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SHAD Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: The newest issue of the Alcohol and Drug History Society’s journal, Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, or SHAD, is a special edition, joined with the journal Contemporary Drug Problems. It focuses specifically on gender and critical drug studies. Two of SHAD’s newest co-editors, Nancy Campbell and David Herzberg, provide an introduction to the issue here, and over the next few weeks we’re going to feature some of the issue’s authors giving insights into their work. Enjoy!


Traffic” is harshly critical of American drug policy as ineffective, corrupt, and cruel. Among the many stories it traces is the ascent of DEA chief Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas) to the position of Drug Czar. Just as Wakefield reaches the apex of his career as an anti-drug warrior, his daughter Caroline descends from recreational drug use into “hard core” heroin addiction.

Caroline, blonde and so white as to be almost luminescent, begins with casual drug use with other white friends in upscale settings. As her use becomes more serious, the movie follows her to meaner streets and more diverse companions. When she finally fully succumbs to addiction, she has become a sex worker in an African American neighborhood in the employ of a young, heavily muscled, dark-skinned dealer.

We all immediately recognize these embarrassing racial stereotypes—that’s why they so efficiently signal Caroline’s decline. And thanks to a wealth of vibrant scholarship that has revealed the racial dynamics of American drug policies, we are likely to be enraged by the calculated conflation of addiction, degradation, and blackness in a supposedly rebellious film. Shouldn’t Steven Soderbergh (the director) know better? But racialized tropes are so deeply built into drug-war culture that their absence would be surprising even in a critical vehicle like “Traffic.”

Using Women

Why? Because drug wars are a means for policing gender as well as race. The popular iconography of sexually promiscuous white women signals supposed crises such as the “decline of maternal instinct” or the weakening social barriers against interracial sex. These “problems” were resolved by “protecting” women through limiting their choices and ostensibly saving them from themselves.

What are the origins of these representations, in what contexts have they been deployed, by whom, for what purposes, and with what consequences? How do the representations compare with the actual experiences of women who use, sell, and police drugs? What explains the patterns of invisibility and hyper-visibility of women and drugs?

In March 2016 we set out to explore these and other questions through a symposium on “Gender and Critical Drug Studies,” held at SUNY Buffalo’s Law School. Inspired by the brilliant and politically influential work of critical race scholarship on drugs, we wanted to make awareness and analysis of gender as universal a practice as awareness and analysis of race in drug scholarship. In American drug cultures (as we note in the Introduction, which is available online), “gender matters at every level from the intimate and highly personalized to the broad cultural and political forces that disparately apportion vulnerability within drug commerce and the US prison-industrial complex.”

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The poster from the “Gender and the Drug War” symposium. For the SHAD/CDP issue, the language was changed to “Gender and Critical Drug Studies” so that the title would no longer take on the term of an oppressive institution

Because gender scholars are dispersed across many disciplines, we brought together a diverse group including ethnographers and neuroscientists, historians and semioticians. Our shared premise was that gender is relational, not categorical.

Any particular configuration of gender—bodies, ideas, identities, and practices—is not naturally occurring, but is rather the result of contested social processes. These cultural artifacts are stabilized and made to seem natural by tropes like those encoded in the character of Caroline and her masculinized “pusher.” These tropes haunt drug policy, which continues to differentiate criminals who take the brunt of “get tough” punishment from the feminized (and victimized) “users” who are constructed as needing medical help and rehab.

As we discovered repeatedly at the symposium, reality holds no such clear distinctions. Where cultural production around gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and drugs diverge so clearly from lived experiences, there are rich veins of work for anthropologists, historians, political scientists, sociologists, and cultural analysts. This is not simply an “add-women-and-stir” approach. Research and analysis on gender produces genuinely valuable new knowledge that contradicts prevailing assumptions.

Building on the symposium, we collaborated with participants to create a dual special issue on “Gender and Critical Drug Studies” in Contemporary Drug Problems and Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. To encourage readers to explore this exciting collection, we have invited our authors to write brief, accessible posts that introduce their work. They will be appearing on Points over the next few days and weeks.

As you’ll see, they describe a world dramatically different from the stereotypes of “Traffic,” yet still dramatic and fascinating. Women have played many roles in the drug trade: as significant traffickers; as political activists; as purposeful pleasure-seekers; as relational figures in complex social networks; as researchers and producers of expert knowledge; as loving mothers whose degradation results more from police and court action than from drugs; as consumers driven by myriad motivations; and more. One of women’s most important roles is just that—a role—whose script is written to entrench cultural tropes about race, class, and sexuality that justify prevailing drug law and policy.

Attending to gender can enrich drug scholarship. Everyone should develop the habit of asking questions like, Where are the women? What are their lived experiences? When and why do women become invisible or hyper-visible, audible or inaudible? What habits of mind obscure women’s agency? How can we bring gender into conversations about the multiple ways in which drug-war narratives hurt people?

Our Introduction ends with a section on “work that needs doing,” a call for a new generation of gendered critical drug studies scholarship—a how-to guide for students and researchers looking for a new project. Read the articles, enjoy the upcoming blog posts from the special issue authors, and then—join us!

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Who wouldn’t want to join these two? Nancy Campbell and David Herzberg enjoy a nutritious breakfast from a Buffalo donut shop during the symposium. Photo by Trysh Travis.


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