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Can the ‘sober curious’ movement help women considering alcohol reduction?

What is the ‘sober curious’ wellness movement? And could it be a helpful way of supporting women, especially those in mid-life, to reduce alcohol consumption?

Dr Belinda Lunnay and Professor Paul Ward from the Centre for Public Health, Equity and Human Flourishing at Torrens University Australia report below on this social movement.


Belinda Lunnay and Paul Ward write:

Worryingly, 10 percent of breast cancers are attributed to alcohol consumption and breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting Australian women. Alcohol consumption in women during midlife, between 45 and 64 years, is increasing, against the trend of other population groups who are decreasing their alcohol use. Midlife women seem to be faced with an increasing breast cancer risk due to both their age and their alcohol consumption.

Our research team has published numerous journal articles about the social, cultural and structural reasons for midlife women’s alcohol consumption, arguing that individualistic victim-blaming is unhelpful.

While researching innovating public health responses and ways to support women to reduce alcohol consumption, we discovered traditional health promotion approaches designed to curb women’s drinking are not meeting midlife women’s needs.

We need to innovate and implement strategies that may include building in ideas from the ‘sober curious’ social movement, which is rapidly gaining popularity in high-income countries. The social movement promotes sustained reduced drinking or having a ‘sober curiosity’ (a term coined by author Ruby Warrington) in contexts that typically involve alcohol – if social environments permit them.

While researching innovating public health responses and ways to support women to reduce alcohol consumption, we noticed momentum gathering among younger population groups (16-19) in support of the ‘sober curious’ wellness movement.

We questioned whether the sober curious movement offers potential to support women who are considering reducing drinking.

Sober curiosity defined

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). The ‘sober curious movement’ targets environments that foster not-drinking, offering women potential for a different social norm.

Sober curious is becoming more ‘visible’ through frequent media articles including headlines like ‘Going sober: why ditching booze is becoming cool’ .

Major leisure event promotions such as sports and music are emerging where marketers endorse reduced drinking through selling alcohol-free beverages. Sober communities like Untoxicated in Australia offer leisure activities like sober singles night and an online community for ‘sober coaching’.

An important aspect of the movement is a rapidly growing range of no- or low-alcohol products (called ‘NoLos’) available in bottle shops and supermarkets. While these activities are ‘hyper focused’ on abstinence for wellness, they signify an overall shift in our ‘alcogenic’ culture toward making not drinking permissible in contexts where drinking has been previously expected.

Our recent study interviewed 27 midlife women from both affluent/middle-class and working-class demographics who were living in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney about why they drink alcohol, and what they need policy makers to know about their ability to reduce alcohol.

Our study highlighted that these women live in an alcohol saturated society, where leisure activities designed for them often involve drinking alcohol (think ‘paint and sip’ art classes), and alcohol product marketing is targeted at them and readily available, for example, during COVID-19 lockdowns bottle shops were essential services.

Social messaging reinforces ideas that it is normal to ‘keep calm and keep drinking’.

Influences on reduced alcohol consumption

Women we interviewed are prepared to reduce drinking and explained feeling “health conscious” after periods of heavier drinking during COVID-19 lockdowns. They explained to us that a desire to reduce alcohol is prompted by a “realisation I’m above my weekly target” and that “it’s not even special occasion drinking.”

Some women felt they needed to hide their consumption levels and used this as a barometer for needing to reduce – “I don’t really tell people how much I truly drink”. Women want to reduce alcohol for better interactions or relationships with other people. They spoke about feeling “regretful I crossed the line” and role modelling healthier living – “my children are putting limits on my drinking”.

Women don’t like the feeling of being out of control from consuming alcohol or having their identity spoiled: “I’m becoming known as the one who drinks too much and that’s embarrassing”.

Being ‘sober curious’ feels achievable (in principle) for women because “you don’t have to give up all together, you can try and cut back”. It is “confronting to go without and completely abstain [it] requires management and would induce stress”.

However, there are important barriers to ‘being sober curious’ in terms of social acceptability, that warrant consideration to support midlife women in making reductions in alcohol consumption.

Drinking alcohol is integral to social connections women want to retain, and they said: “I still feel peer pressure [to drink]”. Although some women identified post-drinking regrets:

myself and probably quite a lot of my friends who are very competent, educated, high functioning people, it’s that kind of shame… like I feel really ashamed that I can’t get more on top of my drinking, because I feel like I’m pretty on top of most things in my life…I have this sense of shame it’s the one thing I just can’t seem to really get on top of and it gives me far more than it takes.”

This is why I was in two minds (about sober curiosity) because you’ve got to confront yourself but you get a little bit of freedom, a little bit of relaxation, a little bit of ‘not me’ you know you have to chatty, you know, become extrovert.”

Social acceptability on non-drinking

The social acceptability of non-drinking must be improved for women. This is possible through increased visibility of leisure events targeted to women that don’t involve alcohol. Or offering non-alcohol options (different activities or NoLos) at ‘normal’ drinking settings.

Some women say they can’t see themselves in the sober curious movement and would welcome role models such as social media influencers, who are reducing alcohol and are in the same phase of life (not young women).

There is a role for peer support programs or online forums where women can support each other with reduced alcohol in ways that don’t require a complete life overhaul or transformation (like popular sobriety websites encourage).

This would share the difficulties of reducing alcohol in instances where women feel the need to hide their consumption and reduce the feeling of personal responsibility for alcohol consumption.

Women say they would feel relieved if they didn’t need to manage the mental load of ‘measuring’ and ‘limiting’ alcohol (features of current health campaigns); because: “the mental spiral of weighing up if/where/how you should reduce is exhausting”.

Equity considerations

From a public health equity perspective, we are concerned with the suitability of leveraging sober curiosity for all women.

Tobacco reductions achieved population-level improvements to health, but women without social supports to quit smoking have been ‘left behind’. They now face stigma for their inability to quit on top of already experiencing difficult lives. We are cautious to avoid this happening with alcohol reduction.

Our research shows women living on low incomes or in poverty and with limited social support need changes to occur in the features of their lives that make drinking alcohol an only way to reduce stress and to cope.

Alcohol reductions are also particularly complex for some groups of women including women with non-heterosexual identities, who manage feelings of isolation and achieve connections with alcohol. For these groups of women, the accessibility of support tailored to their needs requires urgent consideration.

Dr Belinda Lunnay is a Public Health Sociologist and Post-Doctoral Researcher and Professor Paul Ward is a Medical Sociologist and Director, Centre for Public Health, Equity and Human Flourishing at Torrens University Australia.


See Croakey’s archive of articles on commercial determinants of health.

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