Women are frequently viewed as the gentler sex throughout many cultures around the world. In society’s eyes, women are expected to be dainty, fragile and made of sugar and spice and everything nice. From birth, swaddled in pink blankets, women are expected to adhere to their strictly outlined gender role, and when they don’t, they are judged harshly for breaking the norm.

Women face societal stigmas in every area of life: at work, home, school, in the community and even regarding drug and alcohol use. Having a drug addiction or living with a mental health disorder is highly stigmatizing, but a woman who struggles with these conditions may face more societal backlash than a man would.

The Double Standard of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse isn’t necessarily praised among either gender, but women are ridiculed more harshly than men for the same drug and alcohol use behaviors.

For example, although smoking cigarettes is legal, women may be labeled as trashy and lacking morals if they smoke in public while men may be viewed as attractive and more masculine. The same comparison can be made with alcohol use. Before World War II, women who had an alcohol addiction were perceived as closet drinkers, homeless or living with severe mental illnesses.

Women who break societal norms and defy gender roles — especially by doing something illegal — risk being labeled as bad or immoral. While substance use disorders are still considered moral failings, a woman with addiction faces additional discrimination because of her gender. Mothers may frequently receive ridicule for resorting to substance use and may be seen as failures while fathers may be excused for having a few beers after a hard day’s work.

Barriers to Treatment

In the 1970s and 1980s, medical practitioners and researchers began to recognize how little was known about providing adequate treatment to women with substance use disorders. Research suggests that women are less likely to develop a substance use disorder compared to men. However, women often develop drug and alcohol addictions faster than men do, and they frequently face more barriers to treatment.

Men and women may use substances for similar reasons, like to self-medicate or to cope with social pressures, but according to the book “Women Under the Influence,” men and women have significantly different experiences in treatment for substance use. Some reasons why women may be more reluctant to seek addiction treatment include:

  • Women who are in treatment for substance use disorders are five times more likely to have a history of sexual abuse. Their past experiences may not be something they want to discuss in a group setting.
  • The reasons women start using substances may prevent them from seeking treatment because they don’t want to address the issues in treatment. For example, divorce, losing a child, unemployment, being the victim of domestic violence and other significant crisis situations may prevent women from getting rehab.
  • If a woman is a mother, she may feel like she can’t leave her familial role. If a woman is a primary caregiver in her family, she may feel guilty or selfish going to rehab to care for herself. She may also fear that her children will be taken from her if her addiction is exposed.

In addition to these barriers, women experience barriers to treatment that are related to societal stigma. Where they seek treatment can be influenced by stigma as well as who they seek help from, whether it’s a health professional, self-help group or a religious source.

Differences in Addiction Treatment

Due to the barriers to treatment for women, researchers have suggested that women are less likely to seek, begin or complete treatment for addiction.

Gender-Specific Addiction Treatment

While researchers affirm that once a woman initiates treatment there are no significant differences between the treatment process for men and women, women can benefit from gender-specific treatment because they feel more comfortable. If a woman with a substance use disorder is also a victim of sexual or domestic abuse, they’re more likely to have a better outcome as part of a gender-specific sub-group during treatment. Some researchers suggest that women with substance use disorders may not even seek treatment if women-only treatment programs are not available.

Gender-Specific Therapy Options

To improve treatment for all genders, some specialized, gender-sensitive programs may be beneficial for some women. For example, Project MATCH incorporates the approach of matching a therapist and client’s gender as well as the therapeutic modality of treatment. This particular approach found no effect on the outcomes of addiction treatment, but further research may show that women benefit from specialized, gender-specific programming during rehab.

Addiction Recovery Resources for Women

Recovery from addiction is possible for every woman and compassionate help is available for women in many areas of the country. Women who want to find specific treatment and recovery resources both locally and nationally can use the behavioral health treatment locator map from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

This interactive map lets people narrow their options for substance abuse and mental health treatment and facilities with many filters, including programs for women who are:

  • Adults or seniors
  • Adolescents
  • Pregnant or postpartum
  • In the LGBTQ+ community
  • Veterans or active duty military
  • Victims of intimate partner violence, domestic abuse or sexual trauma
  • American Indian or Alaskan natives
  • Deaf or hard of hearing
  • Not fluent in English

At The Recovery Village, a team of professionals can design an individualized treatment program for each client, regardless of gender, to address substance use and co-occurring disorders. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder, call us today to speak with a representative to learn more about which program could work for you.


Boeri, Miriam and Lee, Nayeong. “Managing Stigma: Women Drug Users and Recovery Services.” HHS Author Manuscripts, August 21, 2018. Accessed May 1, 2019.

Green, Carla Ph. D, M.P.H. “Gender and Use of Substance Abuse Treatment Services.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed May 1, 2019.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Project MATCH (Matching Alcoholism Treatment to Client Heterogeneity): rationale and methods for a multisite clinical trial matching patients to alcoholism treatment.” Alcohol Clin Exp Res, 1993. Accessed May 2019.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Behavioral Health Treatment Locator Map.” (n.d.) Accessed May 2019.

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