Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus is one of the most iconic books of the ’90s, having sold more than 50 million copies. Its core theory is that men and women often think and act in dramatically different ways because of fundamental differences in their emotional wiring. We’ve used two years of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) to explore whether sex-specific psychological traits show themselves in how men and women use, abuse, and seek treatment for drugs and alcohol.
We’ll begin by taking a look at the percentages of the male and female populations that abuse a variety of substances, respectively.
In 2014, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) asked about 70,000 people aged 12 or older whether they had ever taken an illicit drug. Their answers, which were extrapolated to represent the entire U.S. population, revealed that just over half of men (54.1%) had, compared with just less than half of women (44.5%).
The gap between the sexes widens when we focus on specific substances, though.
Of the 12 drugs covered above, tranquilizers (which include depressants such as sleeping pills) show the most similar lifetime usage rate at 10.1% for men and 8.7% for women. Marijuana comes next – 49.5% for men and 39.2% for women – and then pain relievers and sedatives. So the non-medical psychotherapeutic drugs (which are mind-altering prescription medications used in ways not intended by doctors) have the smallest gaps – the biggest differences are seen in the “harder” street drugs. When it comes to gender differences, 1.7 times more men than women said they had used cocaine at least once before, and for crack cocaine, twice as many men said they’d tried it. Heroin, although it has one of the lowest overall lifetime usage rates, showed the biggest relative difference: For every 10 women who had tried it, 27 men had too.
Developmental studies suggest that girls have a more accelerated or precocious course of cognitive development than boys, potentially reaching psychological maturity earlier than their male counterparts. It’s interesting to keep such developmental theories in mind when inspecting the age at which when each sex typically first experiments with different drugs. The graph above lists 14 different substances, along with the average ages men and women in the SAMHSA survey said they first tried them. When all illicit drugs are grouped together, men on average start one year earlier than women – at 19-and-a-half years old. Cigarettes and alcohol show the smallest differences between male and female initiation ages – girls try cigarettes two months earlier than boys, and they try alcohol four months later.
Eight of the 14 substances are used by women earlier than men, with some surprising gaps found in drugs one might expect men to try before women. For example, men on average first use marijuana one year before women (18.9 versus 19.9), but women try heroin four years, four months earlier than men (26.9 versus 31), despite the fact that men use the drug at a higher rate than women. Sedatives show the biggest time gap: The average initiation age for men is 18.4, but for women it’s seven years, 10 months later, at 26.2. One reason certain drugs have lower average initiation ages is because they are much easier to acquire than others. Inhalants, for instance, has the lowest average initiation age of any drug (17.1 for women), presumably because they include household items such as glues, spray paints, and varnishes.
It’s much more common for a young man than a young woman to be approached by a stranger who is selling drugs. Data from SAMHSA’s 2013 survey results show that one in five men aged 18 to 25 said they’d been approached at least once in the past month, compared with roughly one in 10 women (21% vs. 11.9%). However, when 18- to 25-year-olds were asked how difficult they thought it would be for them to get their hands on marijuana, cocaine, crack, LSD, or heroin, the story flipped in the other direction. For all those drugs except marijuana, a higher proportion of women than men said they thought it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” to acquire them. The biggest gap was for heroin (which, as we’ve already seen, women on average try for the first time four years, four months before men). The percentage difference between men and women who said heroin was easy to acquire was 22.4% in favor of the women (or 3.4 percentage points).
The question of how easy a drug is to acquire is somewhat hypothetical, though (at least, for people who have never acquired it). To get a much better idea of the actual differences in how men and women source their drugs, we need to choose a specific substance and see how the sexes scored it for real.
Although gradually more U.S. states are relaxing their marijuana laws, it’s still illegal in most places. Therefore, the four main ways for a person to get their hands on some is to be given it for free, illegally buy it from someone, trade for it, or grow it themselves. Across these four sources, we see some interesting differences between men and women. Just less than one in three men said that the last marijuana they acquired was given to them for free. But just more than half of women got theirs without paying or trading anything. Of the people whose marijuana was free, about the same proportion of men and women (78.9% vs. 78.6%) said it was given to them by a friend, while more men got it from a stranger and more women got it from a relative or family member.
Staying with family members, more than twice as many women as men said they bought their marijuana from someone they were related to (9.1% vs. 4.2%), with men being more likely to buy it from a stranger (15.1% vs. 10.4%). The biggest gap is found in people who grow their own marijuana: More than three times more men than women said they grew their most recent weed themselves. Let’s look at where men and women get another group of drugs: illicit prescription psychotherapeutics.
Acquiring prescription drugs is a different matter than securing marijuana, because the former are legal until they’re sold and used in a non-medical capacity. This means there are a few extra ways a person can acquire them – for instance, through a doctor’s prescription (which is then abused in a non-medical capacity). More women than men use this method for pain relievers and sedatives, whereas more men use it to get ahold of their tranquilizers and stimulants. The biggest reported differences in how men and women illicitly obtain their prescriptions are that men report stealing sedatives from a clinic, hospital, or pharmacy at 4.3 times the rate of women and 2.7 times more for tranquilizers. The question, then, is whether men take this risk more often than women because they are more likely to be dependent on the prescription drug.
SAMHSA’s data show that in 2014, 7 million Americans aged 12 or older had a problem with illicit drug dependence or abuse. 62.5% of them were men. The rates of dependence and abuse are higher for men across most drug types (including psychotherapeutics) but not all of them. The table above lists the rates for men and women who used each drug at least once in the past year. Women were marginally more dependent than men for heroin, stimulants, inhalants, and hallucinogens. When sexes were combined, heroin had a rate of dependence and abuse more than 3.5 times higher than cocaine, which was in second place.
Of the more than 7 million people who needed treatment for an illicit drug problem in 2014, only 20.3% received it (20.5% of men and 20% of women). The scatter plot above shows for which drug(s) men and women received their most recent treatment. Six of the eight substances were dominated by men, with inhalants showing the biggest difference (5.9 times more men than women). Interestingly, all three of the drug types that had proportionally more women than men were non-medical psychotherapeutics, with pain relievers showing the largest gap (24.6% of women vs. 15.4% of men). The SAMHSA data also allow us to compare other treatment-related data points, including how men and women paid for their most recent treatments.
Although paying for addiction treatment through one’s employer is the least used method of the nine above, it shows the biggest difference between men and women. Proportionally speaking, more than twice as many women as men paid for their most recent treatment through their employers. The most common method, which is using one’s own savings, also showed a significant difference: 55% of women vs. 38.8% of men.
So, what accounts for the differences we’ve seen? Predictably, the book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus is silent on the matter, given that it is mostly about the romantic relationships men and women have with each other and not the destructive relationships they have with drugs. But responses to certain questions in the NSDUH survey could provide some food for thought. For instance, respondents were asked if they ever liked to “test themselves by doing dangerous things.” While 17.5% of women said yes, a massive 35.6% of men (more than one in three) answered in the affirmative. This could be why driving under the influence, perhaps the most infamous example of dangerous behavior, is so heavily skewed toward men.
Our intention in comparing the figures in this report has been to bring awareness to the fact that, while illicit drugs affect the people who use them in similarly harmful ways, there are also certain key differences in how men and women suffer from substance abuse. The challenge is to use these differences to better inform prevention, outreach, and treatment services so that many more than one in five of the people who require treatment gets it – and that when treatment is received, that it’s as perfectly catered to their needs as possible.
Treatment stands to improve as continued study is made of demographic distinctions as they relate to various types of substance abuse. Today, rehabilitation programs for drug and alcohol abuse frequently offer a variety of individually tailored, specialized treatment features—including programs specifically geared towards treatment of either men or women. For more information about male-only, female-only or any other type of specialized addiction treatment, visit DrugAbuse.com, or call to speak with a treatment support advisor at .
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