] almost everything they’ve got is on social media …. [it could be a] very effective platform for us.”
Access to sober curious communities is difficult for women who lack the money and resources to ‘invest in themselves’. One solution could be for the Government to subsidise the costs of joining sober curious programs, making sober curiosity possible for all women.
*The names of the women interviewed have been changed, to maintain anonymity.
Written by Dr Belinda Lunnay and Professor Paul R Ward, Torrens University Australia, and Dr Emily Nicholls, University of York.
All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.