Learning Limits: College Women, Drugs, and Relationships

By Kimberly M. Williams | Go to book overview

than marijuana) by watching others, or through stories about others and/or the media.

Vicarious experiences were very important to most of these women in relation to their decisions about where to set their personal limits. Some women, through growing up in alcoholic homes, learned to be very cautious with their alcohol use. Some women learned through friends, community members, or boyfriends--particularly those who had problems with excessive use. For example, Merry described her reasons for not wanting to use Vivarin after having watched her friend's reaction: "I have always been scared of taking Vivarin and now I know why. After seeing how she reacted to the caffeine I will never try Vivarin. It scares me too much."

Many women's personal limits were strongly affected by vicarious experiences they had watching others' experiences with various drugs. (Several examples were described in the previous sections.) For example, if a woman tended to experience a positive vicarious drug experience, she would be more likely to try that drug. If a woman had a negative vicarious drug experience, she would be less likely to try the drug.


CONCLUSIONS: SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTING DRUGS AND COMPLEXITY OF THE DRUG ACCEPTABILITY RANKING

The women in my project socially constructed each of the drugs they encountered differently, drawing on personal and vicarious experiences with friends and boyfriends. These constructions were different for women within their racially segregated groups. Using these traditional discourses of morality, legality, and health/safety, women constructed drugs in hierarchical ways. This hierarchical and traditional way of thinking led most women to rank-order drugs factoring in not only the moral, legal, and health issues associated with each drug, but also the amount of and the way a drug was used. Each woman placed different emphases on these factors in various settings and within different relationships.

Women's constructed meaning about drugs and subsequent acceptability ranking seemed to serve as a guide to simplify the complex questions a woman had about each psychoactive drug, including her personal limits for each drug. Many women occasionally surpassed their limits for the drugs they used, and these events tended to reinforce what a woman's limit was, and where she should set it, and still maintain "control." Some women learned their limits by watching others.

The notion of the drug acceptability ranking should not simplify the understanding the reader gains about the decisions individuals make about drugs. Rather, this notion should complicate matters for those involved in drug education, prevention, and rehabilitation. Having an individual explore how she or he has come to rank different drugs and how one justifies using or avoiding drugs could be useful in some of the education, prevention, and rehabilitation models.

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