Just like eating alone, enjoying a drink alone is one of life's private luxuries. But why do we still, in the 21st century, have a problem with women doing it?
Photo by Doc Searls via Flickr
When it got to the point that Bobby, the barman at my favourite watering hole, began to heat up a brandy glass every time he saw me come in, I began to ask myself, do I have a problem?
I've never measured my life in alcohol units. But when I reached my early 20s I realised that I actually enjoyed a quiet drink to myself every now and then. It's a private luxury. However, this was not a guiltless habit and I did begin concealing my clandestine activity as if I was some kind of raging alcoholic, roaming through rainy streets for a fix.
"You went for a drink on your own?" friends would bleat, their faces stretched with a mixture of shock and disgust. They looked me over as if they were praying such a gross dysfunction wasn't contagious. These are friends that I have routinely been so shitfaced with that vomit is the coveted validation of a good night, yet a cheeky glass of wine with the paper on a Sunday, or a slow-sipped brandy of an evening, is apparently a step too far.
Why does a woman drinking on her own incite such consternation? I grew up in a small town in Greater Manchester with more mills and pubs than libraries or schools. Every pub is filled with men of all ages, supping their Tetley's solemnly at the bar after work. Go to any pub, at any time, though, and you'll find men drinking alone, contemplating life with a pint glass in the hand. It's an image as familiar as ducks swimming on a pond.
A female in her early 20s—me—popping for a drink on her way home from work, however, is quite a different matter. It's an image that incites awe, awkwardness, misplaced lust, and, let's face it, disgust.
For most people, drinking is a social thing. Doing it alone is indelibly associated with bad times, and person-drinking-alone-at-a-bar is a cinema stalwart, a hardy metaphor for personal turmoil. But what about those times when drinking alone, just like eating alone, offers a blissful opportunity for solo thought? For a chance to enjoy a drink slowly, without having to make giddy conversation with others?
When I asked female acquaintances whether they have ever drank alone in public, responses included, "what, like at an airport?" and, "yeah, if I'm waiting for someone?" Even if their answers indicated that they do enjoy a bit of solitary drinking from time to time, there was always an existential negotiation involved, a Hamlet-esque to drink or not to drink monologue that explored an array of scenarios and contexts within which they would feel comfortable drinking alone in public.
Without some kind of shield—a book, newspaper, or iPhone—that we may use to show the world that we're not just drinking for drinking's sake—promise!—many women feel self conscious about drinking alone in public for fear that they'll look either like a high functioning alcoholic, or, worse, that they're drinking alone because they have no choice but to be alone.
The most annoying feature of the solitary drink, for me, even though I continue to do it, is the constant fear of being approached or interrupted. While on holiday last year I regularly treated myself to an aperitif in the hotel bar in the evenings. On the third evening I was approached by a man in his 70s who asked if I'd like to join him for a drink as he "had been watching me on my own and thought I might enjoy some company and interesting conversation."
A woman drinking on her own in public just doesn't command the same authority as a man drinking alone. The individual territory that we claim for ourselves when we sit down with a drink can instantly be invaded because, if we're on our own, surely we must be looking for something to fill the gap left by a drinking companion. Surely we have another agenda.
It's a bleak thought, but does a women drinking alone at a bar immediately make men think, Oh, she's fair game? Does it make us look like we're just waiting for a man to sidle over and show us a good time? Do I, when enjoying a glass of Rioja on my own at eight in the evening, have a giant, neon target on my back saying, "Hey, come get it?"
Our society is saturated with warnings and alarms, and women especially are constantly warned of the dangers of being out there alone in the world. Take a wrong turn somewhere, do something that draws attention to yourself, and it might lead to not just shame and ridicule, but rape or pregnancy. If you're not careful, everywhere is booby-trapped. I'd wager that most women don't go to a bar or pub to drink alone for the same reason an antelope wouldn't drink from a reservoir surrounded by lions—we just want a fucking drink, not the lurking predators hiding in the reeds.
Potential dangers aside, the underlying problem here is one of endemic inequality. The idea that a woman's identity needs to be supplemented in some way, that in order to drink our own we should have something to occupy us while doing so in case people think we're slutty weirdos, is—at least among my 20-something peers—still very much alive and well.
There's no real remedy for this situation other than women being defiant and following through on their desires. If you want a glass of wine before you get the tube home from work, have a glass of wine. If you're out shopping on a hot day and could murder a cold one, go and get yourself half a lager. It doesn't make you a loser. It doesn't mean you're an alkie. Fuck what people think—this is the 21st century. You're just a woman who fancies a drink.